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What is an RSS Aggregator or RSS Reader?

I keep hearing about RSS, XML and RSS feeds. I just barely have a clue what they are, but when people then start talking about RSS aggregators, what are they talking about and why would I want one? Do you use an aggregator, and if so, which one?

Ain't jargon fun? RSS is Really Simple Syndication and it's a simple data-only version of a Web page or, in the case of a weblog, Web site. Why is that interesting? Because it's then easy to write programs that track this XML formatted data stream and let you know when there's new material added to the site.

For example, if you were tracking the Ask Dave Taylor RSS data stream then when this article "went live" on my site, you'd receive notification and be able to read it within minutes of it arriving. Maybe not so critical for my tech and business Q&A, I admit, but I also track a number of different business newswires and was reading about the Proctor & Gamble acquisition of Gillette at least a day prior to my colleagues. How do I know that? Because they've told me that it was my own article on the subject (P&G buys Gillette for $57 billion, but how much is that in human terms?) that alerted them to the $54 billion transaction).

Helpful Hint: If you'd like to track an RSS feed and you have a browser with RSS support, you can click on the cute little XML button you find on many different Web sites. If your browser doesn't know what to do with that and instead shows you a cryptic page of text, you'll need an RSS reader or aggregator. Keep reading, but remember that you can also "right click" (or Ctrl-click for you Mac folks) and copy the link address to your buffer, then paste it into a 'subscribe' field in your reader.

The problem is, I don't want to check 100 RSS feeds any more than I want to visit 100 Web sites every day, and that's where aggregators come in. Whether they're standalone programs, plug-ins for your favorite Web browser or email program, or Web-based services, RSS aggregators remember your subscription list, check each site on a periodic basis, and alert you to any new articles that have been published.

If you're not thinking "wow, very cool" then you are spending too much time visiting Web sites! To scan the headlines of just a dozen sites on an hourly basis would probably be a full time job and if you need to keep abreast of your industry, as I do, then you wouldn't have any time to actually do anything, which would obviously be deleterious to your career long-term! :-)

So there are programs you can download that are RSS aggregators (or RSS readers, basically synonymous) for Windows, Mac and Linux/Unix systems. A few of the most popular are BlogExpress and FeedReader for Windows, NetNewsWire and NewsFire for Macintosh and Lifera for Linux.

Don't like having yet another application running? You can graft RSS capabilities into your Web browser (or run Firefox or Safari / Tiger, both of which have elegant built- in RSS capabilities) or your email program. Notable entries in this category are NewsGator (grafts into Microsoft Outlook on Windows), Pluck (grafts into Microsoft Internet Explorer on Windows) and Safari Menu (add-on for Apple's Safari browser that includes some RSS support).

Finally, you can subscribe to an RSS aggregator Web service which gives you a custom Web page that includes the newest information from your hand-picked RSS feeds. The highest profile solution to this is My Yahoo, which recently announced support for RSS feeds as additional personal home page information sources, though it just shows you a rolling 'latest five articles' from each source, so it doesn't work for me because I'd still be left trying to remember which I'd read or not. Other possibilities include AmphetaDesk, Bloglines, and Feedster.

Instead of those, however, I use a great Web-based product called NewsGator Online, which gives me the ability to track as many feeds as I like (fellow blogger Robert Scoble tracks over 1200 in his NewsGator Online account) along with the flexibility of keeping in sync at home, in my office and on the road.

Whichever solution you choose, I promise you that once you start traveling down the road of RSS feeds and RSS aggregators, you won't turn back. In fact, you'll find that every time you go to a Web site that you like, you'll immediately start hunting for the "syndicate" or "rss" or "xml" button. i certainly do, and I'm more plugged in now than I could ever have been in the past.

It's a rolling sea of information out there, and an RSS aggregator gives you a sail and GPS navigation system. It might just save your life out there!

Dave Taylor has been involved with the blogging community for years and is widely respected as an expert on business blogging, among other areas.


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