Using an RSS reader is one of the clear markers of an organised Web user. While RSS is hardly a new technology, it’s still relatively neglected by many users outside the proudly-self-identified-geek space. I suspect this is because if you click on the RSS link on most sites, you get what generally looks like a text-only version, and many people think “What’s the point of that?”
So what is the point? Simple, really: RSS means that instead of constantly checking your favourite sites to see if they’ve updated, you can receive automatic updates whenever they publish something new. Instead of jumping from site to site, you just check in your reader software to see what’s new.
For the purposes of this introduction, I’m going to explain how to access RSS feeds using Google Reader within your favourite browser, since all that requires is a Google account (something you’ll likely already have in the form of a Gmail address). However, there are literally hundreds of options, ranging from other webapps to built-in browser support to separate desktop clients and RSS readers for your inbox. For a wider selection, check out our Hive Five of the best RSS newsreaders.
Adding and reading feeds
To add a site to any RSS reader, first you have to right-click on the RSS link and copy it. This will generally be labelled RSS on the site (like the Lifehacker RSS link near the top of this page), and will often feature the RSS symbol seen at the right as well. Right-click, and choose Copy Link Location (in Firefox) or Copy Shortcut (in IE). The address now stored on your clipboard can be used to add that site to any RSS reader.
To access Google Reader and add it there, go to the main Google site, click on more (next to Gmail) and select Reader. You’ll need to sign in if you haven’t done so already for other Google services.
Assuming you’ve never used Google Reader before, you’ll see a largely blank screen. Click on the Add a subscription button in the top left corner, paste the address in (by typing Control-V, or right-clicking and selecting paste), and click Add.
Google Reader will immediately show a selection of recent posts or news articles from the site in question. If this is a site you’ve recently visited, chances are you’ve read all these already. Click on the ‘Mark all as read’ button near the top of the screen. Repeat this process (copying the link and then adding in Reader) for any sites you visit regularly.
From now on, whenever you access Google Reader, you’ll see links to any new posts on your favourite sites. Exactly how much information you get will depend on the site’s own settings. With Lifehacker, for instance, you’ll get the opening text of any article and a More link; clicking on that will take you to the main site. Other RSS feeds will reproduce entire posts.
There are a bunch of extra features available in Google Reader, including keyboard shortcuts and the ability to sort feeds into categories, but to get started that’s all you need to know.