The following is meant as an introduction to syndication and content aggregation. If you’re already using a “feed reader” or a Web service like Bloglines or Newsgator, then you probably know most of what’s here. We’ll discuss some more advanced topics in a later post. So what’s here may be too elementary for you, and you may just want to skim it quickly. Otherwise, read on…
There’s so much information on the Web these days — and there has been for almost 10 years, in fact — that keeping track of what’s most interesting (to you) is a major challenge. The advent of blogs — which have been around in roughly their present form for over 5 years, but only recently have become especially popular — has only made the problem worse.
But for almost every “problem” like this that the ‘net has created, solutions have also arisen as well. Usually more than one solution, which can make things even more confusing. “Syndication” is an example.
There are many more-or-less conventional news sources on the Web, provided by both dead-tree publishers, such as newspapers, and Web portals like Yahoo! and AOL. And now, on top of that, there are millions of blogs, collectively covering every imaginable topic of interest. How can you keep track of them all?
The answer is, you can’t, not completely. But you can make a stab at it by taking advantage of syndication. That is a way for content providers to make their information available to you in a way that is a little more automated and structured than what you would otherwise have to do by visiting 10 to 100 different Web sites per day.
Think of the Web as a huge funnel. All the information that’s out there enters at one end. Somehow or another it has to be sifted and filtered and winnowed so that what comes out the other end is what is most interesting to you.
It’s not possible, of course, to do this filtering really well without help from you, because you’re the only one who really knows what’s most interesting to you. (But don’t doubt that content providers and marketers and your Big Brothers in government agencies everywhere are spending millions to try to figure out automatically as best they can what you’re interested in. Undoubtedly, the fact you’re reading this now is telling someone that you’re at least curious about naturism, if not already deeply involved. And that someone ain’t us.)
One way you help out is via the choice of Web sites you go to in the first place, especially the search engines and portals like Google and Yahoo!. And then, which parts of such sites you use, such as their financial news or their discussion groups. And then, which specific kinds of searches you perform. Blogs present a slightly different problem. Each blog assists in the filtering process because the blog owner has made a selection of only a few items that are most interesting to him/her. Your “only” problem is to identify which of the millions of blogs has an editor whose interests and tastes you share, and then to keep track of new things the editor selects. Fortunately, most blogs are fairly simple. Except for a few of the largest, they offer just a simple linear string of messages, which may or may not be grouped by topic.
What syndication allows you to do is to specify, in a fairly concise way, just which of all these information sources is so important to you that you want to be notified as simply and as conveniently as possible when new information appears at the source. This is where you make your real preferences known, near the narrow end of the funnel.
For example, let’s suppose you want to keep track of new messages from this blog. If you look on the right-hand side of the page, under “Meta”, there is a link called “RSS”. (And at the bottom of the page there are separate links to “RSS”, one for “entries” and one for “comments”.) If you click on one of these links all you see is mostly gibberish. What you’re seeing is a file coded using “XML”, a markup language for describing content. XML is related to “HTML”, which is used to encode normal Web pages. HTML is designed to be read by a Web browser, while XML is designed to be read by a different type of program: in this case a “feed reader”.
There can be a point of confusion here, because the XML can be written using different specifications as to its contents. The most common specification is called “RSS”, meaning “Really Simple Syndication”, and that in turn has different versions itself, such as 1.0 and 2.0. A different specification is known as “Atom”. You may or may not need to know more about the type of XML used at any given blog, as we’ll explain later.
The XML file is generated automatically, and it describes the information that the site is currently offering in what is called a “feed”. The program for which this file is intended is called a “feed reader”, which is what you interact with in order to actually select and read the proffered information.
Another name for this sort of program is “feed aggregator”, because it can collect information — in the form of feeds — from multiple sources and present them to you in a unified and (hopefully) user-friendly interface. Such feed readers come in several different forms. One form is as a feature or tool that is part of another program you use, like a Web browser or email reader. Another form is a specialized stand-alone program that runs on your computer. The third form is a program that is part of a Web site and which you access through your normal Web browser (though it isn’t actually a part of the browser). There are pros and cons associated with each of these.
