Search Engines 201: Feeds and Fishies

In my last piece on the subject, I introduced a metaphor for research using search engines which I'd like to explore a little further to talk about RSS. Using Google is like fishing with a net. Google continually stocks a lake full of articles, and every time you click the "search" button it casts a net based on your query and picks out the tastiest fish for you.

Here is where I would normally link the wikipedia article on RSS, but it's full of technical details that you don't need to care about. All you need to know about an "RSS Feed" or "Atom Feed" (heretofore referred to as "feed") is that it has 3 parts: A List of Links, A Description of Each Link, and magic. This magic allows this list of links to grow with new links, without any intervention from you whatsoever.

When I introduce RSS feeds to my students, it usually takes some time for them to wrap their heads around the subject, because doing research using feeds is an entirely different metaphor. Instead of fishing, where you have to perform an action to catch something tasty, researching using feeds is like trapping. Once set out your bait, you just sit back and let the articles come to you. All you have to do is come by on occasion and see what your trap has caught.

Allow me to offer an example. Let's say that your new politics disad centers on Obama's chances to get a Universal Health Care plan. Obviously, when new articles are written about Obama's health care plan, you are going to want to know about it. So instead of doing a search for [Obama Universal "Health Care"] every day, you have google set up a Trap for you. You go to google news and search for [Obama Universal "Health Care"], then you click this little button right here:

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If you are running a recent version of Internet Explorer or Firefox, a friendly page will pop up to the effect of "Hey, you clicked on a feed. What do you want to do with it?"

And here is where feeds start to become really useful. You can answer that question with any of the following:

...or about a hundred other things. The point is, that trap is now whatever you want it, so with one click, you get something like this:

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Bam. Updates in one click. Nothing like the fresh smell of today's kill.

Next time you see an RSS Icon at, say, A good debate blog, a major newspaper (perfect for extempers), a specialty news site, or any site that allows you to create RSS feeds from searches, you should be thinking "I wonder what kind of tasty articles wander into this trap?"

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