Some excellent RSS alternatives to Google Reader

Ryan Pierson

On July 1, Google will kill off (or retire, as the company puts it) Google Reader — officially because of declining usage, but also perhaps for privacy issues, according to various reports.

Whatever the reason, there are plenty of RSS-reader alternatives that make it easier to read the content you care about.

A quick refresher course on RSS feeds

For many PC users, RSS is an essential tool for consolidating daily news stories. For many others, it’s something they’ve heard about but don’t really understand. There’s even some confusion about the name.

RSS is short for Rich Site Summary, though it’s often also referred to as Really Simple Syndication (Wikipedia info). It’s essentially a format for feeding new digital content — typically, frequently updated content such as blogs and breaking news — to subscribers. Most RSS feeds are updated automatically by a provider’s publishing system and automatically aggregated by a subscriber’s RSS-reader application. Manually edited RSS feeds do exist; they’re typically updated in tandem with content releases.

Once set up, RSS gives subscribers access to their favorite blogs, news sites, podcasts, video feeds, and virtually any other constantly updated Web presence — all with minimal effort required by the user. RSS aggregation apps such as Feedly, NewsBlur, and Pulse pull these feeds into one page where users can quickly sort and scan the most recent updates. Imagine browsing the latest CNN stories, The Wall Street Journal articles, and your favorite blogs — all on the same page.

RSS lets publishers distribute as little or as much content as they’d like. Typically, they format feeds to keep readers informed of what’s new on the publishers’ primary sites. One publisher might send just a paragraph of information along with a link to the full article posted on the Web; another might opt to feed its entire content through RSS. Readers need do nothing more than subscribe to the feed to view all content locally.

Using RSS has both upsides and downsides for publishers. Distributing RSS feeds typically uses less bandwidth than downloading website pages. On the other hand, many RSS aggregators strip ads from feeds, making it harder for publishers to monetize the content.

RSS is the platform on which podcasting was born. iTunes and many other podcasting platforms are basically RSS readers equipped specifically to manage feeds linked directly to audio and video content. The user’s multimedia “reader” automatically receives audio/video content, making it immediately available to the subscriber — just grab your morning coffee and start listening to today’s podcast. The content is stored locally, so you can take it on the road and listen when there’s no Internet connection.

Three popular alternatives to Google Reader

The end of Google Reader was announced in the March 13 Google Official Blog post, “A second spring of cleaning.” (That same post listed numerous other Google apps the company deemed obsolete.) In a related post, Google software engineer Alan Green cited two reasons for ending Reader: “[U]sage of Google Reader has declined, and as a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products.” Reader users have been moving to alternatives that promise a richer visual experience.

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Pulse (site) is one example of these enhanced RSS readers. It lets you manage news feeds in a way that’s as visually stunning as it is simple. A Web-based aggregator, it displays feeds as tiled images (see Figure 1). Windows 8 fans might find Pulse one of the easiest transitions they can make.

Pulse

Figure 1. Pulse's Win8-like, tile-based interface

Using complex algorithms, Pulse tries to determine which stories in your feeds will be most interesting to you. It acts somewhat like a personalized news page, complete with the stunning visuals you expect from a modern news site. Pulse is available as an app for iOS and Android. No Windows Phone app has yet been announced, but Pulse is being heavily promoted with Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10.

Pulse is free for both publishers and subscribers. The site is partially ad-supported and also has premium content offered through paid subscriptions.

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Feedly (site) is another Web- and mobile app–based RSS reader that boasts the same visually rich user experience as Pulse. It’s grown in popularity since the announcement of Google Reader’s end.

Feedly is a bit more customizable than Pulse. Users can display articles in various views such as Titles, Magazine, Mosaic, and Cards, plus a straightforward view of full articles that resembles the look of a traditional newspaper (see Figure 2). It also gives you a robust directory of available RSS sites to fit a variety of tastes and interests.

Feedly

Figure 2. Feedly's default view resembles a newspaper.

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NewsBlur (site) is another popular solution. In addition to simple news aggregation and a straightforward user interface (see Figure 3), it has a training feature: it can learn what stories its users prefer to see — or not see — in their feeds from various sites. That can be a powerful, time-saving tool, especially if you find yourself spending more time searching for interesting stories than reading them.

