The End of Google Reader

In my recent post on Google+, I wrote that:

Google’s evil plan for Google Reader seems to be working. Like most long-time Reader users, I was outraged when its social features were removed at the end of 2011, replaced with a “share on Google+” button. We all kicked and screamed and swore that it wouldn’t work, that we’d switch to another RSS reader or even build a new one… but now, more than a year later, I’m still using Reader all the time, and more and more often I find myself clicking on that share button. In this respect, Google has taken the most powerful lesson from Facebook: don’t worry about antagonizing your users with manipulative features, because once they get done complaining, 99% of them will just fall in line and do what you want. I wish it wasn’t true, but it often is. And I’m sure there are lots of other Reader users like me who are (however reluctantly) starting to fill up Google+ with shared content.

Apparently it wasn’t enough, because today Google announced that they’re shutting down Reader entirely.

Killing the social features was about Google+, but killing the rest of the product is more about the death of the RSS model in general. The conventional wisdom seems to be that it just wasn’t something users wanted:

The idea of RSS was one that never quite gripped with normal Internet users. Sure, for us geeks who absolutely love consuming as much information as possible, RSS is a wonderland. When Google launched Reader in 2005, I can remember surfing to all of my favorite sites and looking for that little RSS logo, clicking on it and subscribing to the feed. So easy, so awesome to “us,” and so not easy or awesome to anyone else on the planet.

I’ve heard many smart people try to explain RSS to normal folks, such as “turning content into television stations, allowing you to subscribe only to what you want to consume.” That one didn’t work. Neither did any other explanation, because RSS as a technology is too nerdy, too behind-the-scenes and lacked general consumer appeal. Nobody ever took RSS under its wing and “mentored” it.

I think this is the wrong narrative. The RSS model is dying because it didn’t work well with advertising. As Ryan Holiday wrote last year:

The reason subscription (and RSS) was abandoned was because in a subscription economy the users are in control. In the one-off model, the competition might be more vicious, but it is on the terms of the publisher. Having followers instead of subscribers — where readers have to check back on sites often and are barraged with a stream of refreshing content laden with ads — is much better for their bottom line.

RSS never became truly mainstream for this reason. It’s antithetical to the interests of the people who would need to push readers toward using it. It comes as no surprise that despite glowing reports from satisfied readers and major investments from Google and others that it would not be able to make it. So today, as RSS buttons disappear from browsers and blogs, just know that this happened on purpose, so that readers could be deceived more easily.

I don’t think I can say it much better than that. All I would add is that if you’re a Reader user looking for an alternative, today is the worst possible day to do so. All the other RSS readers are getting barraged with new users, driven by the hype around this announcement and the ‘listicles’ appearing on every tech site (“Our Top Five Reader Alternatives”) — which, ironically, are part of the same SEO-driven linkbait model that’s replacing RSS in the first place. If you try any other RSS apps or sites now, they’ll have major server and speed issues and you won’t see them at their best. Give them a couple weeks to scale up, and the smart ones will also build Google-specific migration tools that save you even more time. And you’ll give real tech writers time to write quality reviews and comparisons, rather than these dashed-off lists from Gawker-style sweatshops. Reader isn’t actually going away for three months, and using RSS is all about avoiding this kind of false urgency, right?

5 thoughts on “The End of Google Reader”

  1. Agree with you re: advertising as contributing to RSS’ decline, but you may be understating the nerd factor. My twitter and G+ feeds were full of outrage. On Facebook? Nada. There truly is a divide between people I choose to follow and the “normals” who I’m forced to friend on Facebook. Not to call anyone names, but the Internet is being ruined by these listicle-consuming, TMZ-watching, buzz-feeding enemies of long-form writing. Clearly, they are history’s greatest monsters.

    An aside: Buzzfeed breaks my preconceptions sometimes. I enjoy reading their longer articles, but it feels like ordering fish at a steakhouse. Or maybe more accurately, steak at a shithouse.

    I registered at theoldreader.com in the initial panic. I was too late to catch their import feeds feature before it went down, but it does look promising, and seems to bring back the old social features as well. Unfortunately it seems to be run by a small team, and I don’t get the sense that syncing with mobile, via their own app or existing reader apps, is in the near future.

  2. The weird thing is, back in the day Feedburner actually did generate meaningful revenue for blogs by inserting ads into the feeds, and Google turned them off.

    On the front end, I don’t really see how a Google Reader home page is less friendly to advertising than a Google News home page.

    You build a good UI that people want to read their news with, you will get ads, make users sticky on G+ and Android where they get more ads. Even for people who just used the API they got a lot of deep info about user interests that should have made ad customization more profitable.

    Kind of weird that Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn are building news aggregators, and Google is shutting down theirs. They control the ecosystem with Feedburner and Reader, they can evolve it to make it more ad-friendly.

    It’s just lame if they can’t find a way to make money from something this useful. And it’s evil to take over an open ecosystem, and then gradually dismantle it.

  3. Did nobody notice that in the recent weeks (or even month maybe), Google had started inserting advertising inside the Reader pages ? Maybe the click-trough rate was too low.

  4. The lesson I learnt from this is not to trust cloud services to keep working year after year, especially if I don’t pay for it. I’m glad it was easy to export my feeds from Google Reader, and I decided to settle for a local feed reader (RSSOwl) on my computer. My data is entirely under my control that way, and I don’t have to worry about somebody trying to insert ads into my feeds. I’m sure other (paid) feed services would work pretty well though.

    I really hope RSS as a standard is not dying anytime soon, and I don’t think it will. These days I always get the most interesting content via RSS. Online newspapers relying on advertising revenue tend to write superficial stories with enticing headlines, so it doesn’t matter much if they don’t offer RSS feeds. Content behind pay-walls may be another matter, but it’s too much of a hassle to keep track of credentials and payments for every single paper I’d like to read so I just avoid them.

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