RSS Tricks for Non-Programmers


BarCampRDU was Saturday, and as usual, it was great for meeting bright and interesting people who don't live so far away (and yes, I wore the tweetworthy shirt). I get a small thrill out of my international conversations, but it's hard to beat the wandering conversations that happen in person. Just one ranged from mobile augmented reality systems and science classes for home schoolers to n-dimensional space and current theories about the shape of the universe. In keeping with the general tone of the day, I went with a more technical session this year, sharing some of the tools I use for manipulating and repurposing RSS feeds.

I'm not a programmer, but I do like playing with data, so tools that let me play without having to learn real programming skills are a big help. When it comes to RSS, these tools fit perfectly:

  • FeedBurner
    Beyond the statistics that people usually like, FeedBurner is great for insulating your subscribers from behind-the-scenes changes. I've been using FeedBurner since the beginning of this blog, so when I moved it from Blogspot, I was able to make the change transparent to subscribers by having them on the FeedBurner feed instead of the blog's native feed.

  • Feed Informer
    Formerly FeedDigest, this is my workhorse tool for combining and reformatting feeds. When I moved the blog, I used FeedDigest to combine the old and new feeds until I had ten posts on the new site. Feed Informer is also my tool for adding blog feeds and Delicious tag feeds to web pages (for example, the entry page on shows recent posts from two blogs, including excerpts stripped of their HTML). Delicious provides a similar capability with its link rolls feature, but Feed Informer gives more formatting flexibility with its ability to edit the HTML and pick up existing styles using CSS.

    For the session, I made a quick and dirty dashboard that pulled BarCampRDU content from Google Blog Search, Flickr and Twitter, all using Feed Informer. If you know enough HTML to make a web page, Feed Informer gives you everything else you need to incorporate feeds into web sites. It has lots of output options, but for the non-programmer, the Javascript option is easiest.

  • Dapper
    Similar to Feed Informer in its ability to manipulate and repurpose feed content, Dapper can also pull content directly from web sites (yes, they talk about getting permission when you do this). It has different output options, including pre-built widgets and straight HTML, so it may be the tool for somewhat different scenarios. I haven't had time to play with Dapper yet, but it looks promising.

  • AideRSS
    Filter feeds based on what other people think of its contents. Comments, delicious tags and links contribute to a score that rates each post against others from the same feed. AideRSS creates new feeds with different levels of selectivity; its dashboard is also a quick way to see which posts of your own blog are being tagged, etc.

  • FeedBlitz
    RSS to email with visibility into subscribers and subscriber management.
What I didn't cover:
  • Yahoo Pipes
    I talked with a few folks about presenting it, but they said it was really too complicated for my theme. The consensus was that Pipes benefits from a programmer mindset, and it's harder to use than the tools I showed.

  • Feeds from sites that don't offer feeds
    Feedwhip or Page2RSS monitor web sites and generate feeds of the changes. I'm sure there are a lot more, but how many do you need?

  • ZapTXT
    RSS to IM, text or email. Optional keyword filtering makes this primarily an alerting service.
All of these services take RSS as an input. The beauty of the feed manipulation sites is that they also offer RSS outputs, so you can build interesting applications by running feeds through several of them on the way to their destination. It's important to think about the order, though. Merging feeds and filtering the result with AideRSS gives a different result than merging filtered feeds from AideRSS.

For a more detailed example of how you might combine these tools, read Marshall Kirkpatrick's description of how he built a conference dashboard from feeds. If you want to try Yahoo Pipes, try Marshall's introduction to Yahoo Pipes video, too.

From my perspective, the whole point of these services is that they're easy to use. If you know a little HTML and you're comfortable poking around at new software, you'll be able to use these in minutes. And if you build something cool based on what you picked up in this session—mention it in the comments so we can see it.

Translation on the fly?
Speaking of working with RSS, has anyone found a solid solution for translating feeds yet? I subscribe to some blogs in languages I don't know, which can be a bit comical.

Update: Mloovi uses Google Translate to translate feeds (via RWW, TechCrunch). The free version includes ads, or you can pay to remove them. I'm giving it a try.


Let me know if you want a quick 5-10 minute tutorial on Yahoo Pipes; though they can do some fairly complicated things they can also be easy to use in some cases.

Sweet! I love this stuff! Real curious how it went over with your audience, really happy to see someone else sharing these same kinds of things.

Hi Nathan -- thanks for including us!

For those who don't want to add another site to their daily processing, we also have our Google Reader extension, or users can do imports/exports of their existing feeds from our site to their favourite reader.

And of course for those who are programmers, we've released our API. :)

Thanks, Jeff. It's been a time limitation more than anything. I keep running into interesting new topics to explore, but I still only get 28 hours per day.

Marshall, I think it went ok, although the topic made it more of a lecture than I intended. I got some positive reactions about the usefulness of the information. If I were to repeat the session, I think I'd plan a live demo and prepare some charts to reduce the hand-waving.

The two topics that opened up the most conversation were (1) copyright and TOS issues, and (2) how to do something similar inside the firewall. Food for thought for future sessions.

Melanie, I suppose I could have mentioned PostRank in NewsGator Online, too, but the focus was more on the publisher side for this session. I did point out the filtered feeds during the session, so everyone in the room—and they're all current RSS users—saw how they could use AideRSS to reduce the volume from their subscriptions.

Thanks. This is a very nice roundup of some very useful tools.

Cool stuff! Btw, also checkout Feedity - - I use it for creating custom RSS feeds from webpages. Its much simpler to use, faster, and gives better feed results. Hope it helps! Chao :)

yahoo pipes though designed to help the non programmers is pretty complicated for the programmers too!

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About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Advisor to buyers, sellers and investors. Writing my next book.
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