Decide Which RSS Feeds to Follow

A fuzzy RSS icon

RSS is a great way to eas­i­ly fol­low a lot of web­sites. This arti­cle isn’t an intro­duc­tion to RSS—that’ll have to wait for anoth­er time—but if you’re new to RSS or just a lit­tle hazy on the details, I high­ly rec­om­mend you watch the 3-minute video RSS in Plain Eng­lish.

Even though RSS is awful­ly con­ve­nient, even­tu­al­ly even the con­ve­nience of hav­ing your favorite sites con­densed into one place can get over­whelm­ing.

The problem

For a while you’ll have the illu­sion that it doesn’t mat­ter how many feeds you fol­low since the head­lines are con­ve­nient­ly stacked up for you in a sin­gle place. If you reach the point where you’re fol­low­ing dozens of feeds though, the wheat-to-chaff ratio will start to wear on you. You’ll find your­self scan­ning through pages of head­lines just to find a hand­ful that mat­ter to you.

If you reach the point where you’re fol­low­ing dozens of feeds, the wheat-to-chaff ratio will start to wear on you.

And here’s what bugged me: I was pret­ty sure a small num­ber of feeds account­ed for a large per­cent­age of the valu­able items, and anoth­er set of feeds were essen­tial­ly spam­ming me with head­lines that I could large­ly do with­out. But how to tell which?

Sure, you prob­a­bly remem­ber the 3–4 feeds you’re con­stant­ly going back to, but it’s hard to notice and remem­ber the absence of val­ue: off the top of my head I couldn’t eas­i­ly dis­tin­guish between sites that gave me good stuff infre­quent­ly (but often enough), vs. those that I could real­ly send to the land­fill with­out remorse.

A Failed Solution

If only I could run an exper­i­ment for a few weeks, track­ing each feed’s sig­nal-to-noise ratio, I could chuck the losers. And while I could just keep some tal­ly marks in a spread­sheet, that sound­ed awful­ly tedious.

So I decid­ed to use my feed aggregator’s fea­tures to do the track­ing for me.

Solution 1.0: NetVibes

Orig­i­nal­ly I used NetVibes: each time a feed gave me some­thing I cared about, I increased the size of its win­dow by one. You can see here that NetWit’s Think Tank gave me 5 valu­able head­lines in the course of my test, which put it in the top tier of feeds.

Using NetVibes to tally posts

Using NetVibes to tal­ly posts

But the NetVibes approach had draw­backs. First, it would only let me make a win­dow as large as the num­ber of items in a feed. So if NetWit’s RSS feed only includ­ed five items, I couldn’t expand the NetVibes win­dow to 6 slots. Sec­ond, if you hand NetVibes a lot of feeds to man­age it gets tur­tle-slow. What’s worse, over my years as a NetVibes user I’d expe­ri­enced numer­ous ser­vice out­ages, or times when the site was so slow that it might as well have been down.

So I switched to Google Read­er, which lacked NetVibes’ eye can­dy and some fea­tures I cared about, but was blaz­ing fast and com­plete­ly reli­able.

Google Reader's main navigation panel

Google Reader’s main nav­i­ga­tion pan­el

Google’s Offering: Reading Trends

Google Read­er pro­vides an extreme­ly slick fea­ture that helps up solve the prob­lem. In the upper left of the page you’ll see a “Trends” menu option:

The Trends Option

The Trends Option

Click­ing this option gives you a table show­ing your read­ing trends orga­nized by feed—one for the items you’ve read:

Trends for Read Items

Trends for Read Items

and one for the items you’ve starred:

Trends for Starred Items

Trends for Starred Items

Which is very infor­ma­tive besides being high­ly swell. So what’s the catch?

The Catch: “Read Items” Statistics

I need to read an arti­cle to decide whether it was valu­able. Let’s say I see an item that looks promis­ing and click the title to read it. Now if I quick­ly decide it’s not for me… Google Read­er still con­sid­ers it a Read item. The fact that I’ve “read” an item (i.e., clicked on its title) real­ly just means it had a tempt­ing title, not that it includ­ed beloved con­tent.

No Catch: “Starred Items” Statistics

Assum­ing you use the star to mean “I read this item and it was use­ful”, the Starred Items trends give us exact­ly (most­ly) what we need.

Here’s the approach.

1. Star things you care about

Every time a feed includes an item that you’re glad you’ve read, star it.

Starring a Wild Apricot item

Star­ring a Wild Apri­cot item

2. Tally the results

When you’ve been run­ning this for a while—at least 4 weeks, but 8 would be bet­ter in case a par­tic­u­lar feed is in a slump—check the Trends option using the Starred view.

Trends for Starred Items

Trends for Starred Items

3. Sift and Winnow

Notice those trash can icons on the right side of the fig­ure above? They’re great for this step: they drop a feed from your Read­er account.

Pick some thresh­olds num­bers: the num­ber below which you’ll send a feed into the hop­per, and the num­ber above which you con­sid­er a feed to be gold­en.

For exam­ple, my num­bers were 1 and 6 for a 6-week run. If a feed gave me 6 or more items I val­ued in a 6-week peri­od, it got spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion (see below). On the oth­er hand, if a feed only had 0 or 1 items of inter­est in a 6-week peri­od, I sent it pack­ing, but I gave a stay of exe­cu­tion to any feed where:

  • there was just one post I cared about, but it was awe­some, or
  • the feed had very few posts, so it gen­er­at­ed very lit­tle noise for me to wade through, or
  • I just liked the site behind the feed.

So using those rules, A List Apart got a stay of exe­cu­tion: it’s an author­i­ta­tive site; it pub­lish­es infre­quent­ly (2 posts per month); I like the site a lot; and even though their two posts dur­ing my test weren’t rel­e­vant to me, pre­vi­ous posts have been excel­lent.

4. Elevate Uberfeeds

Some feeds were so con­sis­tent­ly use­ful that I want­ed to put them in a spe­cial group: if I had just a few min­utes to check feeds, I’d check that group­ing first. (See the “Where’s the Beef” side­bar for a list.) Here, Wild Apri­cot makes the move from “Oth­er”:

Wild Apricot moves from "other"...

Wild Apri­cot moves from “oth­er”…

…to “Uber”: "Uber".

…to “Uber”.

5. Maintain

A cou­ple of times a year run through the exer­cise again. Of course feeds you’ve added more recent­ly will be at a dis­ad­van­tage since they’ll have few­er starred items, but you can take that into account when you weed out the chaff.

Wrapping Up

I’ve done this exer­cise three times over the last cou­ple of years and I always find a few feeds that were more use­ful than I’d expect­ed (and vice ver­sa), so I always end up drop­ping a few and ele­vat­ing a few. I hope it’ll make your feed read­ing eas­i­er too.

Post image cred­it: Andrea Aus­toni via Noupe

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