In order to provide a hands-on demonstration of how this works, we’re going to run through how to “subscribe” to the “feed” for this blog. But we can’t do that without talking about the specific “feed reader” you choose to use. Since we’re assuming this is new to you, we’ll also assume you don’t already have a feed reader. To make this as easy as possible for everyone, we’ll give instructions for signing up with the online service Bloglines and getting started with it.
So to begin, just click here. Right in the middle of the page you’ll see “Sign up now. It’s free.” Click that (it really is free). You will be asked for an email address and password. Provide a real address and a suitable password — preferably one you can remember, but not the one actually associated with the email account. You’ll have to reply to an email message at that address for verification. (You can change the name and password later.) After you’ve submitted that information, go to your email program and reply to the verification message. You can then go to the main Bloglines page. If you see “My Feeds” in the upper left, click on it. Then click on “Add” in the upper left corner.
Now comes the only tricky part. Go back to the “RSS” link on the right side of this page under “Meta”. Click on that with the right mouse button. If you’re using the Netscape, Mozilla, or Firefox browser, select “Copy Link Location” from the menu. (If using the Microsoft Internet Explorer, select “Copy Shortcut”.) Go back to the Bloglines page, put the cursor in the box for “Blog or Feed URL”, and press Ctrl-V (or Shift-Ins). This should insert the URL into the box. Then press the Subscribe button.
Assuming there’s no problem finding the feed, you’ll then be shown an options page. The only thing you might want to change is the name of a “folder” in which to place the feed. This allows you to group related feeds together on Bloglines (and has nothing to do with your own computer’s folders). You might want to put this feed in a folder called “Naturism”, but that’s up to you. The other options can be changed later if you want. As soon as you press the Subscribe button, the feed will be added to the chosen folder, appearing on the left-hand side.
You can now explore for yourself how to access the feed. There are plenty of help files at Bloglines to assist you and explain all the features. Anytime in the future, you want to check this feed and any others you add, you need only go to the Bloglines home page, log in with your email address and password, and check the list of feeds.
The next thing you probably should do now is to add a few more feeds for additional naturist and other blogs. Some other blogs to check (if you haven’t already) can be found in the links in the sidebar. When you go to another site, the URL for its feed can be tricky to find. Often, instead of a text link as used here, there will be a button that looks like this: or . Usually this button is a link to the URL of the feed’s XML. In this case, simply right-click on it to get the link, just as we did earlier. Occasionally a site will give you a normal link to another (HTML) page that presents a number of different options, with some explanation of what each is for.
In case you are offered more than one option, the safest thing is to select generic “XML” or “RSS”. But it all depends on what your particular feed reader or aggregator needs. Bloglines prefers the RSS option. “Atom” will frequently work too, since most readers and aggregators now support all the common formats.
If you can’t find a link for a blog’s feed anywhere on the home page, it’s possible that the blog doesn’t offer a feed for some reason. (Privacy, for example.) Or sometimes the blog owner has simply forgotten to provide the link. If you don’t see a link, there’s usually not much you can do, short of contacting the blog owner. However, if the blog is hosted at Blogspot (or Blogger, which is the same thing), the feed is normally in Atom format, and may have a default URL of the form http://blogname.blogspot.com/atom.xml. As a last resort, you can try using the URL of the blog itself, since many blogs provide the URL of their feeds in such a way that it can be “discovered” automatically by the reader or aggregator.
You may have to guess or do some detective work to find the right URL for a feed, but it doesn’t hurt to try. At worst, the feed reader or aggregator will tell you if it can’t find the XML for the feed.
Bloglines has many other features, since it’s one of the leading aggregator services. For instance, there are many ways to search for and add other feeds you are interested in. The best thing to do now is to find a few other feeds and add them to your list. So the homework assignment is: get a little experience with Bloglines and feeds. In the next post in this series we’ll deal with some more “advanced” topics related to syndication and feed aggregators, such as:
- Other feed-reading programs and aggregators to try
- Explanations of how syndication works “under the covers”
- How to make a file containing a list of your feeds that can be used with any reader or aggregator
- How to search for interesting feeds
- How to construct feeds based on search results
Originally published October 16, 2005