The RSS revolution

The RSS revolution – Using RSS: An Explanation and Guide

Steven M. Cohen

EVERY MONTH OR SO, AN ATTORNEY ASKS ME TO LOCATE RECENT NEWS ARTICLES about one of her major clients. WhiLe in the past I would use information providers to do this, I figured that there must be another way to provide more current news to the attorney before she asks.

Recently, I decided to experiment with another avenue that is slowly becoming one of the key resources for “currency” on the Web: RSS (rich site summary) feeds. It worked. Now I get that company’s breaking news every hour from more than 4,000 news sources all over the world. This capability saves me precious time when I am looking for newsworthy stories. And the attorney can apprise and advise the client about any relevant legal issues right away.

RSS feeds provide a way to deliver content to the user, rather than the user having to go out and find the content via traditional Web methods, such as search engines and Web directories. Instead of bookmarking various sites and returning to them every day, the user can set up a feed, so that the data from those sites are sent to a news aggregator that resides on the user’s desktop. (RSS feeds are a form of XML and can only be read with these special aggregators.) Of course, not all sites offer RSS feeds, but as this method of content delivery becomes more popular, the number of sites will grow. Many major websites (such as Cnet, Zdnet, and USA Today) and library weblogs (such as the Virtual Acquisition Shelf and News Desk (http://resourceshelf.freepint.com), put out by Gary Price) offer RSS.

Have you ever noticed a little orange button on a website with the letters XML (extensible Markup Language) in it or a blue button (rarer) with the letters RSS in it? These buttons are not easy to find and are sometimes hidden in the Web page–if you come across the blue button, the site is available in RSS feed format. (Pages that do not have these special buttons may also be available via RSS feed, but the button is a sure sign.) To read the file, you can download a news aggregator from the Web. I’m partial to two aggregators: Newzcrawler (http://www.newzcrawler.com) and Ampheta Desk (http://www.disobey.com/amphetadesk). Both are easy to use and make putting RSS into practice a quick and easy task.

Newzcrawler can be downloaded free and used for 30 days. After the trial period, the company requests that you purchase a license for the aggregator ($25) or remove it from your desktop. Once installed, Newzcrawler is ready to receive RSS feeds. Just copy and paste the feed (which almost always ends in .xml or .rss) into the aggregator, and it is ready to be read. An example of an RSS feed is this one for my weblog, Library Stuff: http://www.librarystuff.net/rss.xml. For those who use Microsoft Outlook, the interface has a familiar look, divided into three sections. The left side is reserved for the feed names. On the top side of the horizontally broken right side, the headlines of each feed are displayed. Underneath the list of headlines, on the bottom right side, is the content that goes with each headline. Click on any headline and the content will display. It’s that easy.

Newzcrawler resides on the desktop and is always running until the user exits the program. Here’s where the features of RSS come in handy. Every 30 minutes (or whatever interval the user chooses), the software runs the feed and brings to the desktop all the new content from the relevant sites. I subscribe to about 150 feeds from a number of sources. At the top of the hour, all the new content is delivered to me.

Newzcrawler offers more advanced features for more sophisticated users. For example, I like all the content from the feeds I follow to be displayed in one list, so I can scroll through the information without having to click on each headline. Newzcrawler allows me to review the information from each feed in its newspaper-like format. The content is displayed in HTML format, as if from the site itself. The hyperlinks and any relevant images are there as well. Spend just an hour placing feeds in Newzcrawler and looking at the information, and you’ll be hooked on the future of content retrieval.

Ampheta Desk (http://www.disobey.com/amphetadesk) performs the same basic functions as Newzcrawler, using different methods. The software is open source and can be downloaded free. Like Newzcrawler, Ampheta Desk resides on the desktop, but it is more browser-based than software-based. Once downloaded and launched, Ampheta Desk is ready to go. Only four screens are available, which makes it very user-friendly. The first screen–the Main Channels page–displays the content from all the feeds you have ever subscribed to. The second-the My Channels page–displays the feeds that you are currently subscribing to. RSS feeds can be pasted here. The third screen–the Add Channels page–allows you to add feeds but contains more than 5,000 feeds that you can also subscribe to. The fourth page is an options page that allows you to customize Ampheta Desk to suit your needs

Once you’ve chosen, downloaded, and installed an aggregator, it’s time to fill it with RSS feeds. To locate RSS feeds, look for the orange XML button or the blue RSS button on websites. Or use a directory of RSS feeds, such as Newsisfree (http://www.newsisfree.com) or Syndic8 (http://www.syndic8.com). Both have been invaluable to me for locating feeds on a particular issue I was researching, especially if I needed continuous updates.

Newsisfree has more than 3,400 sources for news feeds. You can browse by subject heading, search the extensive database by name or description, or search the latest headlines. Once you identify a site, Newsisfree will provide information about the site, news about the latest posts, an RSS link for syndication into the news aggregator, links to that site in Daypop (http://www.daypop.com) and other similar search engines, and links to automatically subscribe to the site via Web-based news aggregators. One of my favorite sections of the Newsisfree site is “Latest Channels” (http://www.newsisfree.com/sources/recent/). This section is updated daily and provides the newest feeds added to the database.

