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This is a transcript of a podcast discussing RSS feeds, and the benefits of using them.

Speaker Key:   PB: Phil Brown, DW: David Whelan

PB:   Hi, it’s Phil Brown. I’m here with David Whelan, and today we are going to talk about RSS feeds.

DW:  RSS feeds are one of those typically geeky things that you hear about, and you might wonder what those letters stand for.

PB:  They stand for a couple of different things.

DW:  They sure do. I think the most common one is Really Simple Syndication. So there is your R, S, and S.

PB:  They also seem to stand for Rich Site Summary, which is probably from the early days of RSS when it first came out.

DW:  I think that’s probably true. What RSS does is it takes the content from a website and chops it into small chunks that are machine readable, which means that you can then point your phone or your computer at the RSS feed and read the RSS feed using software. The software then chops it up into the headline, author, date, and other parts of the news item.

PB:  And all of that information when you finally set up the link or the app to get that RSS feed is embedded. That means that when you get the article returned to you it has all of that information within it.

DW:  Right, and that’s the benefit. RSS is a format just like Microsoft Word has Word documents. RSS is a file format that is standardized, so once you get the software that allows you to read the RSS feed you can go to any website that has an RSS feed, or create your own RSS feeds, put them into your reader, and be able to read them and see all these elements.

PB:  They seem to be getting more traction now, but they have been around since about 1999.

DW:  That’s right. They were, sort of, an expert researchers tool for many, many years and seemed to be going through some death throes a couple of years ago when people were announcing, as they often do with technology, that RSS is dead. But it has had a bit of resurgence, and you might not even realize that you are using it if you are using one of the non-RSS newsreaders that just do news aggregation, but they might still be relying on RSS feeds.

PB:  And just to be clear on the differentiation, newsreaders, which we may talk about in another podcast, are for aggregating news articles and new news articles, while RSS feeds aggregate any new content from blogs, video sites, from almost anything.

DW:  That’s right, and RSS feeds are much more customized. The news aggregators tend to take a generic approach and rely on publishers, but with RSS you can actually go to the site and choose what you want to follow. Two of the sites that are of particular interest to Ontario lawyers would be the RSS feeds that you can get from CanLII, which will update every time there’s a new case from Ontario posted into the database, and those same types of RSS feed that you can get straight from the Ontario courts. So if you go to the Ontario courts websites, you can follow news that they are posting - if there are new practice directions, you’ll get an RSS update with those directions, but also the cases and opinions that they post to their own website.

PB:  So let’s talk about the simple versatility of it. Once you get a link or create a link to an RSS feed it will send you new content only since the last time you’ve checked the feed. Is that right?

DW:  That’s right, and that’s the nice thing. It really saves you the time from having to go and visit all those websites - where you might have opened up the tab and gone to look at a site to see if there’s anything new, gone to another site to see if there’s anything new, on to the next one and so on. With RSS you go into your RSS reader and all of the RSS feeds that you’ve set up will automatically update. So if there’s new content it will appear and if there isn’t any news, particularly if there’s not any news on the content you’re looking for, it won’t appear in your RSS feed.

PB:  And how would we know if a particular site like CanLII, for instance, had an RSS feed available?

DW:  There are two ways, and unfortunately some of the really rich sites hide their RSS feeds so you can’t find them, but in general when you go to a site that has RSS on it you’ll see a little orange icon appear somewhere on your web browser, usually after the domain name. Where it says for example, there might be an orange symbol, or somewhere else on your browser, and it looks like a little white waterfall on an orange background. That will tell you that there’s an RSS feed there. But if it’s not there, and you’ll find this particularly with newspaper organizations, I don’t know why, but that seems to be the one that it’s hardest to find, scroll down to the bottom where they have all the links to the different bits and pieces of their website. You’ll often find a link to RSS, and if you click that, then you can see all the different RSS feeds you have.

PB:  Now is it as easy to set up as clicking on that little orange icon, or is there more to it?

DW:  Well there’s a little bit more to it. The first thing you want to do if you’re going to follow RSS is to have an RSS reader. You need to select something like Feedly or Old Reader, which are web-based RSS readers that you view through your web browser, or you can download software to your Macintosh or Windows computer and read the RSS feeds locally, or have something on your device.

PB:  So it’s almost as simple as clicking on the link. The link just has to have somewhere to go if you do click on it.

DW:  Exactly. Once you’ve got that reader and you click on that link, it should ask where you want the link sent to, you’ll tell it you want it to go into your reader, and then you’re golden.

PB:  So something like Feedly which you mentioned, which I think is F E E D L Y…

DW:  Right.

PB:  … you would be able to find on the Internet a number of browsers like Internet Explorer, Chrome and things like that, that usually have an extension or an add-on that you can add to the browser so that it will aggregate the content for you automatically once you start your account.

DW:  Right. The great thing about RSS particularly right now as we’re coming to the end of 2013 is that Google Reader was one of the most popular RSS readers that was out there and had really sucked a lot of the air out of the RSS world. Google decided it didn’t want to support it any longer, so it killed it off this year, and that has meant that, if you go to Google and do a Google search for RSS reader, you will see great lists of really, really good RSS readers that have survived the Google reader debacle and also developed further. So there are some really good starting points if you’re trying to figure out which RSS reader you want to use.

PB:  And there were a number of articles I recall seeing just before the demise of the Google reader on how to transfer over your RSS feeds from the Google reader to whatever new reader you might be using.

DW:  Yes, the benefit of RSS is that it’s meant to be machine readable, and it’s standardized, so you can export it from one reader and import it into another. And if you have a list of feeds from somewhere else, or if you have a buddy who has been using RSS for a while, you can ask him or her to download their file, what’s called an OPML file, and then you could import it and use all the same things that they’re already following.

DW:  So you can share RSS links and send them back and forth. It’s really a good timesaver if it saves you from scanning 20, 50, or 100 sites a day to see if there’s any new content when there might not be any.

PB:  And RSS is truly flexible, so if you’ve got really unusual things that you want to follow, it’s not just a newspaper, and it’s not just a blog. There are things like Google Alerts where you can set up at so that it will send you an RSS feed when something new has popped up in the Google index that matches your key words. There are all sorts of RSS feed options that are out there, so once you get started following basic content you can actually get pretty creative with what you follow.

PB:  So a handy research tool for lawyers to have in their pocket and whether they use it or not is certainly something to keep them up to date whenever they go and check it.

DW:  Absolutely. I couldn’t live without it.

PB:  Perfect. Thanks very much, David.

DW:  Thanks, Phil.

Terms or Concepts Explained