Closing Google Reader Is Dangerous

// // March 14th 2013 // Social Media + Technology

I'm a dedicated Google Reader user, spending hours each day using it to keep up on any number of topics. So my knee-jerk reaction to the news that Google will close the service as of July 1, 2013 was one of shock and anger.

I immediately Tweeted #savegooglereader and posted on Google+ in hopes of getting it to trend or go hot. These things are silly in the scheme of things. But what else is there to do?

I've written previously that the problem with RSS readers is marketing. I still believe that (it's TiVo for web content people!) but in the end that's not why closing Google Reader is so dangerous. And it is dangerous.

Google Reader Fuels Social

Google Reader Is The Snowpack of Social

Photo via double-h

The announcement indicates that, while having a loyal following, usage has declined. That's a rather nebulous statement, though I don't truly expect Google to provide the exact statistics. But it's who is still using Google Reader that is important, is it not?

Participation inequality, often called the 90-9-1 principle, should be an important factor in analyzing Google Reader usage. Even if you believe that the inequality isn't as pronounced today, those that are contributing are still a small bunch.

Studies on participation on Twitter have shown this to be true, both from what content is shared and who is sharing it. That means that the majority of the content shared is still from major publications and that we get that information through influencers. But where do they get it?

Google Reader.

RSS readers are the snowpack of social networks.

Organizing Information

Jigsaw Puzzle Pieces

Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. By extension that is what Google Reader lets power-users do. Make no mistake, Google Reader is not a mainstream product. Google (and many others) have screwed up how to market time-shifted online reading.

The result is that those using Google Reader are different. They're the information consumers. They're the ones sifting through the content (organizing) and sharing it with their community (accessible) on platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Google+ (useful).

Google Reader allows a specific set of people to help Google fulfill their mission.

Losing Identity

AJ Kohn Cheltenham High School ID

There are replacements to Google Reader such as Feedly. So you can expect that the people who fuel social networks will find other ways to obtain and digest information so they can filter it for their followers. Problem solved, right? Wrong.

Why exactly does Google want to hand over this important part of the ecosystem to someone else? With Google Reader they know who I am, what feeds I subscribe to, which ones I read and then which ones I wind up sharing on Google+.

Wouldn't knowing that dynamic, of understanding how people evaluate content and determine what is worthy of sharing, be of interest to Google? It should be. It's sort of what they want to excel at.

Not only that but because Google Reader has product market fit (see how I got that buzzword in there) with influencers or experts, you're losing an important piece of the puzzle if you're thinking about using social sharing and Authorship as search signals.

Data Blind

Data Blind

In the end, I'm surprised because it makes Google data blind. As I look at Unicorn, Facebook's new inverted-index system, I can't help but think that Facebook would love to have this information. Mining the connections and activity between these nodes seems messy but important.

What feeds do I subscribe to? That social gesture could be called a Like in some ways. What feeds do I read? That's a different level of engagement and could even be measured by dwell time. What feeds and specific content do I share? These are the things that I am endorsing and promoting.

By having Google Reader integrated into the Google+ ecosystem, they can tell when I consumed that information and when I then shared it, not just on Google+ but on other platforms if Google is following the public social graph (which we all know they are.)

Without Google Reader, Google loses all of that data and only sees what is ultimately shared publicly. Never mind the idea that Google Reader might be powering dark social which could connect and inform influencers. Gone is that bit of insight too.

Multi-Channel Social

Daft Punk Discovery

As a marketer I'm consumed with attribution and Google Analytics clearly understands the importance of multi-channel modeling. We even see the view-through metric in Google Adwords display campaigns.

The original source and exposure of content is of huge importance. Google might have Ripples but that only tells them how the content finally entered Google+ not how that content was discovered.

I'm certain that users will find alternatives because there is a need for this service. Google just won't know what new sites influencers might be reading more of or which sites might be waning with subject matter experts. Google will only see the trailing indicators, not the leading ones.

