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The Great Blog Reading Aid

I have to confess I was totally shocked by Dear Author’s latest poll results. According to our small sampling, almost 3/4 of the Dear Author readers have no idea what a feed reader is. I figured that it was worth a Sunday post to talk about what a feed reader is and how blog readers can use it to their advantage.

That thing called a feed.

Nearly every blog has what is called a “Feed”. It can be either an RSS or an ATOM feed. I am not certain about the technology behind the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) v. ATOM but if you are interested, you can read about it here. Basically a feed is content from a blog packaged in such a way that feed aggregators can pick it up.

Aggregation

Aggregation is really what makes feeds great. By using a news or feed aggregator, you can combine information from hundreds of blogs into one place. Further, those aggregators are equipped to go forth into the internet and continually check the feeds for updated information. In essence, someone does the blog hopping for you and provides either a full text of the blog posts or summaries of the blog posts when the blog is updated. This is particularly great if you happen to visit a number of blogs.

I have 134 subscriptions. I don’t check all of them all of the time. I have news blogs, sports blogs, romance blogs, publishing blogs, tech blogs, craft blogs, law blogs, and gossip blogs in my feed reader. Each blog updates content differently. Some of the blogs updated several times a day and some very irregularly. With a news/feed aggregator, I don’t have to open up the blog in my browser window every day to see if new content is there nor do I have to constantly refresh to see what the content heavy blogs are adding. It’s all done automatically.

It would be as if some person went out every morning and delivered all the new content from your favorite newspapers and magazines to your front door. The content would have a summary page with all the headlines available and all the content would be tabbed so that you could go to the appropriate headline in a near instantaneous fashion.

News/feed aggregators are definitely one way in which technology is working for you.

Full Text v. Excerpts

If you start using a feed reader, you’ll note that there are two versions of a feed. Some blogs, like Dear Author, will give you the full text of the blog post. Other blogs, like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, give you an excerpt. An excerpt, I think, encourages people to visit the site more often. Because I prefer to read a full text in my feed reader, that’s what we provide here at Dear Author.

The downside of feeds, as Shannon Stacey blogged about once, is that you tend to participate in the community less. I recognize that this is a danger but am willing to accept a trade off because of the sheer convenience.

Aggregating Software

I use a web based feed reader called “Google Reader.” I’ve only tried a couple of news aggregators out and so I don’t know that I can competently recommend one. As you can see by this page, there are dozens of different news aggregators out there. If you are using Firefox, you can add on an extension like Sage and Wizz News. Of the two, I prefer Sage.

If you use Internet Explorer 7 or higher, it incorporates RSS feeds into the browser. Firefox 3.0+ also utilizes Live Bookmarks.

The reason that I use a web based feed reader like Google Reader is because a) it’s free, b) I don’t have to add new software on my computer, c) I can check all my favorite feeds from different computers (and the iPhone) and d) when I upgrade to a new computer, the feed reader settings are unchanged.

Terminology

  • Feed: the blog content packaged in either RSS or ATOM format.
  • Aggregator: software that checks the feeds you tell it to and combines the results in one place.
  • Subscribe: what it is called when you add a feed to your aggregator.

I hope that I was able to somewhat demystify this thing called Feeds for you. Please let me know if you have any questions or suggestions for feed software or even why Feeds don’t work for you.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

41 Comments

  1. Marg
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 05:53:55

    Getting a feedreader changed my blog reading habits forever. Before, I used to click up and down the favourites list, and you would never know if someone was going to have updated or not, thus wasting lots of time. With the feedreader, you know if someone has updated.

    The only thing is I tend to add the feeds for any blogs that look interesting so I have hundreds of them, thus wasting lots of time!

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  2. Gennita Low
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 06:28:37

    There’s something rather impersonal about feeds. I used to have them but found myself just scrolling as if all my friends’ lives are just headlines that I’m absorbing. There was just something missing. Like you said, participation becomes minimal and after a while, one just keeps adding to the feed (very vampiric word, heh) the way we add to our Favorites.

    I finally did away with it. I returned to my old way: I have my morning coffee, does my version of an old woman’s shuffle through her neighborhood, stopping by at my favorite sites and visit, now and then enjoying a gossip or a discussion, and then shuffle back home to either write or get ready to roof. It’s a morning ritual that I enjoy very much.

