You may already be using Google Reader, Google’s Web-based RSS reader, but you probably haven’t figured out every advanced trick for getting the most out of this free RSS syndication service. RSS (aka “RDF Site Summary” or “Really Simply Syndication”), a feed-based communication system that most websites support, makes it easy to stay abreast of your favorite websites from a single page. Though some third-party programs and even some browsers can help you curate your favorite RSS feeds in one place, Google Reader’s Web-based structure means you can set it up on one computer and then open it anywhere by logging in to your Google account and heading to reader.google.com.
Google Reader is simple to use once you’ve set it up, but your first time with the service can be a bit confusing. We’ve assembled all the tips you need to collect your RSS feeds and have them ready to go in short order.
Getting Started With Google Reader
If you already have a Google account because you use Gmail, Google+, or one of Google’s other Web services, signing up with Google Reader is as easy as signing in to your Google account on the Google Reader homepage.
After signing in, you’ll probably notice that your Google Reader page is a bit sparse. Google Reader is designed to serve as a reader for your RSS feeds, so you’ll need to add some of your favorite sites in order to have content to peruse.
To add new feeds to your Google Reader page, click the Subscribe button on the upper-left area of the page. Doing so should should cause the pag to open a small dialog box where you can add a new feed. In many instances, if you’re adding a feed from a relatively large site, you can simply enter the site’s name and Google Reader will return a list of RSS feeds that you might have been looking for. For example, type PCWorld, and Google Reader will list PCWorld feeds such as Top News, Latest Reviews, and Laptop Stories. Click one of the links to see a preview of stories from that feed, to ensure that it’s the feed you’re looking for; then click the Subscribe button under the description to add the feed to your Google Reader.
As you add feeds, Google Reader will start to get a feel for your interests and will give you access to the Explore button. When you press Explore, you’ll see posts from RSS feeds that you haven’t yet subscribed to that Google’s analytical algorithm has concluded that you might also like. Creepy? Sure. Useful? Definitely.
Mastering the Google Reader Interface
By default, Google Reader presents the articles in your various feeds as a chronological list of posts, with newer posts appearing at the top of your list. This system works pretty well, but if you’re getting bogged down with too many new posts every day you can instead sort your feed by date (prioritizing the oldest unread posts first, for example) and by “magic,” which triggers a Google algorithm to show you the entries that Google Reader’s designers think you’ll find most interesting first. Another option is a “condensed” view that shows you only the headline of each post; clicking on a headline brings up the full post.
Google Reader’s features go far beyond merely adding to and sorting your RSS feeds. If you like to browse the Web socially, you’ll appreciate that Google Reader lets you share any post in your reader via email or on the company’s Google+ social network. (If, on the other hand, you want to rein in Google Reader’s sharing tendencies, see “How to Share Privately With the New Google Reader.”)
You can also star entries that you find especially interesting. And if you subscribe to friends who also use Google Reader, you can see anything they’ve chosen to mark as a starred post.
If you load your Google Reader with feeds, manually scrolling through hundreds of posts every day can become a chore. Instead, try using the J and K keys (or if you prefer, the N and P keys) on your keyboard to move up or down your reader by one post.
Advanced Google Reader Tips and Tricks
Occasionally, searching for a site’s name in the Subscribe box won’t bring up the RSS feed you seek. In these cases you’ll need to capture the site’s RSS feed URL manually and then put it into your Google Reader. The relevant URL usually lurks behind an RSS button or behind a link labeled ‘RSS’. Once you’ve copied the URL, you can paste it into the Google Reader Subscribe box and add the feed to your collection.
Manually adding an RSS feed’s URL is an unavoidable annoyance when you’re following sites that don’t support automatic discovery of their RSS feeds. But it can also be a helpful tool in certain situations. Both Craigslist and eBay have handy RSS feed features that allow you to get real-time updates on new auctions or offers on their sites. For example, I’m currently searching for a new apartment; so instead of repeatedly running a search for apartments in my chosen neighborhoods and price range, I grabbed the handy Craigslist RSS feed for my preferred search parameters and subscribed to it through Google Reader. Now, I see new apartment listings as soon as they pop up on Craigslist, simply by checking for news on Google Reader.
Similarly, if you want to grab a specific auction item on eBay, you can get an RSS feed for any search that you’d like to make on the site–as well as for specific eBay shops. Unfortunately eBay recently rolled out a new search interface that makes locating the RSS feed button more difficult, but you can easily fix that problem by reverting to the old search interface, on which the RSS button appears at the bottom of the page.
These are a few of my favorite creative uses of Google Reader. Once you start looking for RSS feeds, I’m sure that you’ll find ways to use them in your daily browsing. For more tips, check out our primer, “Getting Started With RSS.” If nothing else, Google Reader is a great, free tool for aggregating everything you want to keep track of online in one place.