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What Are Feeds?

Saturday 25th November 2006


Web feeds, examples of which include RSS and Atom, are used to deliver content from the web into a feed reader, so that you can cast your eye over these feeds at your leisure.

Perhaps the best way to explain feeds is through an example. Here is a picture of the front page on a certain day:

The front page of

Also, here on, we have a feed version of the front page. So, this is what the feed looks like when using Liferea:

The feed of in Liferea

So, what are the differences? Well, for starters, in Liferea there is never any need to visit any websites once the feed is added - it will automatically download any updates and additions to the feed, and mark them as either unread or edited. In this way, you can avoid having to go through what you've already read, and also avoid checking for updates - you can tell at a glance in Liferea if a feed has been updated.

This leads to other benefits, such as being able to check up on all of your favourite webapges at once, simply by loading Liferea, or your favourite feed reader. Rather than having to navigate to each of them individually, they are all listed, along with whether they are updated or not, in the same window. Added to this is the fact that there is no longer any need to use the site's navigation - whatever content they are serving is sent straight to the feed reader.

For example, if you check two hundred news sites a day, you would have to visit each one individually in a web browser, and check whether there have been updates since your last visit. Even if only one had been updated, you would still need to check each one. When using feeds, the feed reader will check for you if there have been any updates, and inform you accordingly. If there's only been the one site updated, you'll know you only have to read that one feed today.

Of course, the content does not just have to be another version of the front page. It can also be the latest news stories, or the recently uploaded images, or hourly updates on the weather, but the method of delivery is all the same.

Finding Feeds

Finding a feed should prove relatively straightforward. There are two main ways in which a website can advertise its feed. The first is by placing an icon on the website. This might be a box that says XML or RSS, but the most common way to do it now is to use an orange icon that looks like this:

Standard icon for web feeds

This should provide a link to the feed, which can you add to the feed reader in the appropriate way. The second way is for the writer of the site to add something in the code of the webpage that tells the browser that a feed is available. How, or if, this is shown to the user will depend on the browser. So, how does this pan out in practice?

Adding Feeds

Essentially, there are three different programs that tend to read web feeds. The first are programs designed specifically to read feeds. I personally prefer such programs since they are the best at presenting the feeds to you. The second are web browsers, and the third are e-mail clients.

Feed Readers

To add a feed to a feed reader, you first need the URL of the feed. The easiest way to do this is to right-click on the link to the feed, and select "Copy Link Address", or the equivalent in your browser. Then, you'll need to go into your feed reader and choose the appropriate option, either in the toolbar or in the menus. Look for a entry similar to "Add feed" or "Add subscription". In Liferea, you have two choices: hit the first button on the toolbar:

Adding a feed in Liferea through the toolbar

or choose "New Subscription..." in "Feeds":

Adding a feed in Liferea through the menu

You should then get a dialog such as this:

Adding a feed in Liferea

Simply paste the URL into the box labelled "Source", hit OK, and that should be it! For other feeds readers, the process should be much the same.

Web Browsers and E-mail Clients

In web browsers, you normally have two choices as to how to add a feed. The first is much the same as with feed readers - simply copy the URL of the feed, and choose an appropriate option from the menus. In Mozilla Firefox, this means going to the "Bookmarks" menu and selecting "Manage Bookmarks...". This should bring up a new window, in which you need to select the "File" menu, and select "New Live Bookmark". From here, simply paste the URL into the box labelled "Feed Location", and fill in the other boxes appropriately.

The alternative method is to look for the feed icon in the URL bar. If the browser has detected a feed, you should see something a little like this:

Adding feeds using the URL bar of Firefox

Simply click on the icon, choose where you want to save the feed, and you can then access it through the bookmarks menu. Note that, in Firefox, you only get the titles of the feeds - unlike in feed readers, you are unable to read each item in its entirety. Similarly, in Opera, you can just choose the feed by clicking on the icon in the URL bar:

Adding feeds using the URL bar of Opera

Adding a feed in e-mail clients can vary greatly between the various programs. In Thunderbird, you need to add a feeds account if you haven't already done so. Hit "File", then "New" and finally "Account...". From here, choose RSS News and Blogs", and this should create a "Feeds" entry in the left hand pane. Right-click the "Feeds" entry, select "Manage Subscriptions", hit "Add", paste the URL into the box, and away you go!