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  3. Angela James
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 06:42:58

    I think it’s probable that the reason your poll turned out the way it did is because the feed readers never saw it :P If they’re like me, they only come here to comment, and when you come only to comment, you generally come right to the post and don’t see the poll. So the main percentage of people who saw the poll were going to be people who don’t use a feed!

    I would never be able to keep up with the blogs I do if I didn’t use Google Reader. It also enables me to separate them into categories, so I often go to certain categories and read first and save the rest for when I have more time. It also means I can mark whole groups or blogs as “all read” when I get behind.

    What I do is add blogs that look interesting, but delete them if I find I’m not reading them. I also delete two or three blogs from my feed every week as I realize content has not been of interest to me.

    The last thing I love about Google Reader is the ability to “share” items on my own blog sidebar. I just click share, and the widget on my sidebar shows the latest posts I found of interest. I’m not sure how many people actually see those shares (since most of them don’t go to my blog but read from feed) but I’ve had people say they do look at them.

    As for full versus excerpt, I get irritated by blogs that only do excerpts and I will only click through if the excerpt is of a lot of interest to me. Otherwise, I just delete and move on.

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  4. Judy CY
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 07:04:31

    I love my Google Reader. It’s a great time saver in checking the many blog sites that I like to check out. Besides checking for the latest and greatest, it saves on my Favorites real estate. As Blog sites are generally blocked by my work computer, Google Reader bypasses that block and enables me to get my blog fix. Even though I don’t like excerpts, I live with it. Those I have to check out when I get off the work connection.

    Yes, it’s true. There is less participation by Feed Readers as I do not even come onto the actual site to read people’s comments nor post my own. This one was special.

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  5. Lurker
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 07:06:06

    I think someone should point out the privacy issues:

    http://www.wisebread.com/google-reader-invades-your-privacy-and-its-not-going-to-stop

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  6. (Jān)
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 07:14:28

    I use FireFox’s NewsFox extension. It’s pretty plain and simple, but it does what I need. It makes life so much easier for some things. I have some Ebay auction and favorite searches on there too and am immediately alerted if someone posts something I’m interested in (for “Buy it now” the timing can be crucial).

    Someone above mentioned that certain things about a page are missed when you use feeds, but frankly, I enjoy missing the clutter and even the ads if I decide to just get pure text feeds from a particular place. I just want to know if there are updates that interest me.

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  7. MoJo
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 07:46:29

    I use a feed reader, but I actually do come here to Dear Author just to browse around and look. The skin is pretty, it’s got lots of white space, it’s not cluttered, and it’s easy (on the eyeballs) to read.

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  8. Kristie(J)
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 08:07:05

    I’ve thought about using a feed – but then decided to keep with the old fashioned way. The thing I like best about blogs is the intimacy of visiting and participating in them in person.
    As you say, you participate in the community less and since it’s the sense of community I love best about blogs, to me the minuses outweigh the pluses.

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  9. k
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 08:12:06

    I use Bloglines which I LOVE. I’ve never used another feed reader so I can’t compare, but it’s the reason I keep up with most of my blogs and never feel much hesitation in adding a new one. Yay feed readers!

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  10. Bev(BB)
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 08:39:03

    Outlook 2007 does RSS Feeds within the email section of the program and synchronizes with Internet Explorer 7 at the same time. So, whatever feed you add while browsing automatically gets added to Outlook. You can then read/scan the blog posts right there in your email client.

    Sidenote: Has anyone else fallen in love with Office OneNote?

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  11. Jane O
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 08:48:02

    I’m one of those who had no idea what a feed is. It sounds interesting, especially for those in a hurry, but personally I’d rather slow down. I kind of like wandering around, dropping in on various sites as the mood strikes.

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  12. Anne Douglas
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 09:10:01

    While I like wandering around the neighbourhood, as Gennita put it, all that wandering gives me a good excuse not to get on with anything else, namely my ow writing. I did use a feedreader program, but switched to google to make my life easier when it came to travelling and the dreaded ‘oh crap, I just deleted everything/man, I have to load these all to my new machine?’ issue.

    Now I have a one stop shop which takes less time, and I can lurk just as effectively on the sites I don’t comment on :)

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  13. Laura K
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 10:15:04

    Like Angela, I use a feed reader and had no idea there *was* a poll. I use NetNewsWire, and couldn’t function without it. If I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t be able to look at the posts that interest me, because the “noise” level from posts I want to skip or skim would be too high.

