Ask LH: How Can I Organise My RSS Feeds So They’re More Manageable?

Dear Lifehacker, I subscribe to a lot of news feeds, which makes me feel like I’m on top of everything on the internet — except now I’m feeling overwhelmed with all the folders and hundreds of feeds and constant flood of posts in my newsreader. I still want access to all the news and information, but what can I do to better organise it so I stay sane?Thanks, Buried by RSS

Dear BbR,

You’re definitely not alone in feeling the RSS information overload. As wonderful as it is to be able to tap into all the information in the world, there are only so many hours in the day to spend consuming it all. Not to worry: With a little pruning, filtering and prioritising, we can turn the deluge of data into a nice, manageable stream of content. Here’s how:

Prune Your RSS Subscriptions

The first thing to do is get rid of the feeds that you really don’t get any use out of: Feeds that are never updated, mostly duplicate content you already get elsewhere or simply don’t read any more. These subscriptions are just taking up space in your reader and distracting you from the ones you do want to see.

Weed Out Inactive, Obscure and Overactive Feeds

If you’re using Google Reader, go to the Trends report under “All Items” and click the “Inactive” tab to find and delete them.

Then click the “Most Obscure” tab, where you may find stray feeds with only a handful of subscribers. Sometimes this might be because you at some point were looking for updates on a very singular search term (for example, I had an Amazon price history feed in there for a TV model I was looking at) or just sites that aren’t that popular. Either way, take a look to clean out the ones you don’t need.

Part of the problem may also be feeds that send an overwhelming number of updates each day. You’ll find those subscriptions on the “Frequently Updated” tab. You don’t have to unsubscribe to those feeds, however, if you’re still interested in them. See below for how to filter those feeds so you just see more relevant posts.

Besides Google Reader, other web-based and desktop news readers offer similar statistics and tools. Our favourite Mac news reader application NetNewsWire and favourite Windows news reader FeedDemon, for example, will both show you the “dinosaurs” that haven’t been updated in a while and let you unsubscribe quickly.

Get Rid of Duplicate Content

Next take a look at your subscriptions for repetitive posts. You might have duplicate content if you follow many similar sites (especially news sites) that cover the same beat. Some sites which aggregate content for a specific topic can also overlap your other subscriptions. Consider keeping only those that are most comprehensive or updated most often.

Also be wary about using Google Alerts in your feeds. I used to have Google Alerts delivered via RSS for general topics like laptops and Android. But then I also had feeds for sites that cover news on those topics too, so I would end up with duplicates, triplicates and so on of the same articles in my folders. What I learned was to not make Google Alerts for generic terms like those, but rather rely on my feeds, and if I need to find more content on the subject, just do a search on Google News.

Also, unless a site fits into several categories (like Lifehacker), it’s redundant to place it in a bunch of folders. No need to put Gizmodo in both “tech news” and “gadgets” — if you’ll be checking both folders, at least.

Keep Only the Essential Feeds

Finally, think about the categories of feeds that you really want to be watching and reading about. You might have a passing interest in a bunch of topics, but be ruthless in your assessment if you really are getting anything out of each category. As an example, I used to have a folder with feeds about “green living”, a topic I’m interested in but don’t need to read about daily, weekly or even monthly.

Filter or Fine-Tune Your Feeds for the Posts You Want to Read

Once you’ve got your subscriptions all sorted out, if there are still too many posts to look at in a day, it’s time to filter them so you only see the topics you care about most. For example, you might be interested in new downloads, but not for Apple devices. A filter or subscribing to a site’s special sub-feeds can help you weed out those posts.

Subscribe to topic-specific feeds: Lifehacker, for example, offers several different feeds. You can subscribe to the whole enchilada with the full feed or just Australian stories.

Creating your own filters: You have several options to create filters of your own on any site. Here are a few:

  • Take a look at FeedRinse, which filters out posts for your individual subscriptions by keyword, tag, author and even profanity.
  • Another option, if you’re a Chrome and Google Reader user, is the Google Reader Filter by Feed/Folder userscript. This adds a filtering box above your feeds to weed out words for an individual subscription or an entire folder.
  • Probably the most robust RSS feed hacking tool is Yahoo Pipes, which combines many feeds into one sortable, filterable and translatable feed.

I’d recommend using FeedRinse if you do your RSS reading on a lot of different devices, the Google Reader Filter by Feed/Folder for quick filtering on-demand, and Yahoo Pipes if you really want to fine-tune your feeds.

Prioritise Your Feeds

Now that you’ve got the most valuable subscriptions showing the most relevant post topics, it’s time to organise them.

There are several strategies you can use. It doesn’t matter which you choose as long as it works for you. So here’s an overview:

Organise by priority: In a previous Google Reader decluttering article, we suggested a folder structure that ranked groups of feeds by priority: favourite (to read daily) feeds at the top, then primary sources (go-to sites) and secondary sources (all other news feeds). I’ve adopted a similar strategy, with the feeds I read first thing in the morning at the top, but labelled like this “- Favorites” so that no matter what news reader I’m using, it stays at the top. For tech news, I have “- Tech News: Tier 1” and “- Tech News: Tier 2” folders. This just makes the ocean of tech news posts more navigatible. You could do the same for any category you follow heavily.

Organise by time: You might also group feeds by when you should be reading them. You could have daily (and perhaps am and pm subgroups), weekly and monthly groups that correlate to how you catch up on sites. Or a weekday and weekend/nights grouping.

Organise by topic: Probably the most popular want to organise your feeds is by topic (especially if you have a variety of interests): tech, home, fun, etc. As mentioned above, though, be careful about having too many folders that overlap. Some news readers let you have subfolders, which is handy. This Google Reader: Nested Folders userscript can add the subfolders capability currently lacking in Google Reader.

Of course, you can use a combination of these strategies.

For each subscription, you can prioritise the posts as well. Previously mentioned PostRank is a Safari and Chrome extension that scores posts according to how popular it is. The drop-down filter of good, great and best posts may help clear the RSS clutter.

More Efficiently Read Your Feeds

Finally, with everything in place, start using your news reader more effectively by learning its keyboard shortcuts and using add-ons if available (see this guide for Google Reader keyboard shortcuts and add-ons).

Remember, too, that RSS is more like a daily newspaper than it is email: Don’t feel like you have to read every single item of every feed you subscribe to. There will always be new news to read.

That said, enjoy your streamlined news reading experience!


P.S. Let’s hear your favourite RSS organisation tips and strategies in the comments.

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