The trouble with the Web is it’s a time pig. Although you know you should check regularly for fresh content on sites that matter to your business, you seldom get around to it. So thank goodness for the emergence of RSS: Really Simple Syndication.
In really simple terms, RSS is the poor man’s newswire, allowing any Web-savvy organization to alert the public to new content on its site via its RSS “feed.” You can sign up for and read a feed using one of the scores of available RSS readers or “aggregators,” many of them free. (For details, click here.) Open most reader windows and you’ll see three panes: one listing feeds to which you’ve subscribed (e.g., BBC Headlines, Wired News), one with headlines for recent postings and one with the postings’ full text.
While most feed readers force you to click a button to update headlines, Bloglines, a free but highly functional Web-based aggregator, can be set to check automatically for new postings every 30 seconds to every 24 hours, alerting you to new ones via a small icon and optional audio tone. Some readers will display alerts in a browser window or headline ticker crawling across your screen, or even send you an e-mail for each item published. And RSS is expected to soon evolve so users can customize their feeds with keywords.
But Joel Martin, vice-president of software at Toronto-based IT research firm IDC Canada Ltd., warns of “information overload” from subscribing to too many feeds. And some people prefer an originating site’s nicely packaged graphics and headlines over a feed’s bare-bones headlines.
Still, these minor flaws are doing little to slow the spread of RSS. Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. reported in September that 6% of Americans say they use RSS weekly, up from 2% a year earlier. And these figures miss RSS users who didn’t recall the term when they were surveyed. Martin says feeds have proliferated in recent months, fuelling usage as more sites push out information rather than wait for users to come get it. As RSS takes off, it’s worth taking a few minutes to ensure you get critical postings at least as soon as the competition does.