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  14. RfP
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 10:41:37

    the feed readers never saw it :P If they're like me, they only come here to comment, and when you come only to comment, you generally come right to the post and don't see the poll.

    Ditto.

    An excerpt, I think, encourages people to visit the site more often. Because I prefer to read a full text in my feed reader, that's what we provide here at Dear Author.

    Excerpts do the opposite for me–if I don’t see something great in the excerpt, I don’t click through. For a reader like me, a full feed keeps me interested and participating. I’ve seen polls saying partial feeds are a big reason people unsubscribe, so it’s not just me.

    Excerpting also makes it more difficult to re-read old posts. For me a big benefit of a feed reader is that I can search all my subscriptions for, say, “feed reader aggregator sage”. If all those words were in your post but below the “cut”, the search wouldn’t find them.

    I’ve read RSS feeds with Google Reader, MyYahoo, Firefox and IE, Firefox with Sage, Bloglines, and Tristana. They all work fine.

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  15. shanna
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 10:54:53

    My favorite is Net NewsWire. Especially now that they have an iPhone version. I can keep up with all the many many sites I like to read on the go. It’s awesome, I don’t know what I would do without it.

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  16. Bev(BB)
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 10:55:19

    Like Angela, I use a feed reader and had no idea there *was* a poll. I use NetNewsWire, and couldn't function without it. If I didn't have it, I wouldn't be able to look at the posts that interest me, because the “noise” level from posts I want to skip or skim would be too high.

    Amen to that. Particularly since starting to use the reader in Outlook, I’ve found that I probably only actually read about a tenth of what I scan through. And my feeds have grown by leaps and bounds on a lot of topics. Which means I actively respond to even less but enjoy the ones I do respond to more, so it’s a balancing act.

    This also brings up the full text vs. excerpt issue. I go back and forth on it. I don’t mind having to follow links to the actual article if the bloggers/news services know how to use the excerpts well in the first place. There should be enough there to let the reader know whether they want to read more but not enough to have summed up the entire article already. A lot of people say there’s more and there simply isn’t. A lot of news outlets take it to extremes the other way and only give a headline which is not a lot of help – one might as well be reading the articles for a the information that gives.

    OTOH, if the only reason to follow the link is to post a comment and the reader has already read the article in the feed, there is the real possibility they might not visit a site again or at least infrequently. Which is where not seeing a poll comes in.

    Feeds are great but they do have a distinct purpose which has to be balanced against the overall purpose of the site they’re coming from.

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  17. Val Kovalin
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 11:06:23

    I use Google reader and find it essential — there’s just so much going on to keep up with. I like the full-text option, and I almost always click at the end (or sometimes in the middle if I’m really intrigued) to go see the post again on the site itself. I’m with what MoJo said above:

    I use a feed reader, but I actually do come here to Dear Author just to browse around and look. The skin is pretty, it's got lots of white space, it's not cluttered, and it's easy (on the eyeballs) to read.

    I think this is one of the best-looking sites I visit, and visual appeal means a lot to me. I also enjoy participating in the polls, so I’m definitely going to come over via the feed and check out each week’s new question.

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  18. Keishon
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 11:32:08

    I am still old fashioned. Dear Author and maybe two other blogs I just input directly into the address bar. It’s just easier and I love visiting people’s site. I have 6 subscriptions on my Google Feed Reader and they are non-book related blogs. That may well change as my free time decreases.

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  19. Libby
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 11:39:26

    I use Sage on FireFox and I think it’s great. I do prefer a full feed delivery because the reason I have the feed is so I don’t have to visit–not so much because I don’t want to visit, but because if the author only updates sporadically it’s a waste of time. The Smart Bitches partial feed is nice because it gives you a healthy excerpt, and I can decide if I want to read the rest or not. But excerpts that only give me a title or the first two sentences aren’t as helpful (especially if the title is vague). When I go through my feeds I right click on the links of the ones I want to look at the comments for, and open up a bunch of them in my tabs.

    Val mentioned missing the visual appeal, and I agree that when I visit sites that I haven’t been to for awhile it’s a little sad because some authors have fabulous-looking sites!

    Sidenote: Has anyone else fallen in love with Office OneNote?

    I *heart* OneNote and if it weren’t software it would be creeped out by my adoration of it. I use it for everything I can.

