Save Time With RSS

Appreciating that not everyone wants to spend a half-hour talking finance, Angela suggests taking a moment to focus on an entirely different type of Web resource--one that saves not your money but your time. For a technology that was supposed to save time, the Web can certainly keep you glued to a chair. Checking and rechecking favorite sites can be a mighty pain, and as for bookmarks--well, Angela's got well over 2000 sites on her list. Who's got the kind of time it would take to check in on all those regularly?

The three-letter abbreviation of the day is RSS, which stands for Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary. What it means is that Web pages employing RSS can, through a mechanism known as a feed, tell you when there's something new to see on them. Think of it as a subscription service for sites you really like: The sites come to you before you go to them. For instance, if you follow a particular financial columnist, you can get an alert whenever he's written something new. Or, if you want to get fancy, if you're searching Craigslist for apartments between $1500 and $2000 in metro Boston, the feed will let you know within minutes when there are new postings that match what you're looking for.

RSS use requires two things: First, the page you want to watch has to provide an RSS feed, which it will generally mention somewhere on the page itself; the most common visual clue is a small orange box that says XML. (To see an example, go to the front page of the PC World site and scroll to the very bottom. The button you seek is on the left.) Providing that feed is strictly up to a site's proprietors, so all you have to do is wait for them to get on the stick. Second, you'll need an RSS reader. These come in many forms: a separate program, a plug-in for your favorite Web browser, or a feature built right into your browser, which it is in Firefox and Safari and will be in Internet Explorer.

It can even be a Web site of its own. Angela--whose USAToday.com day job hinges on constant attention to blogs and other RSS-using entities--uses one called Bloglines; both Gmail and My Yahoo also offer RSS readers built into their offerings. (Oh, you hadn't noticed? That's because both giants have disguised that three-letter abbreviation with extreme prejudice. Gmail calls its RSS reader Web Clips, while Yahoo waits until you click on My Content to spring the terminology on you.)

Thus equipped, you click on the orange XML button and get ... a page full of indecipherable code. The good news is that you don't care about any of that; you just want the URL up there at the top. Copy it, pop open your RSS reader, paste in the URL, and save. It's even easier with Firefox. If the page you're looking at has been RSS-ized, you'll see an orange icon at the bottom of the window frame. Click it, and Firefox stores the appropriate information in your bookmarks. The next version of IE will doubtless come with similar technology.

After that, whenever the pages you like have been updated, the RSS reader will have links with the titles of those pages. Click a link and you get a summary of whatever's changed. Depending on how the site owner has things set up, you may even be able to read the whole update without visiting the page again, or read all the updates for all the sites you're tracking on just one really long page. Or, if you're so inclined, Firefox or Safari will open 'em all up at once, one per tab, for your handy perusal. The point of all this? You don't have to wonder whether something new is showing up--saving you time, which is equal, ultimately, to that green stuff the rest of this week's show has been about.

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