We all know there is a wealth of information on the Internet, everything from personal interests to business to engineering. And while Google and others try to organize all this information, it still can be an overwhelming avalanche that makes it difficult to get what you need, when and where you need it. But there is a simple technology tool that can help you keep on top of pertinent content without getting buried: RSS
RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication and is a way for you to be notified when a website, blog, or podcast of interest has posted new content. RSS links are often referred to as “news feeds” or simply “feeds.” Most websites that are frequently updated, such as blogs or magazine sites, publish feeds. You can recognize the feeds by one of the universal icons shown here:
Clicking on the icon allows you to subscribe to the feed and get the information delivered right to your digital doorstep. While there are several ways to subscribe, there are three common methods: Windows Common Feed List; using Microsoft Outlook, and using Google Reader.
Windows Common Feed List
The Windows Common Feed List is a list of subscribed RSS Feeds that is saved with your Windows user profile. RSS clients, including Windows Internet Explorer (IE) and Outlook, use this list so that you do not have to configure subscriptions in each program. What this really means in practical terms is that if you use IE and stumble upon a site that has feeds to which you would like to subscribe, the feed icon on the IE toolbar will become active. (The FireFox and Google Chrome web browsers offer similar functionality via extensions or add-ons.) Clicking the active icon pulls up a list of feeds available from the site, allowing you to select the feed you want to add. Once the page loads, simply click “Subscribe to this feed.” The feed subscription is now available in IE, Outlook, and any other application that uses the Common Feed List.
I’ve had intermittent success with this automatic feature, with the RSS icon not activating on some sites (e.g., iCivilEngineering.com) or, when active, not properly loading the feed page. Therefore, I prefer one of the manual processes below.
RSS Feeds in Outlook
From within Outlook, you can add RSS feed subscriptions and have updates delivered directly to your inbox. Most of us spend a lot of time using our email applications, so this is a great way to access web content too. If the Common Feed List feature described above works for you, your subscriptions will automatically show up listed in the RSS Feeds folder. However, if you need to manually add a feed, it’s just a right-click away. Right-click on the RSS Feeds folder and select “Add a New RSS Feed” as shown below.
The trick here is to make sure you know the web address of the feed you’re interested in. The easy way to do this is to locate the webpage with the feed to which you want to subscribe, click the feed icon (one of the three shown above) and then highlight and copy the entire URL from the address bar in your web browser. (Feed URLs often end with .xml). When Outlook prompts you for the feed address, simply paste it in and click “OK.” Your new subscription will now show in the RSS Feeds folder and will update as the website posts new information.
Sometimes you just might want to read your RSS feeds and nothing else, and that’s where feed readers come in. Dedicated RSS readers come in two flavors — standalone applications and web-based readers. The apps are often one-trick ponies that let you see all your subscriptions presented in an organized folder-like structure. Readers also let you set “watch” keywords or phrases and alert you when those words appear in any of your subscriptions.
FeedDemon is a popular RSS aggregator that has the familiar look and feel of an e-mail application. As a stand-alone app, you are required to download and install it on your computer. If you want access to your feeds on multiple computers, you must install it on each computer and then use the synchronization features.
Because I work from many locations, and do not always have access to my own computers, I prefer the web-based reader, Google Reader. Google Reader performs most of the same tasks as the stand-alone apps, plus adds a few tools I find particularly useful. First, there is a search tool (of course, it is a Google product after all) that helps you find feeds that you might want to follow. Second, if you’re an iGoogle user, you can add your feeds from Google Reader right to your customized iGoogle home page.
In addition to dedicated Readers, many applications have RSS reader clients built in. A great example of this is AutoCAD Civil 3D. The help toolbar lets you add custom RSS feeds that you can access directly from within the application. Once added, feeds from discussion groups, CAD-related blogs, et cetera are searched right alongside the built-in help files that ship with Civil 3D.
So if you find yourself on the same webpage, frequently adding bookmarks or favorites, or jotting down URLs so you remember to visit often, give RSS subscriptions a try and have your information delivered right to you.
Mark J. Scacco, P.E., is the president and founder of Engineered Efficiency, Inc., a nationwide BIM and CAD training and consulting firm. He appreciates your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.