HYPER Likes: RSS Readers

HYPER Likes is a recurring feature on products/technology/services that are especially useful, expand consumer choice, or otherwise help people. 

With all this hubbub about Google Reader shutting down making the news, a few friends asked me – why does this matter? What exactly did Google Reader do that people found so useful?

In short, Reader was one of the first widely available online RSS readers, that people have treated more as a utility and less as a website.

To expand, I’m going to dig into what exactly RSS is, what made it very useful for people, and why Google’s solution was so highly regarded, as well as what options people have, now that Google has decided to shut Reader down.

What is RSS?

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. It is a method of distributing content (blog posts, website updates, articles) – a website’s “RSS feed” just refers to the raw data (unformatted text, pictures, etc) that’s being updated (think of individual tweets, except instead of being limited to 140 characters, a single tweet could include the entire article).

The technology has been available for a long time, available in some form or another since 1995, and so almost every major website offers some feed of their news or posts. For example, WordPress provides RSS feeds by default for its blogs (check out mine below), and ESPN offers upwards of 50 feeds particular to certain topics (for example, independent feeds for different college conferences).

Why is it useful?

In the time before Twitter and the Facebook news feed, people were able to use RSS feeds in conjunction with a reader, which would act as an inbox for all new news items.

The icon to look for
The icon to look for

Speaking from personal memory, if I found a website useful, I would just look for the RSS logo somewhere on the page. Earlier on I would actually have to copy the link to the feed into my reader, but later improvements meant I would have only have to click the link to automatically subscribe.

The feeds themselves carry very little along the lines of formatting, which made it especially easy to load and sort through tons of items. By putting the actual content from these numerous websites in one place, readers were able to save the time and effort of loading every website separately to read information.

At one point (when I wasn’t working full-time) I was able to keep up with 400 different websites, sorting through 10,000 to 15,000 items a week (not a typo). Nowadays, I still have a core of 40 feeds that I monitor daily, reading through about a quarter of what I did previously.

Why did so many people like Google’s Reader?

There are a few separate reasons for this. The most important is probably that it was online. This meant that no matter what I was looking at it through, whether my phone or my computer, the reader stayed updated.

It also had a minimal interface. This made the service fast – not so bad now that we all have broadband connections, but a big help nonetheless.

It had extensive keyboard shortcuts. The keyboard shortcuts in reader (which most alternative readers are sticking to now that Google Reader will be going away) made it easy to flip through a massive number of items quickly – and (next item and previous item, respectively) are by far my most used keys.

RSS is a more complete way to look at sites short of visiting each site separately. The feeds carry more information than Twitter’s 140 characters allow (often times entire articles, depending on the content provider). It’s also a more reliable way to look at content than liking pages through Facebook’s timeline – every item would be delivered to the reader, not just the most popular or most shared.

Most importantly, though, it was here first. Reader was introduced in late 2005, whereas Twitter wasn’t introduced until the year after (and didn’t get truly big until years later), and Facebook didn’t get its Timeline until 2011. Although the service was never advertised heavily, the people that did use it used it religiously, and having been on the web for longer than most, are liable to be the most vocal of people.

What now?

Google’s service will be around until July, and numerous services are offering to step up the plate with solutions that they claim are as good or better than Google Reader.

The most prominent current solution is Feedly, which is also promising a transition to a new self-hosted platform as soon as Reader goes offline. Feedly also offers apps for Android and iOS, making it one of the more complete current platforms, and synchronizes with Google Reader at the moment as well.

If you are a current Google Reader user, and are looking for a simpler interface, The Old Reader employs the old interface of Google Reader and throws a few social features into the mix as well, with mobile apps on their roadmap. It does not synchronize with Google Reader as yet, however, so you’ll either need to add your subscriptions manually, or grab the subscriptions file from Google Takeout and wait to have it imported.

Digg has also promised a replacement, which should include most of the major benefits of Google Reader, but with no current option, you could be waiting for some time.

RSS as a whole remains a viable tool, one that I strongly recommend to anyone that looks at more than 5 websites a day.


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