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Perhaps you are too busy to visit numerous Web sites to keep up with updates about your clients, your clients’ industries, general financial and business news, and your own profession. Thanks to a feature in Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 that brings a relatively new technology into mainstream computing, all the updates can come to you in your inbox, where you can integrate and manage information from various Web sites as easily as you can read and manage your e-mails.
This feature draws its power from a technology that, prior to Microsoft seeing its value for its massive user base, was used primarily by techies and researchers. “Web syndication by RSS,” or RSS (typically referred to as Really Simple Syndication or several slight variations), is a format for publishing Web content that arranges data into a standardized structure of headings, content ummaries and a link to the original source.
Many Web sites provide content in an RSS format, called a feed, that users may subscribe to for free (although some providers are beginning to charge for the service). Once you subscribe and configure Outlook to handle feeds, the information is delivered to your inbox. While Outlook is not the only RSS reader, and several fine readers preceded the release of Outlook 2007, this article focuses on how Outlook, which has a ubiquitous presence, processes RSS feeds. Web sites identify RSS feeds with one of several logos:
Web syndication using RSS means that new and updated information will be delivered from a variety of sites, giving you total control over the information you want. The feed Web sites usually update frequently, and Outlook captures them automatically. You can subscribe to multiple feeds from as many Web sites as you desire and organize the information into your inbox. You do not need to worry about becoming a spam target because, technically, it is not you but the software (Outlook) that subscribes to the feed. Your identity, therefore, is never revealed and you can simply delete the feeds, thereby unsubscribing, when you no longer need such information.
To use this feature in Microsoft Outlook 2007, go to a Web site you visit regularly and find one of the feed logos shown above. According to our survey of S&P 100 companies, 65 currently provide RSS feeds on their Web sites and virtually all news Web sites provide RSS feeds, therefore, finding feeds should not be a problem.
By right-clicking on the logo and clicking on the Copy Shortcut menu item, you can copy the URL of the RSS feed. Then open the Tools menu in Outlook, click Account Setting , select New on the RSS Feeds tab, and use Ctrl+V to paste the URL into the New RSS Feed dialog box. Finalize the subscription by clicking on Add . The screenshot below shows the subscription window in Outlook. You can add as many feeds as you wish, as long as you do not exceed 500 total folders within Outlook, or it will be unable to open your data.
Perhaps the most important benefit of Web syndication is its ability to let you organize feeds into categories that are meaningful to you. This technology assists you in gathering information from various sites and integrating and managing the information into categories in one location—your inbox. In Outlook, this is accomplished by allowing you to create folders sorted within hierarchies. You can create a category by adding a folder to the “RSS Feeds” folder and then add as many subcategories as you wish (again, not exceeding 500 total folders). Feeds may also be added to each of the categories or subcategories as folders
The screenshot below illustrates, in Outlook, feeds that are organized into four categories: Clients, Pharmaceutical Industry, Profession and XBRL . Under Clients, Pharmaceutical Industry , and XBRL folders, various feeds are added as subfolders. However, under the Profession folder, subcategories are created for accounting news, etc., as subfolders.
Outlook treats each feed as if it is an e-mail account and displays it as a folder in the mail pane. The items are viewed just as you would read e-mails. By clicking the folder of an RSS feed, the feed items can be seen in the feed list and one can be selected to be opened in the reading pane. This Microsoft Outlook screenshot shows a highlighted accounting news item listed in the mail pane. The list of all accounting news is then opened in the middle pane. A summary of one selected accounting news item can be seen in the reading pane. You can click on the link included in the item to be redirected in your default Internet browser so you can read the full article.
You can do many things with the feed. In addition to editing functions, you can share individual news items with other people. You can also download and save the full article or classify it into other categories you have defined. The screenshot below shows these additional feed features.
As previously noted, Outlook is not the only feed reader. There are several popular stand-alone and Web-based readers as well as Web browsers that have been available for some time and provide operational advantages which, depending upon your needs, may be more suitable for daily use. Examples of these solutions are the NewsGator family of products (which are now free for download), FeedRead, SharpReader, Google Reader, MyYahoo, and, of course, Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox. Interestingly, your smartphone may also be able to capture feeds through its Web browser and mobile applications provided by Google and others.
While RSS feeds are incredibly powerful and useful, there is a downside. Not terribly different than eating buffet-style, you may be tempted to grab more than you can digest, leading to information overload and reader clutter. To help cope with overload, the FeedDemon reader from NewsGator has a “Panic Button” feature: When a predetermined threshold of unread feeds is reached, it shows a splash window and a red panic button, asking if you want to automatically mark unread feeds as read for those that were received earlier than a certain date. Over time, you should decide which feeds you actually read and discard everything else. You can always resubscribe.
The key to information processing, regardless of technology and
interface, is to acquire the right information and act on it quickly.
RSS feeds are one tool for this, but the most important tool is user
judgment and action.
Want to Be an RSS Provider?
Remember, Web syndication is a technology with two sides: the provider and the receiver. This article has focused on a straightforward and enjoyable experience as the feed receiver. But what about the provider?
Say you are a small firm that specializes in financial planning and your Web site provides useful updates in these areas as part of your client service and marketing efforts. You may even maintain a blog about spreadsheet tips and accounting software tricks. While you find value in providing these updates to visitors of your Web site, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could provide RSS feed links for those who may be interested? RSS feeds can be used to improve your Web site’s popularity and perhaps attract more business to your firm or company.
Becoming a feed provider is not as technically challenging as it may seem. You do not need to master technical details in feeds because free online services can help. FeedFire (www.feedfire.com) is an example of a tool that creates a simple feed from text you provide. The W3C Web site (www.w3.org/2000/08/w3c-synd/#) is another example that allows you to create a full-featured feed for your Web site.
Yu Cong , Ph.D., is an assistant professor of accounting at Towson University, Towson, Md. His e-mail address is email@example.com . Hui Du , MBA, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Houston–Clear Lake. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org . The authors wish to thank Michael Kridel , CPA/CITP, CFC, of Daszkal Bolton LLP, for his assistance in preparing this article.