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  20. RfP
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 11:44:28

    if the only reason to follow the link is to post a comment and the reader has already read the article in the feed, there is the real possibility they might not visit a site again or at least infrequently. Which is where not seeing a poll comes in.

    That highlights another issue: many sites don’t cater directly to their feed-reading audience. If you want your entire readership to see something, it has to be announced in a post that goes in the RSS feed.

    Val mentioned missing the visual appeal, and I agree that when I visit sites that I haven't been to for awhile it's a little sad because some authors have fabulous-looking sites!

    Again, I think this is partly about designing for a feed-reading audience. Some sites are pretty but the posts themselves have no visuals and the excerpt even removes hyperlinks, making it even plainer.

    OTOH it’s possible that feed readers may prefer *not* to see all the design on the site. I have an easier time reading some sites’ posts in a reader than on a site with jarring colors. Ditto wading through some sites’ complicated navigation.

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  21. tricia
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 12:25:41

    I love that Dear Author provides the full text. When I click over from my Google Reader to the blog page, I do it because I want to read what people have to say in the comments. (That said, I think most of the commenters at DA are pretty astute and I like reading what they have to say. On so many blogs, the comment section is just a popularity contest. I don’t want to read that.) And I never hesitate to click over, because the website loads so quickly and cleanly, and it’s not cluttered. I have unsubscribed from several blogs that only provide excerpts–I feel like the blogger is trying to get me to come to the site to increase their pageviews and ad revenue, and that feels tacky to me. I know that blogs can make good money for their owners, but… well, you know. It makes me that much less likely to open a full page unless the excerpt has really intrigued me.

    On the polls: When your recent commentary about contemporary romances came up, I kept seeing people mention “the poll” in the comments and had no idea what they were talking about until I went to the home page and found it there. I think if I saw a brief post in my feed reader that let me know a poll was up on DA, I would probably click on it and participate.

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  22. Jennifer A. Ray
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 12:57:36

    Another way you can use RSS feeds to keep up with favorite blogs more easily is to add those feeds to a program like Mobipocket. Mobipocket can be set to synchronize those feeds to your PDA so you can read them on the go!

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  23. Arielle
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 13:05:55

    I’m addicted to my GReader but I still check out some of the more interesting posts for the comments.

    I don’t like excerpts because I can’t open blogs at work and sometimes…ok some days more often than others, I procrastinate by reading my feeds.

    I have romance reader/writer blog feeds, sewing/craft feeds, politics, news, fashion, gossip. You name it, I aggregate it!

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  24. Marianne McA
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 13:23:15

    I think it's probable that the reason your poll turned out the way it did is because the feed readers never saw it

    … and the readers who don’t use feeds, but know what they are, weren’t included in the poll.

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  25. Wendy
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 14:09:06

    I don’t think I could function without my GR. I used it all the time. Heck, it’s one of the first things (along with my email) I first check when I get online!

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  26. Kristin
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 14:21:39

    Well, I answered the question that way b/c it was the only option that came close to what I was experiencing. I know what an RSS feed is, but I still haven’t figured out how to subscribe. I think I will take the time to read this post more in-depth when I have time because it might help me with my blog habits.

    Anyway, just wanted you to know there was another answer to your question and none of the answers you provided quite was my situation…

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  27. veinglory
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 14:53:19

    I would second the idea that you need to appreciate a hell of a lot of people know all about feeds but dont use them. They don’t fill a need for me. So that proportion was not in the poll.

    I think that *every* poll needs an ‘other’ option to signal that you may have missed a major alternative which would skew the meaning of the data.

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  28. Shanna
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 14:54:20

    I agree with all the others who commented that the poll was flawed. I had no idea there was one either because I read the feed and come directly to a post. I predict the results will change quite a bit from those of us who are now completing the poll.

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  29. Maya Reynolds
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 17:09:20

    I used Bloglines, an early feeder, for several years.

    Like Gennita, I decided to go back to reading my favorite blogs individually. I still have Bloglines for when I’m in a hurry, but I now only visit the site about once a week.

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  30. Gennita Low
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 19:15:49

    Okay, I’m home from work and I (sigh) just reread my post from early this morning. Please excuse the excessive use of the word “just” in the first paragraph. My brain–it wasn’t working.