TL;DR

Google Reader allows information consumers - influencers and subject matter experts - to fuel social networks and help fulfill Google's core mission. Closing Google Reader will put that assistance in the hands of another company or companies and blinds Google to human evaluation data for an important set of users.

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Comments About Closing Google Reader Is Dangerous

// 31 comments so far.

  1. Alessio Madeyski // March 14th 2013

    I totally agree with you. Google is big enough to make even the “small niche” happy right? Closing RSS is a dumb move, especially because it’s kinda saying : I don’t care about the smaller groups.

    This is not user oriented. It’s not. At all.

    I know many people who are putting their love and passion to make their small niche happy, and they are helping the company big time with feedbacks, and money too.

    Sure, I’m gonna use another RSS reader, but it makes me sad. Because Google should be an example on how to listen even smaller groups of people.

  2. Elisa // March 14th 2013

    I can only assume Google is hoping Reader users will migrate to Google+ … but instead they’ll just end up using another Reader. Sadface.

    “Since December 6, 2007 you have read a total of 281,065 items.”

  3. matthew barker // March 14th 2013

    AJ do you think this could be part of a wider shift towards encouraging more activity on G+?

    Would it be more efficient for Google to gather data on our information consumption, engagement & sharing behaviour, and tie that into things like Authorship etc, via G+ rather than Reader?

    It is a shame though, I use Reader on a daily basis for the handful of sites that I keep a close eye on (yours included) while I tend to stick a much wider range of stuff into my G+ circles. Reader has always been my favourite tool for high signal, low noise.

  4. Chris OBrien // March 14th 2013

    First iGoogle now Google Reader. The tools that I have always used from Google are dying. I guess it’s time to check out Bing.

  5. Deceth // March 14th 2013

    I agree that Google Reader users are the ones sifting through the content, organizing and sharing it with their community on platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

    These users will continue to do so, using a different tool as you mentioned.

    I don’t think Google cares to know which content you decided to share versus which you decided to ignore.

    I think you nailed it with your comment, “Google will now only see what is ultimately shared publicly”. I think that is all that matter to their algorithms and they don’t need Google Reader to get this information.

    They can stop working on and maintaining the Google Reader product and ultimately, the information they need for their core business will still be available because using other tools people will continue to share information on Google+, Twitter, Facebook etc…

    They care about what’s being shared and linked to, not what is being ignored. They can just ignore that stuff.

  6. G // March 14th 2013

    A stark reminder that Google’s constant ‘everything we do is for the user’ isn’t particularly true.

    I suspect Google’s going through the monetise it or kill it stage aka if you can’t stick classified ads next to content it has no place in Google.

    I have to confess it didn’t immediately strike me that Google becoming blind to which sites generate a loyal RSS following (and associated click through rate) makes them blind to what you’d imagine is a pretty good search metric. I wonder if Google will wake up and not kill the RSS messenger…

  7. Jamie @ Scattered Thoughts of a Crafty Mom // March 14th 2013

    you are so right…

  8. Michael James Field // March 14th 2013

    @Elisha I do not see the connection between Reader and plus, I use Google+ regularly enough but not so much that it can be used as an aggregator for all my subscribed feeds. Have to say I’m really disappointed by this announcement, I just hold on to the hope that there is something else in the pipeline from Google that is going to fulfil this service. The last thing I want is another service to remember log-ins for.

  9. Miguel Silva Rodrigues // March 14th 2013

    Hi AJ, my thoughts exactly: in 3 months Google has lost both my photos and my news subscriptions. I thought that would be the kind of data Google would love to have about me. Some things I don’t even share, but they are still my interests.

    The avid Reader user doesn’t want fancy but slow interfaces like Currents or Flipboard. Anyway, here’s something more we can do; sign this petition.

  10. YiannisG (Atladas media) // March 14th 2013

    The moment I read the news I told myself “this is cause Google thinks that people changed the way they read news”… then thought of what happens on my own RSS feeder. I opened my iphone and saw my RSS reader and the number of unread items (1077). Then it took me few more seconds to realise that the way I personally consume news is via my facebook feed, twitter and linkedin.

