December 24, 2004
Atom, RSS, feeds and feed aggregators
Last week I heard mention of the word "feed" in the context of the Internet in two different conversations. My brain, being trained to look out for this sort of thing, advised me that I should probably investigate further. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Internet continues to evolve in new and interesting ways.
A feed is a simple thing. Most sites where people make regular postings, e.g. news sites, blogs, forums, etc, support feeds. A feed is simply a mechanism that a web site uses to tell the outside world that a new post has become available to read. It doesn't sound like such a big deal and that's probably why I didn't put a lot of effort into researching it until now.
What makes feeds a big deal is feed aggregators. Feed aggregators are programs that let people manage feeds. They let you choose which feeds you are interested in (subscribe) and which you are not (unsubscribe) and they notify you when someone posts on a site that you track.
Now rather than visiting lots of sites every day to see if there are any interesting new posts, I just wait for my feed aggregator program to display a little red flag in my computer's system tray. This will save me precious minutes.
Another useful aspect of feed aggregators is the way they can link people's feed preferences together. Let's say I am interested in cooking so I subscribe to some cooking feeds. The most obvious benefit is now my feed aggregator will deliver some new recipes to me every day. But having subscribed to a feed, I can also find out who else has subscribed to it and which feeds they, in turn, have subscribed to. If I like any of the feeds that they subscribe to then I can choose to subscribe to them as well.
It's a bit like a self-regulating filter that finds the best bits of the Internet and abandons the others. If a site does not have content that interests people then nobody will subscribe to it and thus nobody will learn about it. On the other hand, if a site has content that people like then they will subscribe to it. Then other people will see that they have subscribed and add it to their own subscriptions. And from there the site will become widely known.
The feed aggregator I use is actually a web site called http://www.bloglines.com. I can log on to bloglines wherever I can find an Internet connection and check my feeds. They also have a little program that you can install on your computer, which monitors your feeds and notifies you whenever a feed has new content.
You will notice that I have added Atom and RSS feed links to this site's sidebar. These are the URLs that you would copy and paste into a feed aggregator in order to subscribe to this blog. A lot of sites have them and now I know what they're for!
Happy Christmas everyone!
I have added feeds to this site in the hope that more people will visit and read what I have to say. Once you have a feed, you can start using it to "market" your site. For example, you can add your own feed, and the feeds of other related but more established sites, to your blogroll. Then when someone else discovers that you are subscribed to one of the same sights as them, they might check to see what other sites you have subscribed to, which will lead them to your site.
You can also register your site's feed with online feed aggregators. Mine is registered on bloglines.com and gameblog.com. People will then find your site when they do searches on these aggregators. For a small site, I think it is much more likely to get hits on a feed aggregator than on one of the big advertising driven search engines like Google.
Lastly, having used a feed aggregator for a while now, I am likely to visit a site less frequently simply because it does not have a feed.