    Back on topic, I’m always amazed at how many blogs some of my friends keep up with. I probably go to three or four different regular ones daily (Dear Author is one of them) and check up on all those I “favorited” once in a while. When I used a Feed to collect all the new updates, I started having such a backlog along with my email, that everything became a chore of playing catch-up. Then I started saving them for later, like I did with my recorded TV shows, which still sit in a queue waiting for me ;-). I’m just not good at mass updates.

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  31. Nadia
    Sep 14, 2008 @ 21:58:49

    Has anyone else fallen in love with Office OneNote?

    MEMEME! :)

    I come here to check comments. I don’t like feeds that show me only the excerpts / partial pasts. I basically just delete those or not bother.

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  32. Jaci Burton
    Sep 15, 2008 @ 07:57:33

    I couldn’t survive without Google Reader. I don’t have time to go to blogs that haven’t updated. And honestly, if you want to comment or scroll around someone’s blog, it’s just one more click and doesn’t take that much more time. And I really do make a concerted effort to comment so I’m not just a nonparticipant. I like people to participate on my blog so I like to return the favor on others, too.

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  33. Heather Holland
    Sep 15, 2008 @ 08:31:47

    I don’t nor have I ever used a feed. Why? Because I’m bad. I only visit three blogs on a regular (read daily) occasion and they are conveniently hot linked at the top of my browser window side by side by side. They are one click away. I click, do a quick skim to see if anything catches my eye and move on.

    Procrastination by my middle name and email is my biggest downfall. I check it obsessively, though I am working on a 12 step program for that. Email Addicts Anonymous anyone?

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  34. Shiloh Walker
    Sep 15, 2008 @ 09:41:09

    I’ve used feeds before, just don’t like them as much.

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  35. Bev(BB)
    Sep 15, 2008 @ 10:50:27

    The thing about the full vs excerpts issue is that it really is a question that’s skewed towards volume. Or lack thereof. If someone only visits or subscribes to a few sites/feeds then they may want full access to content. Someone who subscribes to a lot or has to subscribe to a lot because of a work situation may want or even need excerpts due to time constraints. That’s why the “more” or “intro” content choices are there for sites to make use of. It makes things adaptable for everyone’s needs rather than locking subscribers into one option only.

    The other thing to remember is that not all feeds are from blogs by any means. In fact, quite a few of them aren’t.

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  36. SonomaLass
    Sep 15, 2008 @ 18:03:33

    I’m another one who didn’t respond to the poll, because none of the choices fit. Frankly, the generalization that anyone who doesn’t use a feed reader must be ignorant of the technology ticked me off a little.

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  37. MB (Leah)
    Sep 15, 2008 @ 18:36:00

    I totally love Google Reader. I can quickly scan through the many blogs I like to keep track of and when I feel like commenting I just click on the title and I’m on the blog.

    Bev(QB) showed me how to get the comments feeds from blogger blogs to my reader as well, so I can read all the comments as well from my reader.

    What I’ve loved about it in particular is that before I got Google Reader, I would only go to a few blogs, now I get to see what’s going on on many blogs because I don’t waste time looking on blogs when there is no new post. Love it!

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  38. Keilexandra
    Sep 15, 2008 @ 18:52:05

    Actually, FF2+ has Live Bookmarks too.

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  39. Nicole
    Sep 16, 2008 @ 07:12:29

    I use Google Reader and am trying out the Flock browser for feeds. That Sage looks like something I’d really like, though. Going to get it and try it out.

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  40. Selene
    Sep 17, 2008 @ 09:34:12

    I use Google reader and love it. I usually don’t follow blogs that don’t put the full text in their feed, so I’m glad Dear Author does. :) It’s too annoying to have to click around to different sites, just to see if a specific post is something I want to read. Plus, a lot of blogs have strange colors or too small text for me to read comfortably, whereas I can have my own perfect settings in Google Reader.

    About comments, I’ll click through on posts that interest me, and that works fine for me. What I would like to see is a handly link that lets you subscribe to the comment trail of a specific post (such as many livejournal etc. blogs have). As is, I do feel I miss out on comment trails sometimes because I’ll check them once when the post is new, but then I’ll forget to check back.

    Selene

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  41. Heather
    Sep 02, 2009 @ 08:18:27

    This is a wonderful post! I only wish I had found it a couple of days ago when I was trying to find out what the heck RSS/ATOM & Feeds were all about! Still glad I read it because you cleared up some lingering questions that were still floating around in my head!

    Thanks for think of all us newbies to the Feeds world!

    ~Heather

    ReplyReply

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