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How to Get Started with Google Reader

How to Get Started with Google Reader
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    One of the core technologies behind the Web 2.0 “revolution” is RSS (Really Simple Syndication). Most websites that are updated with any sort of regularity have feeds of at least their headlines, and usually of full articles. Some sites also have secondary feeds listing their comments, videos, links, and other updates as well.

    Because RSS is so common these days, keeping up with the rush of information that shapes our lives has become pretty easy (“really simple”, even). Instead of jumping from one site to another, you can keep track of all the content of the sites you visit regularly in one central place.

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    Why Google Reader?

    While there are desktop applications that collect your syndicated content, reading RSS feeds is one task that justifies the buzz around “Web 2.0”. For reading news, keeping up with blogs, even tracking packages, little can compare with Google Reader — its easy to add feeds, easy to read them, and easy to organize them.

    Google Reader offers several advantages over stand-alone desktop feed readers. First of all, it integrates tightly with both Firefox and IE7, making it simple to use. Second, you can access your feeds from any computer, and keep your reading in sync between them. Finally, you don’t have to worry about upgrades or performance issue — bug fixes an new features are added “behind the scenes” with no action on your part. And it’s free.

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    If you already use any of Google’s other services — Gmail, Docs and Spreadsheets, Google Groups, or whatever — you are already signed up for Google Reader; just log in with your existing account information. Otherwise, go to Google Reader and create a new account.

    Adding Feeds to Google Reader

    Once you’re signed up with Google Reader, there are approximately a zillion ways to add feeds to your account. If you’re already using a web-based service or desktop program to read RSS feeds, you can import your existing feeds from the OPML file those services will generate (look for an “export” feature). But assuming you are new to this and are starting from scratch, there are several easy ways to add feeds to Google Reader.

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    RSS icon

      First, you need to find the feed. Unfortunately, there’s no real standard (or, rather, there’s a lot of conflicting standards) for how to post a feed address on a site. Newer sites tend to use the orange “broadcast waves” box that links to the feed; older sites tend to use a small orange “RSS” or “Atom” tag instead (By the way, don’t worry about the RSS vs. Atom issue — Google Reader handles whatever you throw at it just as well.) Or there might just be a text link saying “RSS” or “Newsfeed” or “Subscribe”. Both Firefox 2 and Internet Explorer 7 auto-detect RSS feeds (Opera and Safari probably do as well, but I don’t use those, so no promises) and place an orange RSS indicator in your address bar when one is present; click it and both browsers present you with a nicely formatted view of the feed, with the address in the address bar.

      Now that you’ve found the feed, add it to Google Reader by doing one of the following:

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      • Add feeds manually. If you know the address for a site’s RSS feed, you can enter it into GR yourself by clicking “Add subscription” on the left-hand side of the page and typing or pasting it in directly.
      • Use Firefox’s auto-detection. Click the RSS symbol in Firefox’s address bar and select “Add as live bookmark”. The next page will have a drop-down menu at the top giving you several options to subscribe to the feed you’re viewing. Select Google Reader and hit “Subscribe Now”. You can make Google your default reader by checking the box marker “Always use Google to subscribe to feeds”; then clicking RSS feeds will open them directly in GR. (You can also change the default action in Firefox’s options: Tools > Options, select the “Feeds” tab, check “Subscribe to the feed using”, and choose “Google Reader”.) Unfortunately, IE7 doesn’t work the same way; it will open the feed in a nicely formatted page but does not give you the option to add to Google Reader.
      • Click the link to the RSS feed, however it is indicated on the page. This works the same as using auto-detection.
      • Look for an “Add to Google” button. If the webmaster loves you, they’ll have put a big “Add to Google” button on their page, usually somewhere near the inscrutable orange box that indicates an RSS feed. Te “Add to Google” button adds the feed directly to Reader.
      • Use Google’s “subscribe” bookmarklet. In Google Reader, go to “Settings” and then the “Goodies” tab. There you will find the “subscribe” bookmarklet — right-click and drag the link into your browser’s toolbar. A new button will be created; whenever you are on a site you’d like to subscribe to, click the button and Google will look for the RSS feed and open it in Reader. This is a preview; to add it permanently, hit the large “Subscribe” button near the top right-hand corner of the page. This works in IE7 and Firefox, and likely other browsers as well.

      I’ve used about half a dozen desktop RSS readers and a couple of online services, but none have been as smooth and easy to use as Google Reader. That said, it is not without limitations. Most notably, Google Reader is not a very good platform for podcasts. Google embeds video and audio attachments in the viewer window, but if you want your podcasts on your mp3 player, you have to manually download the files and import them into your player’s sync manager. This is a task that is much better handled by a desktop application like iTunes or Juice.

      For your daily reading, though, Google Reader is great. In a very short time, you can be cranking through dozens or even hundreds of feeds every day with a minimum of effort.

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      Last Updated on January 21, 2020

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

      This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

      The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

      The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

      Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

      Curiosity

      Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

      People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

      Patience

      Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

      When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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      Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

      A Feeling for Connectedness

      This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

      A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

      The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

      How to Self-Taught Effectively

      With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

      1. Research

      Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

      Learning the Basics

      Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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      Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

      What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

      Hitting the Books

      Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

      Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

      Long-Term Reference

      While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

      My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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      2. Practice

      Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

      A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

      Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

      Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

      3. Network

      One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

      These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

      Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

      Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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      4. Schedule

      For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

      Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

      Final Thoughts

      In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

      If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

      At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

      More About Self-Learning

      Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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