My recent column on Web searching techniques has generated more questions, comments, and discussion than any other. (If you missed that column, you can find it on the SKIN & ALLERGY NEWS Web site, www.skinandallergynews.com
Obviously this is a popular topic. As well it should be, because as I mentioned in that column, the sheer volume of information on the Web makes quick and efficient searching an indispensable skill.
But once you have become quick and efficient at finding the information you need, a new problem arises: The information changes! All the good medical, news, and other information-based Web sites change and update their content on a regular but unpredictable basis. And checking each one for new information can be very tedious, if you can remember to do it at all.
Many sites offer an e-mail service to notify you of new content, but multiple e-mail subscriptions clutter your inbox and often can't select out the information you're really interested in. RSS feeds are a more efficient and increasingly popular method of staying current on all the subjects, medical and otherwise, which interest you.
RSS (which stands for “Rich Site Summary” or “Really Simple Syndication,” depending on whom you ask) is a file format, and Web sites use that format (or a similar one called “Atom”) to produce a summary file, or “feed,” of new content, along with links to full versions of that content. When you subscribe to a given Web site's feed, you'll receive a summary of new content each time the Web site is updated.
Thousands of Web sites now offer RSS feeds, including most of the large medical information services, all the major news organizations, and many Web logs.
To subscribe to feeds you must download a program called a “feed reader,” which is basically just a browser specializing in RSS and Atom files. Dozens of readers (also known as “aggregators”) are available, and more are coming as RSS grows in popularity. Some can be accessed through browsers, others are integrated into e-mail programs, and still others run as standalone applications.
Many readers are free, but you'll pay a nominal fee for those with the most advanced features. (As always, I have no financial interest in any of the enterprises discussed in this column.) A comprehensive list of available readers, free and otherwise, can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_news_aggregators
It's not always easy to find out whether a particular Web site offers a feed, because there is no universally recognized method of indicating its existence. Look for a link to “RSS” or “Syndicate This,” or an orange rectangle with the letters “XML” (don't ask) or “RSS”. These links aren't always on the home page. Sometimes, on the site map, you'll find a link to a Web page explaining available feeds and how to find them.
Some of the major sites have multiple feeds to choose from. For example, you can generate a feed of current stories related to the page that you're looking at on Google News by clicking the RSS ∣ Atom links on any Google News page.
Once you know the Web address (URL) of the RSS feed you want, you provide it to your reader program, which will monitor the feed for you. (Many RSS aggregators come preconfigured with a list of feed URLs for popular news Web sites.)
In addition to notifying you of important news headlines, changes to your favorite Web sites, and new developments in any medical (or other) field of interest to you, RSS feeds have many other uses. Some of the more popular ones are notification of arrival of new products in a store or catalog, announcing new newsletter issues (including e-mail newsletters), weather and other changing-condition alerts, and notification of additions of new items to a database, or new members to a group.
And you can expect to see many more new uses of RSS feeds in the near future.
It can work the other way, too: If you want readers of your Web site to receive the latest news about your practice, such as new treatments and procedures you're offering, you can create your own RSS feed. Any competent Web administrator will know how to do it, or you can do it yourself if you're so inclined.
Some will insist on doing it from scratch, but for the rest of us, a multitude of tools is available to simplify the process. (If your site includes a blog, for example, many blogging tools automatically create RSS files.)
Detailed instructions abound. You can find them easily with—what else?—your favorite search engine!