NBIMMO: The Google Reader Blogroll

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Yesterday multiple blogs around the web heralded the arrive of the Newbie Blogger Initiative month.  Currently there are about 70 bloggers involved in the program, either as a sponsor like myself, or taking that step forward into fledgling blog-hood.  In continued support towards the initiative, I have another tip post today.

Since I self-host this blog, I will likely be covering topics from that perspective.  One of the biggest tropes of blogging is the “Blogroll”.  Essentially it is a list that connects readers that enjoy your blog, with other bloggers they might enjoy reading.  This has been one of the primary means of bloggers networking almost since inception of the medium.

Manually Updating Your Blogroll Sucks!

reader_mygamingblogrollI don’t think I am shocking anyone with the above statement.  Trying to keep your blogroll updated on a regular basis is a lousy task.  When you only have a dozen or so blogs on it, it is no big deal, but as your list grows it quickly becomes a time consuming nightmare trying to make sure the links are up to date and actually reflect the topics you are interested in.

Various blogging platforms have ways of handling this, allowing you to maintain categories of links.  The problem is, that just because you automate the process, you still have to manually add and delete links from the list.  The mian issue with blogrolls generally has been that they are just simply not organic to the blogger. 

Google Reader to the Rescue

reader_googlereader_overviewMost of us read a good number of blogs on a regular basis, and as such tend to read them through some form of an RSS reader.  Personally I use Google Reader as my central platform for reading other blogs.  I like the fact that I can have everything in once place, organized, and I can read it easily from a web browser, my phone, or my tablet.  Using Reader however takes a little bit of forethought. 

reader_labelsEssentially the key to sharing anything from reader is organizing your subscriptions in specific “folders”.  Each subscription can be a member of one or more folders.  I’ve shifted back and forth many times on trying to pick an organizational scheme.  Initially I was breaking blogs up by the games they covered.  However after the decline of World of Warcraft, bloggers have tended to shift alliances between games a good deal more frequently than before, myself included.

The scheme I have finally settled on, is to organize my subscriptions into two really broad categories.  Gaming: That essentially includes all gaming related blogs, websites, and even subreddits; and Geekdom: which is the broad category I lump all geek life related blogs into, be they SciFi, Comics, Gadgets, or general technology.  I’ve rearranged my entire Reader layout around this concept, but in theory since each subscription can live in multiple folders, you could create a series of custom categories just for use on your Blogroll.

Just a quick side note.  You will notice in the above right-hand image, I have my own blog added to Google Reader living outside of these categories.  If you choose to use Google reader, or any other third party RSS reader, it is a good idea to add your own blog.  The simple truth is, not everything renders now you expect it to in RSS clients.  After I make a post, I view it in Reader to make sure everything looks the way I was expecting it to look, and nothing odd has happened during the publish.

Getting It On Your Blog

Once upon a time, Google Reader had a really simple functionality for posting any folder to your blog as a blogroll.  It was nice and obvious, and accessed through the folder maintenance UI.  When Google+ was released, Google went through a process of completely mangling their products to make them fit in the new universe they were creating.  As a result, this functionality was seemingly removed, and millions of bloggers cried out in pain.  Through a good deal of scouring the web, I found out that the functionality was essentially there still, just greatly changed and nowhere as easy to use as it once was.

Dark Art of Bundling

reader_clickcreatebundleThe functionality is now called Bundling.  Basically a bundle is a group of subscriptions that other Reader users can then subscribe to an import directly into their own Google Reader account as a package.  Essentially this works a lot like an Amazon list, or even a Google+ circle.  You can publish your reader folder and let others latch on to the Blogs you have found.  If you want to know more about bundles themselves, check out this link on the Google blog.

One of the nice features of Folders is that if you click on the little down arrow widget to the right side of your folder icon, you get a drop down menu that contains the option “Create A Bundle”.  If you check out the right-hand image I have provided a screenshot with a glaringly green arrow pointing the option.  This will bring up the bundle creation dialog, which I have provided a screenshot for below.

reader_createbundle_dialogIn the dialog you will see a listing of every single blog that was contained in that folder.  In this case we are talking about my Gaming folder, so I have named my newly created bundle “Gaming” just to keep things simple.  I would suggest a one word bundle name, quite frankly as a long time web developer I hate spaces with a passion, and since the final output of this little exercise will be a JavaScript snippet, I simply prefer not to tempt the script language gods. 

You notice I have left the description blank.  That is mostly for our purposes the description does not matter at all, no one will be seeing it.  If for whatever reason you want to exclude some blogs from the final version, you can drag those to the trashcan icon below.  For example I may choose to clean mine up and remove the Sub-Reddits, since they do not really translate well into RSS.  Click save and bask in the glory that is your newly created bundle.