    Maybe Google is too obsessed to make Google Plus happen and with the recent facebook changes they want to drive people to their G+ account to read news instead of reader. Maybe they are so sure that people will stick or swap to plus instead of downloading a different RSS reader or simply dont care. In any case this will have the same fortune as Google Buzz. People will write blogs, sign petitions and few months down the line noone will remember.

    PS, the Google Plus statement is just an assumption I make, not a fact I know for sure.

  11. Angelbc // March 14th 2013

    For a long time I’ve written about Google Reader and its challenges (alas, in spanish, so I can’t share much) and I agree completely with you. The worst part of this is that Google sent a very clear message to small communities and users in general. The loss of trust cannot be easily quantified but I’m sure it will have an effect.

    I would like to believe Marco Arment is right and that this will mean a new generation of RSS readers (or something along those lines) will be developed. If anything it is the only glimmer of hope in all this situation.

    The only way I could try to come to grips with the situation yesterday was doing this: Hitler finds out Google Reader will be shut down. Note this is not the version doing the rounds in the big tech blogs. Without false modesty, I think this is a much better version ;)

    http://youtu.be/eKTntSh4uSQ

    ¡Saludos desde la Ciudad de México!

  12. Jason Thibault // March 14th 2013

    Google Reader is my favorite tool. This is sad news.
    I currently have 525 blogs feeding into 25 different folders.
    I’m definitely going to have to play around with 2 or 3 other readers soon to see what I’ll replace it with.

  13. Takeshi // March 14th 2013

    I bet more people consume and share content on Google Reader than on Google+, seems like they’re shooting themselves in the foot here.

  14. AJ Kohn // March 14th 2013

    Thanks Alessio. I actually understand how Google might make choices based on the fact that only a small segment of users would benefit.

    I remember someone asking if we might be able to use RegEx for search and the answer was that they could and that would be cool but only to a fraction of a percent of the users. And while Google is huge, even they have resource allocation needs.

    That said, I don’t understand why they wouldn’t want to capture THIS audience or allow this data to slip away. To me keeping Reader is in their best interests.

  15. AJ Kohn // March 14th 2013

    I’m not sure what they’re thinking Elisa. Google+ is not a great source for discovery in my opinion and even if it was, the content coming into G+ has to come from somewhere and I’d bet a large part of that comes – originally – from a view and read within Google Reader.

    Sad face indeed!

  16. AJ Kohn // March 14th 2013

    I’m not sure Matthew. Google is obviously watching our activity and engagement on Google+. No doubt about that. But the content still has to come from somewhere. My assumption (and I think it’s a good one) is that a lot of that comes from Readers.

    In the end, I just don’t know why you wouldn’t want both data sets.

  17. AJ Kohn // March 14th 2013

    I appreciate the comment Deceth. The part that’s missing for me is the depth of the interaction and the fact that sometimes you might read but not share certain content. You might be able to ascertain that the content was read in reader and then shared once they got to the page.

    There’s a ton of behavioral information as well how people evaluate and select content that is hidden in the actions and activity we exhibit on Google Reader. This is what Google wants to emulate. If they truly want to be more predictive in their results (and they do) then they have to better understand how we evaluate and select content.

  18. AJ Kohn // March 14th 2013

    Gideon,

    Well, to be fair, I think Google still believes in doing good by the user. But they want to do the most good for the most users. So they see a product that hasn’t gained huge adoption and feel they can make a bigger difference elsewhere.

    I get that logic. But I think it’s flawed based on the set of people using Google Reader and what that data represents.

  19. AJ Kohn // March 14th 2013

    Yes Miguel! You would think that Google would want this information. And you said it perfectly, there are interests that you have but don’t share. Or that you aren’t sharing … yet.

  20. AJ Kohn // March 14th 2013

    Ylannis,

    Again, you may get your news via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn but a lot of that is sourced and delivered to those platforms by curators (like me) who use Google Reader to locate interesting content. RSS Readers are the snowpack of social and when you reduce the snowpack the rivers begin to dry up.

