31 July 2006

RSS, ATOM, and FEEDS

Some of my friends have begun asking me, "Is there any way I can be notified (by email) when you post something to your blog?" The short answer to this is, well -- it depends.

You see, most blogs, and some web sites, have something called a feed. Six Apart, the maker of some of the best independent blogging software out there, has a nifty little page that tells us all about what feeds are, and why we need them
Many websites have links labeled "XML" or "RSS" or "Atom". All of these are ways of saying that you can find out about updates to that site without having to browse to it yourself to check.
The Site Wizard has a more in-depth article about feeds and how to use them:

RSS feeds and ATOM feeds are simply special types of web pages. Websites typically use such feeds to notify its visitors when something new has been posted on their website. thesitewizard.com's RSS feed, for example, usually contains news about new articles appearing on the website as well as new or updated scripts that may be published. RSS and ATOM are simply the names of two different types of formats of the feeds. Most websites using site feeds choose to use either one or the other. From the user's perspective, however, it doesn't matter which format the site uses, since both serve the same function.

To "subscribe" to a site feed, whether RSS or ATOM, you need a feed reader. Simply point the reader to the URL (address) of the site feed, and it will do the rest: it will display the contents of the feed in a window or panel for you. The feed will look like a series of messages. Although the word "subscribe" is used, there is no actual subscription (in the traditional sense of the word) involved. You do not need to give your email address, fork out any money, nor furnish any information whatsoever. Your feed reader does all the real work: it checks the website regularly to see if the feed has been updated. If the latter has been changed, the feed reader software will inform you and allow you to read it, giving you the illusion that you have subscribed to some sort of newsletter or message service.

So now that you know what a site feed is, you need to know how to use them. The Site Wizard goes on to state,
Some browsers already contain built-in support for tracking and reading RSS and ATOM site feeds. Often, in those browsers, all you have to do is to click on the link to the feed to subscribe to it.
For example, Mozilla Corp.'s Firefox web browser has built-in feed reading support (they call it Live Bookmarks). When you browse to a web site that provides a site feed, an icon appears in the URL bar letting you "subscribe" to the feeds that the site offers.

There are also a number of stand-alone programs, such as NewsGator, that let you read site feeds. Additionally, there are web sites that are designed to let you subscribe to feeds, such as Google Reader, My Yahoo, AOL, and others.

If you're using one of these services, to add my site to your RSS Feed Reader of choice, simply copy the URL that's in the right-hand sidebar labeled "ATOM XML Feed" into your feed reader of choice (the links above to Google, Yahoo, and AOL bring you right to the page where you can add a feed to your service). If you're really technologically challenged, here's the URL you need to enter: http://petercfrank.blogspot.com/atom.xml

Now, back to the original question -- is there a way to be notified via email when I've updated my site? To the best of my knowledge, there's only one email program that has built-in RSS/Atom support: Mozilla Corp.'s Thunderbird email program. So if you're using Thunderbird, you can set up an RSS/Feeds Account, and add feeds to it ("subscribe" to them). If you're unfortunate enough to be stuck using Microsoft's Outlook email client, then you'll have to purchase a plugin in order to get RSS feed support built-in.

So, there you have it. Any more questions, send me an email, or leave a comment!