Has Google Screwed The Pooch By Retiring Reader?

Has Google Screwed The Pooch By Retiring Reader?

Google continues to mystify me.  On the one hand, they are responsible for a wide variety of groundbreaking innovative products, such as Gmail, Android, Google Maps and more. They’re even developing a driverless car and interactive glasses. I am also extremely taken with their recent new Phrasebook feature on Google Translate. Without Google’s innovation and desire to stretch the boundaries of what is possible, who knows where we would be today, with regards to the Internet?  We would probably still have email services with 50MB of space, and countless people getting lost while out driving in their cars, looking in vain for the atlas.

But while all of that impresses me and others, Google equally burns their boats and alienates their users with some unbelievably stupid and illogical decisions, like their decision this week to retire the extremely popular Google Reader by July, and their support for RSS in general, by dropping their RSS Chrome extension, as of now.

If you listen to Google’s official version of the story, actual user numbers of Reader have dropped, making it a pointless project to continue with.  But judging by the massive outcry online this week, it’s hard to believe that Reader will just slip away unnoticed and unloved. In fact, by deciding to retire Reader, Google has fired the equivalent of a nuclear missile into RSS, and giving their competitors a huge early Christmas present as a result. Before, companies like Netvibes and Feedly were struggling in Reader’s shadow.  With Reader dominating the show, developments in the RSS arena stagnated. RSS today is no different than RSS years ago.

But suddenly all bets are off, servers are crashing, and it’ll be a bloody fist fight to the end to see who can poach the most number of disgruntled Reader users.  Even the almost dead-and-buried Digg has announced they are coming back to life and building a feed reader! RSS aggregators that depend on Reader, such as Reeder, have promised that they will figure out a seamless transition for its users by July. Feedly has promised a cloned API to save the day.

But if you’re into conspiracies, a Twitter user has come up with another way of looking at it :

We here at NowSourcing don’t believe in such high-brow conspiracies though and I personally believe that Google has screwed Reader (and in the process, its utterly loyal users) because of one simple reason –

They are desperately trying to force everyone to use the struggling Google Plus.

This is borne out by a Quora post written by Brian Shih, who was the Google Reader project manager for 3 years, up to 2011 when he left the company.  In the Quora post, Brian said :

Reader has been fighting for approval/survival at Google since long before I was a PM for the product. I’m pretty sure Reader was threatened with de-staffing at least three times before it actually happened. It was often for some reason related to social:

  • 2008 – let’s pull the team off to build OpenSocial
  • 2009 – let’s pull the team off to build Buzz
  • 2010 – let’s pull the team off to build Google+

It turns out they decided to kill it anyway in 2010, even though most of the engineers opted against joining G+. Ironically, I think the reason Google always wanted to pull the Reader team off to build these other social products was that the Reader team actually understood social (and tried a lot of experiments over the years that informed the larger social features at the company). Reader’s social features also evolved very organically in response to users, instead of being designed top-down like some of Google’s other efforts.

I suspect that it survived for some time after being put into maintenance because they believed it could still be a useful source of content into G+. Reader users were always voracious consumers of content, and many of them filtered and shared a great deal of it.

So in other words, Reader was doing a much better job of social media and sharing, and that probably rankled with the other Google employees working on “dead-on-arrival” social projects such as Buzz (one of the worst Google projects I have ever encountered). As Brian said, they probably only kept Reader around, as long as it was seen to be helping Google’s pet project, Plus, and when it stopped doing that, they dropped Reader like a hot potato. Three cheers for loyalty.

This begs the question of which Google product will be next to go, because the retiring of Reader has proven one thing – no Google product is ever safe (except search).  If they can’t slap an advert on it and make money from it, Google will cancel it, disappoint the many users who depend on it and shrug their shoulders as if to say “tough titties, get over it”. That was why I started having heart palpitations this week when a rumor got started that Feedburner was next on the chopping block, along with Google Voice.

