RSS Aggregators

I’ve heard that one of my readers was asking about my RSS feed (sorry it took so long to get this written). Wikipedia has a much better description of RSS than I could give here. Go ahead and check it out. I’ll wait here.

Got it? (For those who didn’t click: RSS is a standard protocol, but you can think of it as a file format for blogs.)

The cool thing about RSS (and Atom) is that there are applications that let you bring a bunch of blogs together so that you can read them all without going to each blog’s individual web site. These readers (or aggregator) will typically periodically check the feeds for new entries, so it’s easy to see what’s new at a glance. Let’s say you read five different blogs, and most of them only post every few days. On any given day, there will be something new for you to read, but instead of going to all 5 sites, you just open up your aggregator and see what’s new.

If you read more than three blogs, it’s time to pick an aggregator. For people new to blogs, picking an aggregator can seem overwhelming because there are so many options. I’ll break down the readers into four different categories: stand-alone, web-based, browser-based, and email-based.

Stand-alone applications are programs that run by themselves. They tend to specialize in doing one thing, and doing it well. The main drawback of going with a stand-alone aggregator is that it’s a whole other application that you’ll have to install and run to use it. I haven’t used it for more than five min., but SharpReader turns up high on Google, so would probably be a good start if you want to use a stand-alone reader.

Bloglines is a good example of a web-based aggregator. Web-based aggregators have servers that go out and periodically collect the latest RSS or ATOM feeds from the blogs that their users read. They can then give each of their users a customized view of the blogs their interested in on a single web page. The really cool thing, especially for popular blogging sites, is that this can really cut down on the load that the blog takes. Instead of 1000 readers all grabbing the latest RSS feed, Bloglines (and other web-based readers) can grab it once and feed it out to all of their users. Not having actually used Bloglines I don’t know what it’s lacking.

Next up, browser-based. These are programs that run inside of your browser. They can offer a little extra functionality over web-based readers because you’re always running your browser. If you’re using Firefox (and I suggest that you do), you may or may not know that it has something called Live-Bookmarks. Live-bookmark are basically a bookmark (or “Favorites” for you IE users) folder that automatically updates with links to the latest blog entries. It’s a pretty cool idea, but in my opinion not a true aggregator. Sage is plugin for Firefox that turns your browser into a stand-alone aggregator. If you use Firefox, I suggest that you try Sage before going with a fully stand-alone aggregator.

Last, but not least, is email-based. This is what I use, and it’s what I recommend if you want to get serious about reading blogs. I’ll talk about Mozilla Thunderbird because it’s what I use, and I really like it. I’m sure that their are plugins to turn Microsoft Outlook into a blog reader, but I haven’t tried them. I’m pretty sure Outlook doesn’t have it as a built in feature. Thunderbird works by creating what looks like another email account for “News & Blogs”. The only difference is that instead of having a bunch of email folders in it, you’ll have one folder for each blog you read. The name of the blog will turn bold when there is something new to read, and it’s easy to click and see what’s new. It’s also nice because it keeps a copy of every blog entry that it downloads (unless you delete it), and makes it really easy to search through your archives. Most people check their email every time they go on-line, so using an email-based reader makes it easy to check your favorite blogs at the same time.

For those of you who already use an aggregator, what do you use? What do you like about it? What else have you tried? What do you recommend?