Bottom line: RSS feeds are an excellent way to make a personalized newsfeed to keep on your favorite blogs and topics of interest. I’m planning on this being a three part series.  I’ll put links here and at the end of the article to the other parts as they’re posted.  For a few years now, I’ve really enjoyed using RSS feeds to get updates from my favorite sites.  Recently, however, Twitter has started to serve the same function in many ways, with a lot of other cool features.  However, it also comes with extra stuff that can get in the way, so the series will include this post on RSS feeds, a second post on [why you should use Twitter], and a third comparing the two [future link here].  Enjoy! Update Jul 14, 2013: With the recent demise of Google Reader, I’ve decided to indefinitely postpone the planned third post. While several strong companies have stepped up to fill the void, I’m afraid the days of RSS may be numbered.

RSS Feeds

RSS feeds are an incredibly simple way to have nearly of your favorite websites put their new content all in one place for you. It makes keeping up to date on your favorite topics much easier. Imagine being able to open a single app, in just a glance skim over all the updates for all the websites that you like to read, instead of having to open them up individually and try to remember where you left off. We can get you set up to give it a shot in no time. To be honest, I don’t know a lot about the technical details… and I don’t expect a whole lot of my readers to be interested, either. What I do know is how I use RSS feeds to help me keep up to date on most of my topics of major interest. More importantly, they help me accomplish this while avoiding the distraction and trash that drives me nuts about the news, and without clogging up my email.

Really Simple Syndication

It’s about time I made a post about RSS. It’s something I use every day and almost take for granted. I think RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. I admit that I don’t know if that’s what it really means, but that’s what I’ve heard at least. You might recognize the RSS symbol:

When you see this, it means that the site you’re visiting publishes an RSS feed that can deliver all updates to an “RSS Reader,” which is nothing more than an app that understands how to read all your RSS feeds, and keeps them in one place for you.

Getting Set Up

  1. Sign up for Google Reader. It’s is an excellent, free, RSS reader that you should probably try first. Like many other Google products, it’s web-based, which means you can access your RSS feed from pretty much anywhere that you can get on the internet. One of the other really nice things about Google Reader, is that there are many, many other RSS feed readers that know how to work with Google Reader. For example, I think Google Reader is great, but my favorite RSS Reader is an app called reeder, which has versions for Mac, iPad, and iPhone. One of the things that makes Reeder so easy to use is that it syncs with Google Reader, so I can use Google Reader to organize and manage all of my RSS feeds, and seamlessly use Reeder to actually enjoy them.
  2. If you’re a Chrome user (and if you’re not you should give it a shot), install Google’s official RSS Subscription Extension (<– looks like it’s been taken down from the Chrome Web Store, previously available at ). While this isn’t strictly necessary, it’s just a click to install and it makes things much easier. Sometimes sites have RSS feeds that are hidden, or difficult to find. This extension does a great job of seeking these out, and if a site has an RSS feed to be found, it puts the little orange RSS icon in the right side of Chrome’s address bar. Instead of trying to hunt down wherever the site has put its RSS feed link, you can just click that button to add the RSS feed to your Google Reader account.
  3. Start adding the feeds from your favorite sites! If you’d like to add my site, for example (hint, hint) you can either click the orange icon in the address bar (if you followed step #2), or scroll to the bottom and click the subscribe to: posts link. Then go to Google Reader, and you should have a few posts from my blog all lined up and ready to go.

Ways to Use RSS

Updates from Sites you Like

I use my RSS feeds for a lot of stuff. First off, as I’ve mentioned a number of times, I add my favorite sites. So now that you’ve added my site to your feed, go add another site you enjoy. Lifehacker is one that I use a lot. They publish a lot of content, so RSS is a great way for me to skim over all their new articles and pick out the few that seem particularly interesting. Now, whenever you check your Unread articles in Google Reader, you’ll see any new articles published by Lifehacker or me – all in one place. And if nothing’s new… you’ll see that you have zero unread articles. If there are new articles, it’s then easy to:

  • read the article then-and-there
  • “star” it to remind me to read it later
  • send it to Instapaper (especially for longer articles)
  • share the article to Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, etc.

Now imagine if you have 10–20 sites that you like to frequent. It saves a lot of time and effort to just check one place to get all their updates. Beyond that, it can help make sure that you don’t miss breaking news, or miss posts from a blog that you don’t check very frequently. For example, I’ve added many of my fellow medical students’ blogs to my RSS feed. Most of them are too busy to publish more than once a month or so – but instead of trying to remember to check their blogs for new posts, I just have their new content come to me.

This is also how I use RSS to keep up to date on many of my favorite developers and apps. Most sites have a blog where they publish information on app updates and changes, and almost all of these blogs have associated RSS feeds. This way, I know almost immediately when I need to update an app.



PubMed RSS Feeds for New Medical Literature

This one is a killer feature. Medical students do a lot of PubMed searching. Ends up that the NIH has built-in a way for you to get all the newly published articles matching a search strategy via RSS. Let’s say, for example, that you’re a big fitness buff. Well, you can do a medical subject heading (MeSH) search for “exercise”. Sure enough, one exists. Restrict it to major heading and add to search builder. (If you don’t know what this is, that’s another topic entirely – start here). Then go to “manage filters,” and “properties,” and you can restrict to English, Humans, adults, etc. When you’re done, click the “RSS” button underneath your search box. From then on, every time PubMed indexes a new article matching your search (e.g. in adult humans, written in English, on the topic of exercise), it will pop up in your RSS feed. I’m telling you, there is no better way to keep up to date on your favorite topics in medicine.



Google Search Alerts

For some reason, I think this tool might be going away… but for what it’s worth, a while back I made Google Alerts for various configurations of my name, such as “Nathan Henrie” “Nate Henrie” “Henrie, Nathan” etc. Then I subscribed to these feeds (a handy option that Google implemented). This way, any time Google finds a new web page that might be talking about me, I’m the first to know. This probably wouldn’t work as well if you have a common name, but for me it’s worked great. A slight modification of this, I set up search alerts for my email addresses as a security precaution. Frequently, when major sites get hacked and passwords leaked, these get published to the internet fairly quickly. Hopefully, this alert would notice that my email address has been published on a webpage and notify my of this in my RSS feed, so I could change the password to that site post-haste. I imagine you could also use Google Alerts in this way to stay up to date on just about any topic, or even use Google’s powerful search operands to get search alerts from a particular site. Powerful feature.



Feeds to Which I Subscribe

I’m running out of steam on this post, so I thought I’d end with a list of my current subscriptions.


Friends’ Blogs




Mountain Biking


Have other ways you use RSS? Trouble getting set up? Have a better alternative to RSS? Feel free to comment below!

Other posts in this series: