Web Feeds for Beginners

Feeds are one of the core technologies driving web 2.0. Here’s a quick guide to what they are, what they do and how you can use them.

 

Feeds provide a convenient way to deliver content to your audience and at the same time keep track of just how big an audience you have. Feeds are best used for anything that changes, or gets updated fairly regularly. Of course, blogs and traditional news services are the first things that come to mind, but feeds are also good for sending your growing photo album to your friends or keeping others informed about what’s the latest album you’ve heard.

So just how do you turn something that’s regularly changed into a feed? You need a program that will periodically check whatever it is that gets changed often and then record those changes in an XML file. This file has to be in a proper feed format, the most common formats are Atom and RSS. It’s this XML file that you pass around when you tell others about your feed. Most blogging software and some wiki software does this automatically for you, but there are probably some things that you can change (like whether readers see all or a part of a post).

But that’s not all there is to feeds. If you’ve ever tried to open a feed URL in a browser you’ll know that the result isn’t pretty. Strictly speaking, XML is human-readable because it’s just plain text. But as a human, it’s hard to understand anything because there’s a lot of weird markup in the way. XML was designed to be a primarily machine-parseable language, i.e., computer programs will have an easier time reading it. So, to view the information in a feed properly, you need a feed reader. There are a bunch to choose from, including both desktop and online versions. Personally I use Google Reader and highly recommend it. No matter which one you use, they all perform the same general task: read a feed’s XML file and display the content as something you and I can understand.

Initially feeds were limited to just take, but now you can put almost anything you want into a feed including images, audio and video. Because feeds are basically pure data it’s easy to manipulate and republish the result as a new feed. Feedburner does a good job of collecting and redistributing feeds, so that even if you move servers or URLs, your readers can just use the same Feedburner feed. Tools like Feedblendr and FeedDigest allow you to combine multiple feeds into one and the new Yahoo! Pipes gives you a lot of power to selectively fetch information from feeds and other sources, apply filters and other little touches and publish your creation as a packaged feed. In case you have a webpage of regularly updated information but don’t know how to turn it into a feed, there are a number of free tools that will do it for you. You can also turn your feeds into other forms of data. FeedBurner and FeedDigest give you a piece of JavaScript that will make your feed look like part of another page. And for users who prefer email over feeds, FeedBlitz will turn any feed into a “daily digest” email of whatever’s new. (I recently added this feature for this blog.)

Using the numerous free tools and services online, you can accomplish a lot with feeds and the best thing is that your audience can just keep using the same feedreader they always used and not worry about how you do what you do.

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Published by

Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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