Rhodri Marsden: Cyberclinic

Help! I don't understand RSS feeds
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The Independent Online

HOW CAN I KEEP MY FINGER ON THE PULSE?

Q. I've been told that I should use RSS feeds to keep up with stuff published on the internet - but what are they? And what should I be doing with them?

A. RSS isn't a new concept, but many people remain apprehensive of online tools such as this one. If you haven't peered beyond the abbreviation, it's likely that your typical lunchtime's browsing consists of a painstaking exploration of bookmarked sites to check which ones have been updated. But anyone using RSS can quickly see new content - be it cricket scores, a cousin's blog or breaking news in the Middle East - without actually having to visit the sites in question. This combination of alert mechanism and information filter is tremendously useful if, like me, you're allergic to slow-loading, graphic-heavy pages. "I'm still forced to use a dial-up connection in my village," writes Sean Poole, "and RSS feeds definitely help me to save time and money."

If you've ever subscribed to a podcast - in essence a glorified RSS feed - then using RSS is a piece of cake. Note the address of the feed you're interested in, which can usually be found by clicking on a button marked RSS or XML on the site in question: that address can then be used by a feed reader, or "aggregator", to pull in content from the site when it's updated. These aggregators can come in the form of stand-alone programs (such as FeedDemon), but the new breed of internet browsers - Firefox, Safari or Internet Explorer 7 - have an aggregator built in. Alternatively, personalised homepages such as Google Home or My MSN can display your selected RSS feeds on pretty much any shared computer.

During its development in the late 1990s, RSS stood for "Rich Site Summary", but it wasn't until 2002, when it was redefined as "Really Simple Syndication" and adopted by the New York Times that it started to take off. Today, these feeds are provided by not only news-based websites, but also virtually all blogs - a boon for the self-publicising blogger. "In the old days," writes Kev Holloway, "you'd keep a mailing list and send out e-mails whenever you updated your site. With RSS, you no longer have to harangue your friends."

But despite being a passive device which passes the initiative back to the reader, RSS has been proven to drive traffic towards sites that use it. This hasn't gone unnoticed by online stores, many of which have started using feeds to keep their customers updated with their new products.

"I used to see lots of sites with a 'What is RSS?' page," writes Helen B, "but I never had the time to investigate. Once I had, I wondered why I never bothered doing it before."

Diagnosis required

Next week's question comes from David Williams:

"I've begun trading using eBay and Paypal, and have started to wonder about tax implications. Do any readers have similar concerns?" Any comments, and new questions for the Cyberclinic, should be e-mailed to cyberclinic@independent.co.uk.

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