For several years now I've been trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to convince friends and family to start making use of web feeds. In August 2005 when I made a list of ten things that I felt were not popular enough, I put RSS feeds at #1. It drives me slightly crazy to watch people going about tasks with sub-optimal efficiency, so knowing that in this day and age folks are still habitually surfing round a list of favourite websites on the offchance that new content has been added really winds me up.

I don't really understand why feeds are still largely used only by techies when the industry has put so much effort into making them more accessible. We stopped calling them XML feeds, in favour of RSS feeds, and then finally just Web feeds. The orange "RSS" icon was replaced a standard icon across most browsers and applications. Newspapers and other websites wrote tutorials explaining the concept. Stylesheets were even applied to the feeds themselves to make them human-readable, lest an accidental viewing of the XML scared people off!

I'd pretty much given up thumping this particular tub, happy to sit and wait until Outlook 2007 and IE 7 get a decent penetration on the average desktop with their out-of-the-box promotion of RSS. But last week John brought to my attention the shiny new version of Google Reader (http://reader.google.com), which has come on in leaps and bounds since the initial release. It's now an absolutely stunning implementation of the RSS Aggregator concept that has given me new hope that the protocol will soon be as readily accepted and understood as email.

I've been happily using Bloglines since July 2005 and didn't anticipate feeling the urge to switch. However, Google Reader offers the following key benefits that will probably lead to it becoming my aggregator of choice:

  • Older, read items are still visible quite easily by choosing to "View All" - this strikes me as being more intuitive than the "Display items within the last..." combo box offered by Bloglines.
  • Items are marked as being read only once you've clicked on (or, optionally, scrolled past) the entry - unlike Bloglines where clicking to view several hundred entries can mark them all as being read simultaneously.
  • A subscription can have more than one tag/label, breaking free of the more traditional folder-based paradigm.
  • Entries can be "starred", in the same way that you star GMail messages. This offers more flexibility than simply keeping an entry flagged as "new"/"unread" (when, after all, it isn't).
  • Entries of interest can be "shared" so that they appear on an aggregated page (here's mine).
  • Naturally, the shared entries have an RSS feed of their own (here's mine).
  • A clip of the shared entries can easily be included on a website (mine coming here soon, underneath the del.icio.us links).
  • If you've avoided RSS feeds because you enjoy reading posts in their original format, you'll be interested in the "Next bookmark", a canny idea which lets you easily cycle through all your favourite sites that have new material.
  • Google reader can be added to your personalised Google homepage (along with GMail, Google Calendar, etc), from where you can even read the entries themselves in a nice big popup balloon.

It really is all very cool. So far I only have two minor niggles:

  • Confusing terminology - are they labels, tags, or folders?  The same concept is referred to by three different names, even on the same screen. Make up your mind guys!
  • Update frequency - Bloglines seems to be picking up on new posts several hours before Google Reader. I need my Dilbert fix in the morning!

If you're already au fait with web feeds, I recommend taking a fresh look at Google Reader - there's an Import OPML feature so switching is painless.

And if you still haven't made the leap into the brave new world of web feeds, I suggest, nay, implore you to give it a try. It's easy, convenient and a huge time-saver.