It’s probably a good thing that I wasn’t able to write anything last night about Google’s announcement it would be shutting down Reader, it’s RSS aggregator, as of July 1. I was a bit emotional, as anyone who was following my tirade on Twitter can attest to.


I’ve been a Google Reader user since 2005, having evolved to that product after using Newsgator and then Bloglines. But as I saw the writing on the wall that it was being neglected and I decided Reader was the best – really the only – alternative out there.

To give you an idea of how much of a power user I am, I have accounts for both personal and professional purposes. In my personal account I’ve read 300,000+ items since October of 2011, which is as far back as their tracking will go at this point. I used to use Shared Items all the time.

I love Reader because it works for me in more or less the way I want to. It allows me to read as many sources as I want at a time of my choosing. I’ve always described it as “TiVo for web content,” providing me a time-shifted experience that meant I wasn’t missing anything even while I was doing actual work.

UpdateLaura at PaidContent puts the above point like this:

The best thing about Google Reader, from my point of view, is that it allows me to scan a lot of information quickly, with the assurance that I’m not missing anything. That’s why, for me, it fills a completely different role than the (equally useful) Twitter does. Twitter provides a snapshot of a moment in time, and you’re likely to miss tweets as they whiz by; Google Reader stores everything. The search on Google Reader is also vastly better than the search on Twitter, and it goes back indefinitely.

But RSS has been on the decline in terms of popularity, buzz and attention for years now as people have shifted over to the “social web.” So many people have written what they think are greatly insightful pieces about how Twitter replaced their RSS feeds, a statement I always felt betrayed a misunderstanding of both Twitter and RSS.

On the social web if your attention isn’t fully devoted to the stream you’ll miss something. But because RSS feeds just aggregate in the background they’re there whenever you’re ready for them. If you want to start with the most recent stuff, great. If you want to start with the oldest posts, that works as well. RSS was flexible enough that you could futz with it and mold it to your own preferences.

But RSS was never understood by the masses. It was too techy for most people. Most people who used it didn’t even know they were using it, despite it being the power behind MyYahoo, iGoogle and other personal portals. So it has not gotten the resources it should have considering just how powerful it is.

Regarding the shut down, some people have been making the argument that it was a free service so the extent of the outrage many people are feeling needs to be tempered. But a company’s inability to monetize a product is not my concern. If they are offering a free product – especially a product that was rolled out in an effort to own a particular market and destroy competitors – then it’s the same implicit contract that exists as if I had paid for it. Sure, every company has the right to shut down something that’s not working for them, but it’s a bit disingenuous to come into a new country, burn everyone else’s field to the ground in order to bolster your own business then arbitrarily fold up your tent and say “Eh, wasn’t worth it.”

Plus, Google Reader was a portrait of my entire interest graph in a way that Facebook, Google+ and even Twitter could never, ever be. It was a representation of everything that I was finely tuned into. This is stuff I wanted to read so much I took the positive action to subscribe to a site in order to follow it. If Google, which makes most of its money from selling ads against contextual content, couldn’t monetize that then it wasn’t really trying.

Update – John at RWW puts the above point like this:

Google makes most of its money from understanding its users intent and interests. Its search algorithm does a remarkable job at ascertaining those things, but each query requires some degree of guesswork. Reader users were explicitly declaring the things they were interested in, through subscribing to feeds, clicking headlines, sharing content and tapping the star button. We were just handing it data, all day long. Of course, the revenue potential would only grow as Google put more effort into iterating and marketing Reader, which it scarcely did. Along the way, it could have offered targeted perks to publishers, many of whom would gladly pay for any chance to stand out in a crowded online news ecosystem.

As I said on Twitter, this is the moment I start questioning my use of all other Google products. I’m sure Feedburner doesn’t have more than a year of life left, though considering migrating the back-end of RSS is much more complex than migrating the front end of RSS one can only hope they’re working with a partner to make that as easy as possible. Some people have advanced the idea of Google Currents as an alternative to Reader, but considering Currents is on the top of no one’s mind I can’t see that being a long-term solution as opposed to a stop-gap before we go through all this again when Google shuts that down for lack of resources and attention.

There are some alternatives. Feedly has made a big push to be the choice people make and I’ve heard a lot of people talk about NewsBlur, which is free up to a certain number of feeds and then charges a small fee. Flipboard is a favorite of some people, but it’s primarily a tablet app and therefore not for everyone.

Honestly, though, I’m less interested in something like this – though I’m certainly going to look into it since RSS is such an important part of my workflow – than I am in seeing someone like Automattic build an open-source aggregator that is sustained by a community of people as opposed to any one company that can decide such a product does or doesn’t fit into their business plan at any given time.

Whatever the case, Google Reader will be missed. But more than that, I hope this serves as a wake up call for a group of people who love RSS and know what it can do and spurs some innovation in this market. It’s too powerful not to attract more attention, even if it does remain popular primarily among the geek set. There are other technologies that have survived – and thrived – on less.