Saturday, March 16, 2013

Building a Better Google Reader in an Hour

There is all this buzz from the blogosphere about the impending shutdown of Google Reader. Many folks are starting to suggest alternatives such as Feedly. Here is how you can build your own, better alternative to Google Reader and migrate to it in a hour.

Before we can build something better than Google Reader, we have to first recognize what makes Google Reader so great. Google Reader takes the RSS feeds from multiple sites. You can view each site's feed separately. You can view a feed that is the aggregation of all the separate feeds. You can search this combined feed.

The first thing you are going to have to do is get your feed information out of Google Reader. Google makes that very easy to do with Google Takeout. You start by clicking build. After awhile, it will be ready. You click the download link and save the zip file to your local hard disk. You open the compressed archive and look for a file called subscriptions.xml under the reader directory. You open this file with a text editor and search for the xmlUrl term. This will occur multiple times and right after this term are the URLs for the various RSS feeds that you have saved in Google Reader.

Now might be a good time for some house cleaning. Many of your feeds have either lost relevancy or are no longer maintained. I want you to go through this list and pick your top ten. You should also categorize them into high volume feeds (lots of posts every day, typically from a news organization) and low volume feeds (individual blogger whose opinions you value).

Let's focus on the aggregated feed feature first. For that may I suggest using Yahoo Pipes? You will need to click create a pipe to get started. From the sources section, drag the fetch feed badge over to the main area. In the URL text box, enter an xmlUrl from your list of top ten. Keep doing this until all ten feeds have badges. Move the badges around until they are in two groups of five each, high volume and low volume.

From the operators section, drag two union badges over. Each union can take five feeds. Drag the blue circle at the bottom of each feed to a blue circle at the top of the union operation. This is called connecting a feed source to the union operation. Drag a sort badge under each union badge. Connect each union operation to its own sort operation. Sort by publication date in descending order. Drag a truncate operation beneath each sort operation and connect them. Set the truncate number to something reasonable like 40. Drag one more union operation beneath the two truncate operations and connect them. Connect that last union operation to the pipe output.

Save the pipe, giving it a name, then run it. If the results look favorable, then copy the URL in the address bar for use later. Click the Get as RSS link and copy that URL in the address bar too. You may need both of those URLs in subsequent steps. Hit the back button then click the My Pipes link. Find the pipe you just created and click its publish link. This will make the pipe accessible without having to log in.

You can bookmark that first URL in your web browser. That will provide you with the aggregated feed feature. Do you have a smart phone and/or tablet? Then bookmark that same URL in your mobile web browser too. Yahoo Pipes plays well in both environments.

In order to search the feed, you might want to use a native RSS reader. May I suggest using Mozilla Thunderbird?  Thunderbird is available for Mac, PC, and Linux. It does RSS and email too.

After installing, simply create a blogs and news feeds account. Find that new account on the left hand side then click manage subscriptions. Remember that second URL from three paragraphs up? Enter that second URL into the feed URL box then click add. This will surface the same aggregated feed here. The search text box in the upper right hand corner can be used to search this feed.

You can also add the ten original RSS URLs that you got while following the instructions in the third paragraph from the top of this blog to the blogs and news feeds account in Thunderbird. This will allow you to access individual feed content which was the last requirement for replacing Google Reader.

There you have it. With a little pruning and by using Google Takeout, Yahoo Pipes, and Thunderbird, you can build your own replacement to Google Reader. I think that you will find Yahoo's mobile experience to be better than Google's.