Why RSS Readers Suck and the Best Alternatives

RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication (or RDF Site Summary, depending on who you ask). If you hear someone talking about an “RSS feed,” this is something that many websites offer (including LockerGnome) that contains a list of their articles in one place — or excerpts from those articles — and is usually updated instantly upon adding new content. You can subscribe to these feeds using an RSS reader, one of the most popular being Google Reader. This allows you to read the content of all of your favorite websites without visiting each site individually.

According to BuiltWith, 7,776,687 websites use RSS at the time of writing this article. It certainly isn’t an unpopular feature.

Why RSS Readers Suck and the Best Alternatives

I’ve tried many RSS readers and have never been completely happy with the experience that they provide. They’re only pleasant if you subscribe to a few small blogs. However, if you’re subscribed to many large blogs, it’s easy to have thousands of unread posts pile up — many of which you aren’t interested in reading anyway. I’ve begun to rely on RSS readers a lot less because of this. There needs to be a change. There needs to be a way to discover which content within your RSS feeds that you’d be interested in reading. The ideal solution would be a Pandora-like experience, in which you thumbs-up and thumbs-down posts, and it learns what you like.

You can improve your RSS reading experience a bit if you’re using Google Reader. I recommend that you look at “Trends” in the side bar. It will let you see the activity of each feed and how many posts you’ve read from each feed. This will help you unsubscribe from feeds that you don’t read often and that are just cluttering your screen. I also recommend that you download the PostRank extension, which is available for Chrome and Safari. It will help you filter out unpopular posts, so that you can see the content that others are interested in. Google Reader also has a “recommended items and sources” feature, but it rarely contains anything I’m interested in, so I tend to ignore it.

Luckily, there are alternatives to RSS readers. They’re not the perfect solution, but they’re what I rely on for now. I hope that RSS readers will offer the Pandora-like experience that I’m looking for in the future.

RSS Reader Alternatives

StumbleUpon: StumbleUpon allows you to select topics you’re interested in and then stumble upon content related to those topics. You can thumbs-up or thumbs-down content and it learns what you like. This is close to my ideal RSS reader solution, but not exactly the way I’d like it to work. StumbleUpon does not let you limit the content sources or set a specific time range. The content you find will not always be new. Also, due to my dog fascination, at least 50% of the content I stumble upon is photographs of dogs. It’s hard to resist thumbing-up a cute puppy picture.

Twitter: Many Twitter clients, such as HootSuite and TweetDeck, allow you to filter your stream. An easy way to find interesting content is to add a filter that only displays tweets that contain links by using these as keywords: “.ly,” “.mp,” “.com,” “.net,” “.org,” etc. The short link extensions will likely return the most results. This will display all of the links that have been posted by the people you follow. Keep in mind that if you automatically follow back everyone who follows you, the content that you find using this method may not be content you’re interested in. I recommend that you only follow people you’re interested in and who share content you like.

Flipboard: If you enjoy skimming magazines, you’ll love Flipboard. It allows you to add content sources, such as LockerGnome, Twitter, and Facebook, and then displays them in the style of a magazine. While it does not learn what content you’re interested in, it does allow you to quickly skim through everything to find stuff you like. I usually flip through the pages until I find a picture that gets my attention. Flipboard is only available for iOS, but I hope that in the future it will be available on more platforms. I haven’t used it in a while because I sold my iPad and iPhone and switched to Android. It’s definitely on my list of apps that I miss.

Pulse: Like Flipboard, Pulse makes it easier to skim by displaying images for each article (if an image is available). The interface is much different, but it accomplishes similar tasks. Pulse also lets you save articles for reading later, send them to bookmarking services such as Evernote and Instapaper, and sync the sources across all of your devices. I use Pulse almost every day. It’s my favorite way to keep up with tech news from my phone. Pulse is available on iOS and Android.

Paper.li: Paper.li allows you to create an online news paper based on the links shared by the people you follow on Twitter, tags on Twitter, RSS feeds, and posts from Google+. I only have one paper and it is set up to display “Me and the People I Follow” on Twitter. Not only is this a great way to find interesting content, but it’s also a great way to find things worth retweeting.

Reddit: Reddit is a website where people up-vote and down-vote content, allowing you to find what people have found to be the most interesting content of the day. You can subscribe to different topics (subreddits) to view the content being shared about those topics from the homepage. It’s a great way to keep up with the most interesting tech news, but prepare to see a lot of memes.

Digg: I think of Digg as Reddit with less memes. I prefer Reddit because there are many different subreddits (topics) to choose from, unlike Digg, which only gives you a handful of topics to choose from. However, the community is much different than Reddit’s community, so you might want to try both of them out.

What has your experience with RSS readers been like? Do you think they need to improve? Would you enjoy the Pandora-like experience that I have described? On what other services do you rely?

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