25 October 2009

Popular items and other updates in Google Reader

Earlier this week, the Google Reader team unveiled another series of updates to the most popular online feed reader. The first thing you’ll notice in the web interface is a new “Explore” section in the sidebar. It offers a list of popular items, to help you “find interesting content from all over the Internet”. The recommended subscriptions were also included in this new section and at the same time have been removed from the home page, leaving more room for the recent items. Some have already complained that this takes up too much space in the sidebar, but every section can be easily minimized. I keep only “Subscriptions” open at all times to see which of them have new items and to navigate between them. I find it odd that this new section cannot be accessed by keyboard shortcuts, like most of the other places in Google Reader.

Another change has been to replace the sorting option ‘auto’ by a new algorithm, called ‘magic’. It tries to bring items most relevant to you to the top of the page, based on “your personal usage”. Some are very excited about the new feature and it’s results, but I was mostly unimpressed. Using ‘magic’ sort on a single feed or even on “All items” pushes the newest, unread items down the list, while promoting stuff I have already read. The only solution would be to display only the unread items, which I don’t really like or want. Maybe I don’t share or like enough items to make the magic work, but I still think the algorithm needs a little tweaking to emphasize the unread items. The old ‘auto’-sorting is still available in the iGoogle gadget.

  • Google Reader sort by newest
    Sorting by newest items
  • Google Reader sorted by magic
    Sorting by ‘magic’: where are all the unread items?!

Although not mentioned in the initial article, another feature was launched at the same time: now, when you hover over a subscription or folder in the sidebar, you get a small arrow and a context menu it you click on it. The options for the subscriptions are basically a copy of the “Feed settings…” menu. Personally, I don’t use that menu very often: I have only a handful of clearly-defined categories, new feeds are filed away immediately after I subscribe to them and most of the times they remain in the same folder forever. On the other hand, refreshing and marking all as read are actions I perform daily, so I would prefer to see them added to this menu.

  • Menu for recommendations:
    Recommendations menu
  • Menu for folders:
    Folder menu
  • Menu for subscriptions:
    Subscription menu

The context menu for folders also duplicates “Folder settings…”, but the options here are slightly more useful and more compact: you can create a bundle, remove the folder or unsubscribe from all the feeds. Still no refresh, unfortunately… The new “Recommended sources” section wasn’t left out: each suggested feed can be added to your subscriptions or removed from the list right from this menu! It’s like an instant thumbs up (or down) for recommendations!

Still, the idea is very good and can potentially become a time-saver in some situations. In time, the Google Reader team will probably refine these options to make them more relevant and remove the less popular ones.

Update: Some two weeks later, the Google Reader team launched keyboard shortcuts for "Explore" [g-e] and "Popular items" [g-p], as announced on their twitter profile.

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