Making the Bundle Do What We Need

reader_clickcreatebundleclip

If you scroll down to the bottom of the screen brought up when you clicked the “Create Bundle” link you will see a section listing out all of the bundles you have created.  In my case you can see that I have a Gaming bundle with 31 feeds, and a Geekdom bundle showing 6 feeds.  How Google intended us to be using the service, was to simply share links with each other that would allow folks to subscribe to our entire bundle at once. 

For example, this is the link to my “Gaming” blogroll folder, it opens up in Google Reader and lets you subscribe to the entire thing at once.  That is cool, but not at all what we were wanting.  I’ve once again highlighted with my obnoxious green arrow the link we actually care about.  This is finally starting to make a bit of sense.  The old functionality was called a “WebClip”, so not a totally far stretch that we are going to be dealing with Bundle Clips.

reader_gamingbundle

Above is the dialog you arrive at when you click the “Create a bundle clip” link.  Huzzah! We finally have a JavaScript snippet.  If you are a Blogger users, then you can click the handy “Add To Blogger” image button, but for the rest of us it is a more manual process.  Essentially you have 4 key elements on this screen.  The title field will control the banner Google obnoxiously inserts at the top of your “bundle”.  Color scheme lets you pick from one of the equally horrible defaults, or choose “None” like I did that essentially gives you the most raw HTML possible, an unordered list.  The right-hand side of the screen attempts to give you a mockup of what the final product will look like, and you can retrieve your snippet from a large text area to the bottom-left.

Getting It On The Blog

This one is going to be highly variable depending on which blogging platform you use.  Like I said above, if you us Blogger then your life is simple, click the button and bam instant blogroll.  In other blogging platforms it depends greatly upon your theme.  Personally my theme is set up in such a way that I have WordPress widgets on my right-hand sidebar.  In WordPress, they have a handy “Text” widget, that does exactly what it sounds like, allows you to insert text, or in this case JavaScript or html into your theme. 

I find these extremely handy, and have multiple on my sidebar to encapsulate various content areas.  This allows me to rearrange them at will, with little to no effort.  If you are not on WordPress, Blogger, or are not using a platform with a similar construct, then you are going to have to do it the old fashioned way.  Essentially you will need to crack open your theme, and manually cut and paste the JavaScript segment wherever you wish your Blogroll to appear.  I’m not going to get into any specifics, since there are entirely too many variables depending on what you are using.

Making It Better

reader_geekdombundleThe resulting Blogroll was a bit more cludgy that I cared for.  I hated the fact that it had an annoying “My ‘Geekdom’ Bundle” header, and I didn’t want the subscribe button, or the preview link.   I wanted to replicate the same Blogroll I had before Google changed things around, a nice clean unordered list of links.  Basically this portion involves a good knowledge of CSS, HTML, and a bit of minor surgery.  I don’t really plan on covering this in detail, but I am throwing this out here to plant the seed in your minds.

Essentially I went about using the “Inspect Element” functionality in of Google Chrome, and began listing out the elements I was going to need to manipulate.  I encased the entire JavaScript snippet in a div, so that I could have a container to limit my style changes to.  I isolated the elements that I didn’t want and hid them, namely the bar at the top with the title, and the bar at the bottom of the subscribe and preview link.  After a few hours of patient trial and error I went from the rather cludgy default appearance shown to the right-hand of this paragraph, to something that actually fits into my blog, as seen on the actual Blogroll on the right-hand side of the screen.  I finally had back my Reader driven blogroll.

One Final Thing

Now you are thinking… “Huzzah! I when I add new blogs to Google Reader they will automagically update my BlogRoll!”  Not exactly, like everything in life there is a minor catch here.  This was in fact the exact way Web Clips in Google Reader worked, and it was awesome.  The problem is, with this new Bundles concept, a monkey wrench gets thrown in the mix.  Essentially when you publish create a Bundle, it is a one time process, the list will never update on it’s own.

There is a workaround however.  Essentially, each time you want to update your blogroll, go through the process of creating a new bundle from your folder.  Simply name your “new” bundle to the same thing as your “old” bundle was named, it overwrites the original.  With no further effort on your part, the updated Blogroll loads, the next time a user refreshes your webpage.  So the catch really is a minor thing, you just have to remember that if you add more blogs to Reader, you have to manually dump your bundle again.

Now you can enjoy your relatively hassle-free Blogroll!

22 thoughts on “NBIMMO: The Google Reader Blogroll

  1. We thought about having our self-hosted WordPress blog. It seems tempting. But I’m a bit scared of screwing up or having some hacker screw it up for me… 😉

  2. It’s not for WordPress.com users, apparently. WordPress doesn’t allow Javascript. 🙁

    Other than that, great post and very helpful! 🙂

    • Ooops thanks for the clarification. It has been like 5 years or so since I have used WordPress.com, I honestly cannot remember in what ways it is gimped vs the full blown self-hosted version. I guess it would make sense to limit javascript to make it less susceptible to attacks.

  3. Awesome post. And my blog’s up there, awww.

    I have to say that I am still really unhappy with the Google Reader changes, and the bundles example proves how they broke some systems in very unfortunate ways.

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