Several members of my family have gotten involved in blogging. I thought a simple tutorial for working with syndication / feeds would be helpful.
Push vs Pull
Email works on a ‘push’ model: you write your message, then push (send) it out to some list. When you write a new blog entry and want others to know about it, you may think to ‘push’ that to them by sending an email: “Hey, check out my new blog entry…”
The ‘push’ model works well in many cases, but it has one major problem: how to manage the list of poeple to send to? What if someone new wants to read your blog? What if 50 new people want to read your blog? Or 20 people decide your daily adventures really aren’t that interesting? That’s a lot of work for you to manage all those changes.
The ‘pull’ model allows the individual reader to choose which blogs or other sites he wants to view. When you think about it, that’s the way the whole internet works, actually — I decide when to go read my mom’s blog, or my sister’s, or my brother’s, or my cousin’s, or my other cousin, oh, and then there’s my aunt, and my brother-in-law, and the daily Dilbert cartoon, and the personal finance blogs, and the various geek sites… man, that’s a lot of work for me to visit all those sites to see what’s new.
Fortunately, some very smart (and lazy) people invented ‘feeds’ to help me and you — both the person publishing a blog, and the person trying to stay on top of 50 different blogs every day. A feed is just a feature built into a website (such as a blog) that helps to automate the ‘pull’ model.
Let’s look at an example. This blog’s address is http://dadeo.wordpress.com/. When you point your browser there, the wordpress.com server sends back the content of the blog, formatted for your reading pleasure. This blog has another address as well: http://dadeo.wordpress.com/feed/. If you were to point your browser there you’d get something different — an index of the articles available in the blog, with some information about each one, such as the date it was published and a snippet of the article.
That second link is the feed for this blog, and it automatically updates anytime I publish something new on my blog. That feed feature is built in to pretty much every blog you might run into across the Internet, and many other sites use them as well — such as online newspapers or news organizations.
The real trick happens when you pair a feed link such as that with a piece of software that knows how to do something with it. That would be a program called a feed reader, and all it does it continuously monitor the feeds you tell it you’re interested in, looking for new content. When it sees that the feed is updated with a new article, it will typically download it and notify you there’s something new to read.
There are a few different names and flavors of feeds, but they all do pretty much the same thing. The names you are likely to see are RSS and Atom. On a website, a feed is often indentified with an orange button or one of these symbols:
Okay, now you know what a feed is, and you want one. Here’s a bit on how to actually use it.
For Blog Writers
This is the easy part: if you write a blog, you can pretty well count on the fact that your blog already has a feed that automatically updates for every change you make. It’s built into all blogging software.
Usually all you have to do is invite people to subscribe to your feed so you can stop sending those emails out :) The hardest part about that is likely to be educating those who don’t know what you’re talking about. Feel free to direct them to this little tutorial…
For Blog Readers
I mentioned feed readers above. Well, there are gazillions to choose from. I’m going to simplify your life and just point you to my favorite: Google Reader. In this case, it’s an online service, provided for free by Google.
As an example, here’s all you need to do to subscribe to my personal (non-tech) blog:
- Find the link for my RSS feed – it’s labeled as ‘Entries (RSS)‘ at the bottom of the page. Copy the link (right click –> Copy link location)
- Visit http://reader.google.com/
- Click the ‘Add subscription’ link in the left-hand sidebar.
- Paste the feed link address into the entry field and click the Add button.
Now you’re subscribed, and anytime you come back to Google Reader it will tell you if there are new articles to read on any of your subscribed feeds. You can unsubscribe at any time. Note — subscribe / unsubscribe has nothing to do with paying for the feeds.
If you use Firefox — and you should: Firefox has some built-in features to help with subscribing to feeds. It can be set to add new feeds to your Google Reader account with just a click or two. Very cool.
But I Really Prefer Email
If you’d rather do all your blog reading via email, there’s an option for that as well. There are services such as FeedBurner that provide an RSS-to-email gateway service. Typically a blog writer/publisher will register his feed with FeedBurner, and then FeedBurner monitors that feed for new content. Anyone else can go to FeedBurner and register to receive email (how quaint) when the feed is updated. It’s another avenue to explore if you’re interested.
Password Protected Blogs
Unfortunately, password-protected blogs are a problem for syndication / feeds. I’m not aware of feed readers that are able to support password authentication in conjunction with the feed. So at least for now, email blast-o-grams are probably still the best bet to advertise your new posts. Yes, it’s a hassle, but it’s the trade-off for privacy. I’m sure some more smart (and lazy) people will have a solution to that problem before too much longer.