Despite being around for years, RSS and Atom web feeds have managed to stay below the mainstream radar; a quick poll of my tech-savvy friends proved this to be the case. This article explains what web feeds are, why you care, and how best to take advantage of them.
What are web feeds? According to Wikipedia:
A web feed is a data format used for serving users frequently updated content. Content distributors syndicate a web feed, thereby allowing users to subscribe to it. Making a collection of web feeds accessible in one spot is known as aggregation.
What’s the Benefit?
The benefit to the user is step 3 of the syndicate->subscribe-aggregate chain. Using a web feed reader, you can aggregate all of your favorite sites together on one screen, browse new headlines, and then read the content that interests you most. In my feed reader, I aggregate feeds from 38 different site; I can browse through the entire list of new headlines and read the articles that interest me in less than 30 minutes. If I were to visit each of the 38 sites individually, it would take hours.
What’s the Best Web Feed Reader?
I’ve tried different web feed readers over the years, including: My Yahoo!, News Gator, and the Sage and Wizz RSS News Reader add-ons for Firefox, but none of them every impressed me as being great, with each having their own shortcomings. Then I found Google Reader; it makes all of the others obsolete. It has a clean interface, is fast, is accessible from any computer, highlights new content, is easy to navigate, has a great summary page, uses the terrific Google search algorithms to find the feed you’re after, and it’s free. Click the thumbnail above to see a screen shot.
How Do I Subscribe to a Feed?
If you’re not using Google Reader, the subscription process goes something like this: go to a site, look for an RSS link in the page or an icon () in the location bar (if your bowser is new enough), click on the link/icon, copy the resulting page location (while ignoring the mangle of XML code on the page), and then paste that feed location into your feed reader. Then, you’d be ready to aggregate. But with Google Reader, all you have to do is type the website name into the search box and it takes care of the rest. That alone, plus the other features listed above, make Google Reader the best way to digest the most information in the least amount of time.
Unfortunately, not all sites include all of their content in their RSS feed. Some of the better sites on the internet, such as Gizmodo, offer advertisement-free summary feeds or ad-supported full feeds. I wish all sites did this. Unfortunately, sites such as AntsMarching.org (feed link), and this other site (feedlink) offer only summary feeds. I find this very frustrating, especially since neither site has advertisements. And then are site like RemoteCentral.com that don’t provide any feeds at all. Truth be told, I find myself spending less time on sites with no (or lacking) feeds because, without the feed, there is nothing to pull me in.
In conclusion: if you find yourself going to the same sites/blogs for info updates and news, go to http://reader.google.com, sign-in, and search for the site by name. Most likely, you’ll soon be browsing your news in a whole new way.
Someone directed me to this post because I just started using Google Reader. Your thoughts on my thoughts?
Mymsie: I agree with your complaints with Google Reader and, unfortunately, there is not much that can be done about any of them.
As for categorizing the feeds, it is definitely a 2-step process (add the feed, then categorize it), but at least it’s only something that has to be done once for each feed; it’s not something you do every day.
As for the feeds being full or truncated, thats an area of great debate by content publishers right now. Many site offer partial feeds to drive more traffic to their sites (and thus more ad revenue.) Other sites include ads in the feeds. There was an article today on ProBlogger.com about this very topic.
Google is looking to add some new features in the near term. One is an automated update notification process, so there is not such a delay between a post and recognition of it by Google Reader. That being said, I use a plugin on my site that updates the Google-spec sitemap.xml file and pings Google each time I create a new post, and it still takes Google Reader several hours to acknowledge the update. According to this article, the plan is for feeds to be updated within one hour when there’s more than one subscriber to a feed, or once in three hours if there is only one. 2/3rds of their 10s of millions of feeds have only one subscriber!
There is no way to comment on posts via a reader; there is no standard for that. There is no getting around visiting a site to do that. Of course, you’d need to subscribe to comment feeds for the site or comments for a particular post and track them in Google Reader as well!
Google is looking to allow users to recommend feed items to others and comment as to why they are recommending it, but this is not the same as actually leaving a comment on the entry itself. I hope this doesn’t decrease the likelihood of commenting on the original article, but I think it could. Similar to the way people comment on submissions at Digg.com, rather than leaving a comment on the site that is being “dugg.” But it’s probably all a wash if it drives additional site traffic.
Anyway, I’ve started to come-up with my own list of complaints. The good news is that Google constantly improves products with the happiness of the customer being first priority. I’m sure Google Reader will continue to be the best feed reader on the Internet!