Feedburner has been on life support for years, ever since Google acquired it.  They basically bought it then completely ignored it, making no improvements to it whatsoever. But Feedburner remains virtually the only way for webmasters like myself to keep track of RSS subscriber numbers.  What could possibly replace it if Google suddenly decided to do an assassination job on it?  Just like Reader, due to Feedburner’s dominance in this area, all other would-be pretenders to the throne withered and died.

What really irks me is how Google makes it sound as if they are dropping these services as a big favor to us.  Their pet phrase “to improve the user experience” seems to be their catch-all reason for everything and they act like we should all greet their announcements by dancing round the room chanting “Google is great! Google is getting better!”.  But in fact, I am convinced that people over at the Googleplex sit there with blinders on, unable (or unwilling) to see how people are really reacting to their cuts.

Farhad Manjoo over at Slate makes a very good point – if you are the kind of person who gets emotionally invested in free apps over the long term, then you are only setting yourself up for trouble and heartache later.  Which is why, if you really care for something, open your wallet and pay for it. Paying for a service will (hopefully) keep it going and increases the chances of it sticking around.

As for me, I am boycotting Google Plus in protest (I was using it for work promotional purposes) and I would encourage you to do the same. Let’s tell Google where to stick their crappy little social network. Because they have never really faced any serious protest over any of their decisions and that has led to unbelievable arrogance on their part.  The company needs to be taken down a peg or two, to remind them that they are only where they are today because of us, the users. And while the users giveth, the users can also taketh away.

I’m sure Microsoft and Yahoo would welcome us with open arms. In fact I am warming up my Outlook.com email account and Skydrive account right now as we speak.

5 Comments

  1. I was quite upset by the news that Google decided to kill Reader. I’ve used the service since about 2007 and follow hundreds of blogs to keep up with the latest and greatest (it’s where I read this post before clicking through). It’s my primary source of G+ content and I integrate it with Buffer to share content to at least 20 social channels. Killing Reader will also kill my custom FlipBoard set-up. Reader integration is one of my favorite things about FlipBoard. I used to also use Reader to drop podcast RSS feeds, which would auto-sync to Google Listen (until that service killed). I use it to do custom searches (e.g. search keywords, phrases) within folders of blogs, which is very helpful. As a PR guy, I also tracked key stories I landed and Reader served as fun way to share the content. Reader is one of my favorite Google products (second only to Gmail and maybe search). I’m hoping to see an opportunistic company pick up where Reader left off so I can easily import my exported data. I can’t see killing Reader helping G+, and although I doubt they’ll reconsider, maybe all of this backlash will have an impact (Reader becomes a feature in G+ under a different name).

  2. Maybe the biggest irony to this is something you touch on: Google’s commitment to projects. I mean, seriously, how much could Reader have been costing this ginormous multinational company? And should I trust them?

    With Reader closing, I have to wonder, which services are safe? Should I really invest a lot of time in G+? At what point will that experiment be over? What about my GoogleDocs? Should I be preparing for those to go away too? Sure, when its free, we can’t complain, but let’s be clear, I’ve never been ASKED to pay for Google services, many of which I’d be happy to pay for, including Reader, Docs and keeping G+ ad free.

    And then there is the lack of imagination which makes me shudder. Imagine how reader and G+ could have been integrated (reading my feeds from G+?OK!) I actually assumed that was the direction they would go with the two products. I’m fascinated with the direction that Google seems to be taking into hardware, while abandoning one of the most useful, inexpensive technologies on the web: RSS. Does this portend the future of Google? Will they be abandoning services all together?

    Consumer trust is a fickle beast, taking years to build and only moments to destroy. I’m an admitted Google fan (though I still haven’t been able to embrace Android), but I’m beginning to feel that the lines drawn in the sand are increasingly difficult to cross.

  3. I don’t understand how a billion dollar company like Google even makes choses to remove things.

  4. When Google Reader ceases to exist we’ll all go back to using what we had before. It was called the internet.

    Sorry, if there’s some particular point about Reader being the only way to access Rss, it has completely escaped me..

  5. It doesn’t bother me that Google has stopped with the Reader I never use it. I just don’t see why it mattered enough to that massive company to have it removed.

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