How Do People Use Google Reader with Internet Explorer?
Any computer geek worth his salt has been through the drill: you go to visit a family member for dinner and eventually they mention some arcane problem they’ve been having with software you long ago expunged from all of your computers. Common culprits are the Unholy Triad: Microsoft Outlook, Internet Explorer and Norton Anti-Virus. But what’s much worse than when solving some niggling problem that is only caused by their choice apps is when you volunteer to enter the belly of the beast and perform some “improvements” of your own free will.
To all the computer geeks reading this I offer you a humble warning: nothing good can come from volunteering to “improve” a family member’s computer. Don’t fix what ain’t broke.
I was at my father’s house this weekend. A relaxing day of pool, reading and sun followed by a delicious barbeque left me content and sated. My normal cynicism when it comes to technology was at an all time low. He isn’t as technically minded as me, and for a long time I’ve been wanting to get him set up using an RSS feed reader. He has never used them before but he understood the basic concept: RSS is like getting email newsletters of website updates, but without clogging your email. RSS is a blogger’s best friend. It lets us keep track of each other’s updates painlessly and effortlessly. He has a blog of his own and using Google Reader would make it very easy for him to share posts and links on his blog using the Shared Items feature and a widget in his blog’s sidebar.
Google Reader was an easy choice because it is the feed reader I use every day. It is the most widely adopted web-based RSS reader with 50-60% market share. The interface is similar to Gmail. It lets you quickly scroll through items, starring stuff you want to find again later and sharing items with other people. But the deciding factor for me is that it is the reader I use every day — always get your family members using the same software you do if you want to have any hope of troubleshooting problems later.
The initial steps were easy: create a new Gmail account for his blog identity that doesn’t use his real name (since that is displayed by your Google Shared Items), add that identity to his Blogger blog as admin, and add his Google Shared Items as a sidebar widget on his blog. It all went very smoothly until I started subscribing to feeds.
Internet Explorer 6 Sucks for RSS
He is still a die hard Internet Explorer 6 user, and it’s all my fault because of articles like this where I explain how to downgrade from IE7 to IE6. Internet Explorer 6 is really bad for reading RSS feeds because it doesn’t understand RSS at all. I so rarely use IE6 that I had forgotten that it doesn’t know how to automatically find the RSS feed for a page (“RSS autodiscovery”) and that when you click on an RSS link it displays crap like this:
What are you supposed to do with something like that? The answer is that you cut-and-paste the feed URL and add it to Google Reader manually. Is someone new to RSS ever going to do that? No.
Instead of trying to figure out the conflict, I decided to add the Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer. Google Toolbar is a great little add-on for any web browser. You can edit the buttons to add all kinds of neat things like searching within the current website, notification of new Gmail messages, toggling highlighting of search terms on the current page and Google Reader notification of new posts in your RSS feeds. But what is missing is a way to one-click subscribe to the current site in Google Reader.
Screw this. One of the “advanced” features of Internet Explorer 7 is better RSS integration, so it’s time for an unplanned upgrade. 15 minutes and one reboot later we’re running the latest and greatest IE7 — and having the exact same problems!
How Do People Subscribe with Google Reader in IE7?
When you click on an RSS link in IE7 you at least get something you can read with an option to subscribe to it. But it only defaults to the built-in Internet Explorer 7 feed reader — it doesn’t give an option to subscribe to Google Reader. It’s much better than IE6 but it still doesn’t solve my problem: I want him to be able to add subscriptions to Google Reader with one click. The bookmarklet still isn’t working properly under Internet Explorer 7.
I’m tired, frustrated and desperate so I decide to pull out the big guns. Firefox has this amazingly little tool called Greasemonkey that makes it trivial to add additional functionality to your web browser. I know that there’s a Greasemonkey script to let you one click subscribe to RSS feeds in Google Reader. I know that it’s possible to manhandle IE to force it to be able to run Greasemonkey user scripts… Google tells me that a plugin called IE7Pro can do it, but after I install IE7Pro it doesn’t understand how to install Greasemonkey scripts.
WTF? THIS IS SO SIMPLE TO DO IN FIREFOX! Why in the world is everything so hard in Internet Explorer? How do people surf the Internet like this?
For any non-believers in the audience, let me show you how easy RSS works in Firefox land.
Firefox + Google Reader = Crazy Delicious
Firefox understands when a website has an RSS feed auto-discovery link. You don’t have to search through the entire page to find the stupid orange button, you can click on the button in your address bar.
Step #1: Click on the Orange Icon in the Address Bar
Step #Who Cares: You Only Do This Once
The first time you use it, it will display the feed in a nice, human readable way, with a yellow box asking you what you want to use to subscribe to this feed. Google Reader is one of the options and you can set it up to *ALWAYS* use Google Reader from now on.
Step #Skip This With Greasemonkey: Choose Between Google Homepage and Google Reader
Unfortunately, Google isn’t smart enough to remember your preference between Google Reader and Google Homepage — so you have to always chose the red pill or the blue pill. There is a handy Greasemonkey script to fix that though: always subscribe to Google Reader.
One click subscription to Google Reader thanks to Firefox and Greasemonkey. Quite a bit easier than:
- Right Click on RSS feed URL
- Copy shortcut
- Log in to Google Reader
- Click on Add Subscription
- Paste short cut into form
- Click Add
…which seems to be the only way to do it in Internet Explorer 6 that worked reliably for me.
Please Tell Me I’m Wrong
When I’m writing rants about frustrating moments of needless computer complication there is always the nagging voice in the back of my head that I’m missing something obvious and making things much harder than they have to be. I hope this is the case.
I was surprised that someone hasn’t built a one-click “add auto-discovery feed to Google Reader” button for the Google toolbar. A little digging shows that it isn’t be possible because the kind of things you can do with Google Toolbar is actually quite limited. This is too bad because it would get more Google Reader users using the Toolbar and more Toolbar users using Google Reader.
My experience with Google Reader + Internet Explorer wouldn’t have been so bad if the bookmarklet had worked for me. But given the fact that 58% of people surfing the web are using some form of Internet Explorer (compared to 35% for Firefox) and that Google Reader is the most popular web-based RSS reader… well, it’s no surprise that more people aren’t reading RSS feeds. It’s hard enough to explain to people why RSS is useful when you can’t show them how to subscribe to an RSS feed consistently in one or two clicks.
If the best feed reading software doesn’t integrate seamlessly with their web browser of choice then why should they jump through hoops getting it to work when they’ve never even used RSS before? And it really doesn’t help that most of the mainstream news portals on the net still don’t offer full feeds. If you don’t read blogs then it’s hard to explain the power of RSS — mainstream sites still don’t get how RSS without full feeds isn’t worth reading.
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