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RSS is quite simply the single most useful technology to come about since the invention of email. If it hasn’t already, it’s going to change everything about the way you use the internet.

If you had the time and energy, you could locate hundreds of useful news and information websites, and then every day, you could visit each of those websites, one after another, and check to see if there’s anything new that might be of interest.

It would be time consuming, but just think how informed and ahead of the game you’d be. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could do exactly that, but without having to visit any of the websites? You see where I’m going with this…

RSS is a way of bringing that content to you, and it can be assembled into something not entirely unlike a customised newspaper that only includes things that you’re genuinely interested in — delivered direct to you.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. RSS can make you money, find you new audiences, position you as an opinion leader and quite possibly make you more attractive. It’s really very clever stuff.

RSS stands for Rich Site Summary or, more usefully, Really Simple Syndication. It’s a way of distributing regularly updated web content like blogs, news sites or podcasts.

From the user’s perspective, it’s a way of subscribing to interesting content, and getting it delivered without having to seek it out.

And bear in mind, when you see the word subscription, it doesn’t mean that somebody is going to ask you for money in order to receive these feeds. It’s subscription in the sense that you put your hand up and say “Yes please — I’d like to receive this from now on, whenever you have something new to say.”

News sites like the BBC, entertaining and distracting blogs such as I Can Has Cheezburger, useful sources of geekery like Techdirt and helpful online music business information and consultancy sites like New Music Strategies tend to provide RSS feeds, so that the articles and updates we provide can be delivered directly to you as and when they become available, without you having to pop in every now and then to see if we’ve got anything new.

In order to read those RSS feeds, you use a piece of software or a web service called a Feed Reader or RSS Aggregator. The Feed Reader does the work for you, regularly checking on all of those websites and updating the list of ‘what’s new and interesting’.

Sites will usually let you know if they publish a feed of their content by putting a little badge or button on their page that contains the words ‘feed’ or ‘subscribe’, or the acronyms ‘RSS’, ‘RDF’ or ‘XML’. You might also see the word ‘Atom’. Same thing, really. For our purposes today, these terms are pretty much interchangeable.

I’m a little less subtle than most people and I’ve opted for a giant orange button, featuring the standard RSS feed logo that you’ll often see in a much smaller size on other, more tasteful sites. Go on, click it. See what happens.

Big orange button up the top there. Can’t miss it.

Some people don’t publicise their feed — but generally speaking, if they’re running a blog or a news site, they have one. They’re just not very smart. A little bit of digging will find it. Put their website’s URL into your feed reader and see what turns up.

There’s quite a number of RSS readers available. Some are sophisticated pieces of software that look like email programmes. Some cost a little bit of money, and many of them are very popular. Personally, I prefer the free ones. I’ve used most of them, and there are a few I can recommend unreservedly:

    1. Google Reader — I’ve just switched to this one and I’m completely sold on it. Google have really thought this through well, and will get you started with subscription packages around topics of interest for you. I chose ‘Geeky’ and ‘Technology’ among others. No surprises there…

    2. Sage — this is a plugin for the Firefox web browser, and it loads the feeds in the sidebar. Sage will search for a feed in any page and will usually find it. I recommend you try this one if you’re using Firefox. I only let go of it reluctantly, and it does some things that many users will prefer. If you’re still using Internet Explorer to browse the web, then download Firefox and evolve.

    3. Bloglines — this is a website that’s been delivering RSS aggregation to members longer than most. Better still, it’s loosely configured as a social network, so you can read other people’s favourite sites and use that as a way of discovering new and interesting things to subscribe to. Not as mind-bogglingly simple as Google Reader, but friendly and useful nevertheless.

Personally, RSS enables me to selectively read around 300 websites a day to get the latest information about the online music world (and pictures of cats with funny captions)… and I do it over my morning cup of coffee (when I’m not spilling that cup of coffee over my laptop — but that’s another story).

RSS is also the technology that enables podcasting. The media file is enclosed within the RSS feed, and is automatically delivered to your podcast software (iTunes is a popular choice).

Best of all, once you understand what RSS feeds can do, you can implement them in all sorts of interesting ways for your own ends.

For instance, you may have noticed that New Music Strategies has a Newswire service. It’s simply a list of links to articles from around the internet that have to do with music business online.

To provide that service, I use RSS in a number of ways. First, I find the pages to link to in my morning laptop coffee ritual (the drinking and reading — not the spilling and panicking).

Next, I bookmark those pages using del.icio.us (strongly recommended) and I tag those articles with the word ‘newswire‘.

Del.icio.us provides an RSS feed of every page and so there’s one automatically generated for my bookmarks tagged with that word.

I then embed that RSS feed into a webpage on this site.

By so doing, I end up with an incredibly useful page on this site that has all the latest links to all the latest articles about music online, and I don’t have to update that page. Just by bookmarking the articles I find useful, the page automatically updates, and I end up looking helpful with almost no effort at all.

Better still, I use Feedburner to manage the RSS feed, and they even provide an email subscription option. Just by typing your email address into the Newswire signup in the sidebar to your right (and up a bit), you can get a daily list of the latest links sent directly to you. Automatically. Free.

It sounds a bit complicated when I lay it out like that, but actually, this is a set-and-forget proposition, and it’s one of those things that you can put together in all sorts of different and useful ways.

From a business perspective, you can use RSS to establish an ongoing relationship with your customers, without having to rely on them to keep coming back.

It’s a way of alerting people to your new releases and concert information.

You could do the embedded RSS news thing, and become the one-stop source for all things to do with your particular scene.

But best of all, by using an RSS aggregator (or feed reader, if you prefer the term), you could stay absolutely ahead of the game without having to laboriously visit all the same websites day after day. Just open your Google Reader, Sage or Bloglines — and see what’s new in your world.

Just watch your elbow near that coffee cup.

Got any tips? How do you use RSS on your site? Let us know in the comments. And — of course, make sure you click on the big orange button to subscribe to this site. You need never come to this page again.