NewsBlur

Figure 3. NewsBlur's traditional RSS reader interface

Adding RSS feeds from within your browser

Internet Explorer has included built-in support for RSS feeds since IE 7. It offers automatic detection and subscription to feeds via a small RSS icon in the toolbar (near the Home button; the icon turns from gray to orange when a site has an RSS feed available). You can also manually manage feeds via the IE Tools menu. A Windows 7 Support page gives some information about setting up feeds in IE 9.

RSS feeds can be added to Firefox and Chrome via add-ons or plugins.

Whether you’re a casual user hoping to cut down on time spent hopping from site to site in search of the stories you care about, or you’re an avid newshound looking for the latest stories from sources you trust, RSS feeds can make successful searching considerably easier. You get immediate access to your favorite sites through a single, unified user interface. It puts you in control of your Web-browsing experience.

Automate your online communications with IFTTT

Whereas RSS is a push information-distribution service, IFTTT is like a point-to-point distribution service. It acts as a virtual switchboard, connecting your various online services together.

IFTTT (site) is short for if this (a trigger) then that (an action). You use IFTTT to automate a number of different processes online. From backing up your Instagram photos to synching Evernote to tweeting your latest blog post, IFTTT is sort of a one-stop-shop for getting things from Point A to Point B — without your having to do it manually.

Used by individuals and businesses, IFTTT automates routine processes such as spreading the word about a new blog post via Twitter and Facebook or moving files from one online service to another. The service offers recipes (site) to make setting up these tasks faster.

For example, using a custom recipe (page), avid sports fans can pull from ESPN the final scores of each game played by their favorite team(s) and have them saved in a Google Drive spreadsheet. The setup is surprisingly simple.

Keep in mind that IFTTT is a cause-and-effect–driven service. When creating a recipe, you link a trigger to an action; whenever a trigger’s conditions are met, IFTTT carrys out the related action. You should consider all possible causes and effects when creating recipes.

IFTTT’s recipes aren’t restricted to online services. You can have the service send you an SMS each time a specific event occurs. Events can include anything from a new post on your favorite blog to an alert letting you know when rain is predicted in the local forecast (see Figure 4).

ITTT weather recipe

Figure 4. Use an IFTTT recipe to automatically send the local weather forecast.

Why IFTTT might not be for you: Automating certain processes within your personal or organizational realm can be a timesaver. But IFTTT is far from perfect. If you’re planning to use IFTTT for social-media posting, you might find that social networks such as Facebook have a tendency to lump third-party application posts together and bury them under posts made by means of the native client.

It’s also difficult to personalize your postings. You can, for example, add a custom line of text to describe a link to your content — but you can’t write a teaser for the content to put it into context.

IFTTT also keeps some control of tasks out of your hands. You can sign in and suspend and/or remove any running recipe. But you have very little control over what precisely triggers a task. This limitation could result in a rogue RSS feed or hacked Twitter account feeding your other services something you’d rather not have shared. In other words, it’s difficult to be selective about what posts on your behalf.

A few useful IFTTT recipes: IFTTT links to more than 60 services and channels such as Craigslist, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, LinkedIn, Tumblr, SMS, RSS, and Google Calendar.

Here are some useful recipes you might want to try:

  • Star a Gmail; send it to Evernote (page)
  • If I upload a photo to Facebook, upload a copy to Google Drive (page)
  • When Facebook profile picture changes, update Twitter profile picture (page)
  • Every time you are tagged in a photo on Facebook, it will be sent to Dropbox (page)
  • When a new book is added to Kindle Top 100 Free eBooks, send me an email (page)
  • Text me the weather every morning (page)
  • New #Netflix streaming (email new Netflix streaming titles; page)

The possibilities are virtually endless. You can turn your email inbox into a personalized news aggregator and receive daily updates that matter to you; you can have your Instagram photos saved automatically to Dropbox. Think of IFTTT as a personal assistant, working 24/7 to make your life a little easier.



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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2013-03-28:

Ryan Pierson

About Ryan Pierson

Ryan Matthew Pierson has worked as a broadcaster, writer, and producer for media outlets ranging from small local radio stations to internationally syndicated programs. He presently serves as a content producer for the Chris Pirillo site and LockerGnome.