Reading RSS Feeds With Google Reader

Sick of visiting a few dozen web sites every day to get your fix of news, links, and fun? Syndicated web feeds and a feed reader like Google Reader allow you to get updates on all your favorite sites in one place. Here's how.
Published: Apr 17, 2007
Author: Jordan Running

Web feeds have gained a ton of momentum in the past year, and are now hiding behind almost every blog and most news sites. You might have heard them referred to as "RSS feeds," and though not all feeds use the RSS specification (Atom is the second most common), the acronym, which stands for Really Simple Syndication, is a good descriptor.

RSS and Atom feeds hold content like blog posts and headlines in a format that's simple for computer programs to read and use--i.e. syndicate--in various ways. The most common kind of program for reading feeds--and probably the most useful to you--is (you guessed it) a feed reader or aggregator. A feed reader pulls headlines, articles, blog posts, and other data from as many sources as you choose and displays them all in one place. It does this automatically, saving you the time and effort of checking a dozen news sites and blogs every day.

Google Reader

Mobile devices aside, there are two kinds of feed readers: web-based and desktop-based. Desktop feed readers are programs that run from your desktop just like Outlook or Quicken. Web-based feed readers you access through your web browser. The main advantage of this is that everything is stored online and you can access it from any computer.

There are lots of web-based feed readers out there like Bloglines and Rojo. My feed reader of choice, however, is Google Reader. Like Google's webmail system Gmail, Google Reader has a slick and speedy interface that's easy to use but relatively powerful.

Google Reader

The first thing you need to do to get started with Google Reader is sign up. If you already have a Google account (for Gmail or Google Personalized Home, for example) you can just sign in with that username and password; otherwise, you'll have to create a new Google account. Once you're in, you'll see Reader's main interface. It's pretty straightforward, but you won't see much until you start subscribing to feeds. So let's get started.

I'm going to save you some time by showing you Google Reader's "bookmarklet." A bookmarklet is a bookmark (or "Favorite," if you use Internet Explorer) that performs an action, and Google Reader has one that will let you quickly subscribe to most sites' feeds. To install the bookmarklet, click on Settings in the upper right corner of Google Reader, then click on Goodies and scroll down to "Subscribe as you surf." It will give you a "Subscribe..." link that you can just drag to your browser's bookmarks/favorites toolbar. Then, whenever you're browsing a site with a properly-marked feed, you can just click on the Subscribe bookmarklet and it will take you to Google Reader, where you can subscribe to the feed with one click of the big blue "Subscribe" button.

Once you're subscribed to a few feeds (more on that later, Google Reader gives you some good options for keeping them organized. If you click on "Manage subscriptions" in the lower right, you can create folders (or "tags") to sort your feeds into and rename or delete feeds. Back on the main screen, you can choose how your feeds are displayed: You can have it show only feeds with new items, and choose how your feeds are sorted. If you only want to see headlines instead of entire items�good for skimming a lot of items�you can click the List View tab in the upper right. Most of these settings are just a matter of personal preference, and I recommend playing around until you find a configuration that works well for you.

One other important feature of Google Reader is "Starred Items." Each item in a feed has a gray star next to the title, and clicking on the start will make it yellow and add it to your Starred Items. Just like in Gmail, you can use this to mark important items so you can easily come back to them later. There's also "Shared Items" and the corresponding "Share" option at the bottom of each item. This lets you create a page of items that you want to share with other people. People can bookmark your shared items and check out what you're interested in lately, or they can add your shared items to their own feed reader.

How To Find Feeds

Feed iconThe good news is that more and more sites have feeds these days. Almost all blogs have feeds, and they're getting to be very common on other kinds of sites, especially news-oriented ones. The bad news is that sometimes it's hard to figure out if a site has feeds. The quickest way is to use the afore-mentioned bookmarklet. If the site has properly-configured "autodiscovery" code it ought to Just Work. If not, you'll have to do some poking around. Most sites that have RSS feeds will denote them with a text link or an icon. Often the icon will be orange and say "RSS" or "XML" on it, or it will look like the "standard" feed icon above. Clicking on the link or the icon will take you to the feed itself. Your browser might give you the option to subscribe to the feed directly. If not, you should copy the feed's URL to the clipboard, then go to Google Reader and click on "Add subscription" on the left. Enter the URL into the box and click on "Add," and you will be subscribed to the feed.

If you're bored and are looking for new feeds to read, Google Reader happens to know about a lot of them. Just click on the Browse link and you can browse thousands of feeds by keyword or category. It also has "bundles" which contain feeds on a particular topic, e.g. Sports. Another good source for feeds is Technorati, which keeps a list of the 100 most linked-to blogs in the world (according to its own metrics), each of which has a feed you can subscribe to. That ought to keep you busy for awhile.

Moving Your Feeds With OPML

So, what if you've checked out Google Reader, subscribed to a bunch of feeds, and gotten used to the whole feed reader idea, but decided you don't like Reader's interface or want to try out a desktop or mobile client? Lucky for you most feed readers allow you to export and import entire lists of feeds. In Google Reader just click on Settings in the upper right and then on the Import/Export tab. You can export all of your current subscriptions to an OPML file with the link at the bottom (or you can import an OPML file from another program with the Upload form above). Once you have an OPML file, you can import it into most other feed readers and pick up where you left off.

Other Tools

Google Reader is a great web app, but if you're looking for more features or a desktop- rather than web-based experience, you have a lot of other options. Tucows has a lot of programs for both reading and publishing feeds, and of course there are more to be found elsewhere. NewsGator makes a number of well-regarded feed readers including the stand-alone FeedDemon (for Windows) and NetNewsWire (for Mac), and NewsGator Inbox, which integrates into Microsoft Outlook. If you use Mozilla Firefox, you might be interested in Sage, a free feed reader add-on for the browser. There are plenty of options out there to suit every person's needs.

About Jordan Running

Blogger since 1999, Jordan Running went pro in 2005 and never looked back. Sometimes programmer, occasional photographer, and serial tinkerer, he decided to to switch to Linux in 2001 but just hasn't quite gotten around to it yet.

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