Web Informant #404, 25 March 2005: Personalizing RSS Feeds


The more I use it, the more I am becoming a bigger fan of RSS. It is almost becoming a borderline obsession in the past few weeks. I like the way it acts as both a content syndication service and a notification system. And it is nice that RSS doesn't require any specialized software, so I don't have to download any new applications.


RSS has become popular in the age of blogs, but it has more universal and interesting applications. If you haven't read my initial post about RSS, check it out here:



RSS is certainly here to stay. Witness the rise of IUpload and Pheedo, which allow advertisers to insert their ads into RSS feeds. Is nothing sacred? But seriously, when advertisers discover how to exploit new media it means the media is no longer new. Now there is a lot of practical stuff that you too can do with RSS from the comfort of your own PC, to brighten your day and have yet another thing to check as information flows into your life.


The first generation of RSS feeds were mostly one to many communications, mirroring the blogosphere and email mailing lists that spawned them. But the cool thing about this latest crop of RSS feeds I will get to some in a moment that I am particularly fond of - is that they are customized to your particular needs, and one-to-one kinds of communications.


But RSS isn't always easy, as I found out when I tried to add various feeds to various readers. The trouble is that there are numerous and conflicting standards. Have we heard this before? And while some readers, like My Yahoo and Bloglines, try to make it easier to add feeds, they also make it harder to work with particular feeds that don't fit their models, such as the Gmail notifier which uses an SSL connection.


Here are some of the more noteworthy examples that I have come across and will stimulate your thinking about what is possible with this new technology. Thanks to Tara Calishain and Andrew Newton for providing the stimulus and many of the links to these feeds. If you have your own favorites, please share them with me.


Package Tracking Feeds


This is an active area and a good example of the one-to-one customized feed. Everyone sends packages that they need to track. And why bother constantly checking the various shipping company Web sites to find this out? First there is an open source project called track2rss, along with several code examples for UPS can be found by Yakov Shafranovich here:



And here is another UPS package tracking feed from Jason Young:



Both of the above feeds work by using the UPS tracking API. Ben Hammersley has an RSS feed for tracking FedEx packages that involves screen-scraping. It doesn't work in T-Bird or My Yahoo, but I got it to work in Bloglines. Append your package tracking number to this URL below when you enter it into your reader. You will get notified each time the package moves through the FedEx system, with a cute little message from Ben as an extra bonus.



Read your Gmail email


If you haven't really gotten into Google's Gmail yet, and want to be notified when you get a message, use this feed to receive notifications. I had trouble getting it to work on many readers though.



For an example of the wrong way to use RSS, or if you are completely stuck in the email paradigm and don't want to bother with an RSS reader, check out Indecorous' ERA, the Email RSS Aggregator here. You can have your feed notifications sent to your email account. Now, I don't think I would bother with this, but it is an interesting demonstration:



Search Amazon for your favorite author


Or topic or subject or whatever. You type in the search terms, it will generate the RSS feed URL for you from them.



Buying and shopping


The site rssauction.com offers a mechanism to subscribe to a customized feed for particular eBay items when items are listed that match a particular description, you will get a message in your reader. Dulance.com offers something similar for comparison shopping sites.


Playing games


In the gaming world, it is all about keeping your stats up and making sure that you maintain your status as a top-ranked player. Microsoft's Halo 2 now offers a mechanism to transmit these scores via RSS feeds. You can subscribe to your very own RSS feed that gives you an up to date listing of the Halo 2 games you've played in on Xbox Live in the past week.Others have stepped into the fray to take this information and produce spreadsheets to track your scoring performance.



Keep track of hurricanes


If you live in the southern US, the eastern Pacific or the Caribbean, this could be important. The US Weather Service has a series of feeds in English and Spanish here:



This is just the tip of the RSS iceberg. In the meantime, enjoy your feeds!


David Strom


Tom's Guides Publishing

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