Syndic8 has more content then Newsisfree (more than 4,500 feeds) and is geared more toward the technological aspect of feeds. I have found the database very useful when attempting to locate a feed for a particular site. You can browse feeds via the subject headings used by the Open Directory Project (http://www.syndic8.com/feedcat.php), those used by the Newsisfree directory, and those used in the directories provided by Headline Viewer (http://www.syndic8.com/feedcat.php?Scheme = HV). But while these directories are useful for browsing purposes, they do not include everything available in the Syndic8 database.

Check Syndic8 and Newsisfree for feeds that may exist for the sites you look at every day. Place these feeds in an aggregator and test the software. You may be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Using These Tools

How can special librarians benefit from this growing knowledge base? First, there is a professional development issue to consider. To perform our jobs to the best of our abilities, currency is key. We need to know about the latest technology in search engines, content management, and knowledge management, and about new Web tools and websites that will enable us to serve our clientele better. Second, by using tools such as RSS feeds, we are positioning ourselves on the cutting edge of technology, allowing others to notice us as a force in content retrieval.

RSS can help librarians provide content in more ways than ever before. If you manage an intranet, you can place feeds geared toward a certain clientele directly onto a page that serves up content from multiple sources. If you prefer to relay this information manually to the user via an e-mail alert or newsletter, RSS can cut down your workload. As mentioned earlier, RSS can also be used to help clients (or even clients of clients) stay current, which, in turn, leads to better business practices.

By now, all librarians should be familiar with Moreover, a search engine that features more than 4,000 news resources. Moreover is worth a visit when you’re researching news, but its content can also be viewed in RSS format, which has two advantages. First, if you’re searching on Moreover, only the five most recent results are displayed. With the RSS format, many more results are provided. Second, you need not return to the engine to stay current on any topic, because new information will be provided to the news aggregator continually throughout the day.

There are two methods for obtaining feeds via Moreover. You can choose from a list of prefabricated searches (http://w.moreover.com/categories/category_list_rss.html). It may be in your best interest to look at these before attempting to create customized feeds. These feeds are based on categories–such as law, business, or finance–that will provide a broad view of a field of interest. Specific companies can also be found on the list.

If an appropriate search is not available, you can create your own RSS feeds from Moreover to be read on an aggregator of your choice. The default query URL for these feeds is http://www.moreover.com/cgi-local/page?o = rss&query=. Place the appropriate search term after this URL, and your feed will be created on the fly. For example, to monitor news from Sears, simply place the following URL into the chosen aggregation software: http://www.moreover.com/cgi-local/page?o = rss&query = sears. This method can be used for other types of searches as well. For Bill Gates, you would use the following query: http://www.moreover.com/cgi-local/page?o = rss&query Bill%20Gates. Notice the “%20” between the search terms. Again, not to worry-just place your terms after the default query, and the feed will be created for you. If your search involves two words, like “Bill Gates,” just put a space between the words and the correct feed will be created.

As with Moreover, creating RSS feeds in Daypop is as easy as adding a query at the end of a URL search string. In this case, the URLs are as follows: http:// www.daypop.com/search?sort = date&t n&o = rss&q = for feeds from Daypop News, http://www.daypop.com/search?sort = date&t = h&o = rss&q = for feeds from Daypop RSS headlines, and http://www.daypop.com/search?sort = date&t = w&o rss&q = for weblog information. Users can create their own feeds from Daypop by adding a search term to the end of this URL string. Unfortunately, Daypop does not provide any prefabricated feeds, but creating them is simple enough.

In mid-September, Yahoo Finance tested RSS feeds, providing content on any public company. Soon after the quiet release of this capability, Yahoo decided to take it down, saying that it was only a test run. Yahoo, with its fairly large news following, was the first major portal to invest time in RSS. One hopes that more portals follow Yahoo’s lead.

For those who choose not to download software, Bloglet will send any RSS feed via e-mail. Bloglet (http://www.bloglet.com), a free Web-based tool (registration required), was originally intended to provide weblog readers with a way to read multiple sites without having to go back to these sites every day. However, the only way to get content from a particular site was if the webmaster registered with Bloglet and if it supported the software that had been used to create the site. Thus, the number of sites that Bloglet could monitor was limited.

In August 2002, Bloglet was modified to accept any RSS feed, allowing the new content of any site that supports RSS to be sent via e-mail. One problem with Bloglet is that it sends out the e-mail only once a day. Still, it is a wonderful tool for those who do not want to use aggregators.

But RSS is not without faults. Many sites still do not support RSS feeds, although the numbers have been increasing lately and the advances in RSS have been quick to appear. I don’t believe that RSS will ever be provided for every single site; if it is to be a force in content delivery, more people need to understand its value and provide support for it.

Also, news aggregators must be smarter. Information overload can become increasingly problematic when you subscribe to feeds. In the future, I hope to be able to limit the number of feeds that appear on my desktop to certain keywords. Many news-tracking services already have this capability; if RSS is to remain competitive as a content delivery method, the feeds need to be more focused.

Steven M. Cohen IS assistant librarian for Rivkin Radler LLP, of Uniondale, NY.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Special Libraries Association

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group