So what the heck is an RSS feed? It is defined as a standard format that is used to publish frequently updated web sites such as blogs or news feeds. It is just a way to easily receive newly published online information. The way it works is that when a web site with an RSS feed is updated, it sends out notification that there is an update available. If you have subscribed to the RSS feed you will be notified of this new information.
To harness the power of RSS you need a software program called an RSS Reader. Whenever one of the web sites you are following gets updated your RSS Reader will display the information for you. The good news is that in most cases this software is free, and if you use Internet Explorer 7 or Firefox 2.0, then you already have one on your computer. The new version of Microsoft Outlook also has an RSS reader built in. My personal favorite is the Google Reader (reader.google.com). In this case there is no software to download, everything resides on Google's servers, and all your feeds are available to you from any computer with an internet connection.
An example will make this process become clearer. Above is a screenshot of my Google Reader taken when I arrived at work this morning. I subscribe to 26 different RSS feeds, some of my subscriptions are blogs, some are news web sites, and some are news searches (which I will get to shortly). Whenever a blog or news web site that I subscribe to publishes something new, it is highlighted here in Google Reader and I can click on it to read the headline. There were 78 new items this morning; I scan the headline of most of them, and read in depth only those I find most interesting.
As I said, RSS feeds are not just for blogs. If you go to this magazine's home page, www.labelandnarrowweb.com, you can subscribe to their breaking news via RSS. You will see the little orange icon at the bottom of the right hand column which signifies an RSS feed. If you are using the latest version of Internet Explorer or Firefox you will also see the same orange logo on your tool bar. By clicking on the orange button whenever L&NW publishes breaking news, the information comes into my Google Reader in a matter of minutes.
I usually check my Google Reader two to three times a day, so I can stay informed with the latest industry news. I spend probably about half an hour a day total reading news, but the beauty of this system is that I am reading only the news that interests me. My Google Reader page is like my very own personalized newspaper, but it is better than that because it is always up to date with the very latest news.
You certainly don't have to use Google Reader; there are plenty of other options. Bloglines.com, newsgator.com, and my.yahoo.com are some other examples of popular web based options. For desktop RSS readers FeedDemon (from newsgator.com) and GreatNews (from curiostudio.com) are two popular readers. You can also get plug-ins for Outlook XP, or upgrade to the new Outlook 2007 which has a built-in RSS reader.
This is one of the most powerful features of RSS. You have the ability to search the millions of RSS feeds for certain keywords. I have three searches that are permanently running: "lightning labels" (the name of my company), "digital label printing" and "custom labels". Whenever a blog or news items mentions these exact terms the article comes into my Google Reader. I think everyone should have a search feed setup for their own company; you want to know what is being said about your company.
I believe that RSS is one of the most powerful technology tools available for anyone in business today. By using it wisely you will have a head start on your competition. You read only the news that is important to you, and you can read it as soon as it is publicly available.