In my last column, I mentioned RSS news feeds as a useful, versatile online tool. As my editor later reminded me, however, it has been over a decade since I’ve discussed RSS feeds – so an update is certainly in order.
The sheer volume of information on the web makes quick and efficient searching an indispensable skill, but once you become quick and efficient at finding the information you need, a new problem arises: The information changes! All the good medical, news, and other information-based websites change and update their content on a regular but unpredictable basis. And checking each one for new information can be very tedious, if you can remember to do it at all.
Many sites offer an email service to notify you of new content, but multiple email subscriptions clutter your inbox and often can’t select out the information you’re really interested in. RSS feeds are a more efficient and increasingly popular method of staying current on all the subjects that interest you – medical and otherwise. RSS (which stands for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication, depending on whom you ask) is a file format that websites use (or a similar one called Atom) to produce a summary file, or “feed,” of new content, along with links to full versions of that content. When you subscribe to a given website’s feed, you’ll receive a summary of new content each time the website is updated.
Thousands of websites now offer RSS feeds, including most of the large medical information services, all the major news organizations, and many web logs.
To subscribe to feeds, you must download a program called a feed reader, which is basically just a browser specializing in RSS and Atom files. Dozens of readers (also known as aggregators) are available. Some can be accessed through browsers, others are integrated into email programs, and still others run as standalone applications. With the rise of cloud computing, some cloud-based services offer feed aggregation as part of their service.
Many readers are free, but those with the most advanced features usually come with a fee of some sort. (As always, I have no financial interest in any enterprise discussed in this column.) A comprehensive list of available readers can be found in the Wikipedia article “Comparison of Feed Aggregators.”
It’s not always easy to find out whether a particular website offers a feed, because there is no universally recognized method of indicating its existence. Look for a link to “RSS” or “Syndicate This,” or an orange rectangle with the letters “RSS” or “XML” (don’t ask). These links are not always on the home page. You may need to consult the site map to find a link to a page explaining available feeds and how to find them.
Some of the major sites have multiple feeds to choose from. For example, you can generate a feed of current stories related to the page that you are following on Google News by clicking the RSS link on any Google News page.
Once you know the URL of the RSS feed you want, you provide it to your reader program, which will monitor the feed for you. (Many RSS aggregators come preconfigured with a list of feed URLs for popular news websites.)
In addition to notifying you of important news headlines, changes to your favorite websites, and new developments in any medical (or other) field of interest to you, RSS feeds have many other uses. Some will notify you of new products in a store or catalog, new newsletter issues (including email newsletters), weather and other changing-condition alerts, and the addition of new items to a database – or new members to a group.
It can work the other way as well: If you want readers of your website, blog, or podcast to receive the latest news about your practice, such as new treatments and procedures you’re offering – or if you want to know immediately anytime your name pops up in news or gossip sites – you can create your own RSS feed. In my next column, I’ll explain exactly how to do that.
Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.