Every day I read a tremendous amount of content on the web. I can divide this content into two primary categories: (1) content from websites and blogs I read all the time and (2) content from random sources, usually articles shared by friends on Facebook or people I follow on Twitter. For reading the former type of content I use Google Reader and for the latter I use Instapaper. In this post I will show you how I use these two services.
To explain these services let me compare web content to print media, something we’re all pretty familiar with. If you really like The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, or Entertainment Weekly, you wouldn’t go to the newsstand to pick up the newest issue each time one was released. You’d subscribe to that publication, in part because it’s cheaper but also because it’s just more convenient for you. Why go through the hassle of needing to go retrieve the content you know you want to read when you can have all that content come directly to you?
I find it so strange that so many people use the Internet like someone who visits the newsstand daily. Did you know you can subscribe to content sources on the web? Nearly every blog, news site, and podcast will allow you to subscribe to its content. Rather than visiting all the sites you want to read to check if any new content has been posted you can have one place where all new content is sent and marked as new until you’ve read it. This is accomplished through syndication feeds—also called RSS feeds, which stands for Really Simple Syndication—and feed readers such as Google Reader.
Have you ever seen this orange icon on a website or on your browser? This is the RSS symbol. Clicking on this icon will usually give you options to subscribe to the content on that website. (Note: Sometimes on news websites like CNN.com or Huffington Post there will be more than one feed available, so make sure you’re subscribing to the one you want. Personal blogs usually only have one, but sometimes there’s a feed for new posts and for comments left on that blog.) Many websites display an RSS icon prominently, oftentimes alongside links to various social media profiles.
Google Reader isn’t the only feed reader available but I think it’s the best one out there. It’s easy to manage, plus I already have Gmail, Google Calendar, and everything else Google. Here’s what my Google Reader looks like as I write this post.
This is the “All Items” view. The main window is showing all the blog posts I’ve yet to read from the blogs to which I subscribe. I’ve organized the blogs I read into a bunch of different subcategories, which you can see on the lefthand side of the screenshot and in the screenshot below.
Keeping the blogs I read regularly organized by category helps to prioritize my reading. For instance, while I’m at work I’ll read items in the WordPress, web development, social media, technology, tech support, and transportation folders—these categories all pertain to my work as a web developer for The Marketing Institute—but will usually leave the rest until I’ve left work. You’ll notice I even have a folder called “me.” I subscribe to my own blogs to make sure those feeds are displaying my content properly.
I subscribe to a whopping 92 feeds! Now, not all of these feeds produce new content daily or even weekly, but some of them post dozens of times each day. Can you imagine if I tried to visit each of their websites every day to see if they’d added something new? Google Reader allows me to know instantly when a friend publishes something new on their blog. It is also an invaluable tool to help me stay competitive within my profession.
Just like in Gmail I can star items I read in Google Reader to mark them as important or favorites. Google Reader allows me to send what I’m reading directly to Twitter or Facebook for easy sharing. Google has also created a strong integration between Reader and Google+, including a +1 button with each item in your queue.
Let’s return to the print media analogy again. Every now and then you might want to read something out of a magazine you don’t read often for one specific article you’re interested in. Or maybe a friends or family member clips out a news story for you from an obscure publication. It wouldn’t make sense to subscribe to these publications when you’re interested in only one article every now and then (or only one article ever). Plus, you might only save the one article you’re interested in rather than the whole publication.
This happens to me all the time on the web. One of my friends shares a link on Facebook, Twitter, or through email. Sometimes I have the time to read it right then and there, but what about when it’s a long essay and I just don’t have the time or energy to get through it right then and there? Plus, what if you use multiple devices? If you bookmark the link it’ll be stuck on that device until you sync it.
Instapaper allows you to mark articles on the web as items to be read later, lets you archive those items after you’ve read them (or delete them if they turn out to be junk), gives you the option to mark content as favorites by Liking them, and lets you share them to your social media accounts.
The standard way to use Instapaper is through its Read Later browser bookmarklet. Just drag the Read Later bookmarklet to your browser toolbar. Then, whenever you are on a blog post or news article you’d like to save to later reading, just click the bookmarklet. If you’re not logged in it’ll prompt you, but otherwise it’ll automatically save the content for later reading within Instapaper.
My favorite part of Instapaper is it will extract the text and images from the page and put it into a minimalist format free of distractions. Here’s a side-by-side comparison.
As you can see in that first screenshot, that article is on a webpage that is covered with ads and sidebar links to other content. These aren’t bad things per se, but they can be distracting. Compare that to the clean, distraction-free interface of that same article after it’s been saved in Instapaper. Beautiful! If you’d like to see the original version there’s a link at the top of the page.
You can link your Instapaper account to your Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinboard, and Evernote accounts. You can set your account such that whenever you Like an article in Instapaper it will automatically be shared to those linked services. Plus, if your friends use Instapaper you can follow them to see the articles they Like as part of your Instapaper content. You can find your friends on Instapaper if you’re already connected on Facebook or Twitter (and if they’ve linked their Facebook or Twitter account to Instapaper) or if you have that person’s email address which is associated with their Instapaper account. To organize your content you can archive items you want to save for later and create folders to sort items by subject.
When at your desktop you can use the Instapaper website, but the apps for iPhone and iPad and the app for Android are an even better reading experience. There isn’t an official Instapaper desktop app, but I use a third-party app called Read Later on my Mac.
The Best Part – They’re Both Free!
Seriously, how can you say no when accounts with Google Reader and Instapaper are both free? I’d encourage you to give them both a try to see if they help you read content on the Internet more effectively.
You can start your Google Reader use by subscribing to this web column. You can also follow my Instapaper Likes. If you know me in real life you probably have my email address or we’re friends on Facebook. If not, follow me on Twitter and you’ll be able to follow my Instapaper Likes.
So go on, give these services a try and improve your reading experience on the web!