    I have no expectation that Google will change their mind, nor do I think that RSS Readers will go away. Curators will find other services or new ones will appear. But I think that’s a bad result for Google.

  21. AJ Kohn // March 14th 2013

    Angel,

    I appreciate your comment and love your downfall version! You hit on all the right points.

  22. Schokoladen-Uli // March 15th 2013

    AJ, this is a great article with a lot of truth in it. I also can’t understand why Google would want to give this information out of his hands. It is both, organically grown over years and fresh and new on ervery single day. I can only hope that they consider.

  23. David kartuzinski // March 15th 2013

    Imagine if Google had said “we are rolling Reader into our search algo…” Then the internet would explode into a privacy debate and “everyone” would be writing how google doesn’t respect our rights, etc…

    I just think the are closong it down because they have not been really tracking our usage effectively and the dataset is to small to get into a war regarding privacy. Do they figure we move to a service that other companies will spend time promoting and we will jump and they will index those companies. I think for them its smart. I love Reader and agree with what you say about why its awesome. Bit google would rather increase adoption of the technology on other peoples dime and not lose focus on what their message is.

    -dk

  24. Totio Filipov // March 15th 2013

    I don’t think Google cares much about who is still using Google Reader. I think what matters to them is the amount of people using it and how many new people join “the club” every day. Apparantly those numbers were not high enough. Too bad.

  25. Alistair Lattimore // March 16th 2013

    I have to respectfully disagree with you AJ.

    You make it sound as if removing Google Reader is going to be a death knell for the internet at large because the only way to discover content is through Google Reader and only the dedicated few sift through content looking for great stuff to share.

    Another assumption is that Google Reader has a lot of users and closing it is going to be a huge imposition to a very large number of people. For all we know, Google Reader might only have 20-30 million users. I realise that is a massive number but when you’re Google and you have products that support hundreds of milions or billions of users – that figure suddenly seems small.

    Google Operating System recently put together some numbers to shed a little light on how many people use Google Reader and the numbers break down very fast from the big end of town.

    What I am confident about though is that Google are getting a lot more information from the sharing taking place within Google+ already than they would have ever received from Google Reader even when it was at its peak usage before social discovery started to gain momentum.

    Am I sad Google Reader is closing, absolutely – it is a great product. Will I find other ways, maybe better ways of consuming large amounts of content fast – of course I will. For all I know, taking away the crutch I’ve been leaning on in Google Reader might actually provide me a better discovery mechanism than Google Reader which I’d have never found if they weren’t closing it.

  26. AJ Kohn // March 16th 2013

    Alistair,

    I think there’s a potential for a drought until a better replacement comes to the fore. But information addicts such as myself will demand a product that allows us to continue to curate, contribute and distribute content.

    However, the argument about quantity of users is specious in my view. It’s about the quality of users. It’s about what percentage of current content is seeded into social networks via a Google Reader view. Google Reader won’t get credit for that just as other channels in marketing don’t get credit for a sale if they’re the first exposure. We’re just getting to a point where proper attribution modeling is taking place in eCommerce. I simply don’t believe that Google looked at the first exposure metric in the content discovery landscape.

    How much of what you currently view in your feeds was placed in the system via a Google Reader exposure? I have a feeling people might be surprised at what I believe is a high percentage. Remember, you might see that someone Tweeted it via that site but that doesn’t mean they found it via that site.

    From an SEO perspective it’s like measuring traffic for traffic’s sake and not looking at the value of that traffic. In some of my engagements traffic may go down or remain constant but the quality of that traffic produces substantially higher results. For me, I believe Google Reader users are likely more productive and fall in the 9 and 1 within the 90-9-1 dynamic.

    I agree that Google gets a lot more information about sharing within Google+. No argument there. But why give up an additional source of information, particularly since you get additional explicit signals (subscribe, read, share) and can begin to understand why certain pieces of content are shared. Furthermore, if the amount or speed of content entering Google+ is reduced there are downstream effects on Google+ as a data source. The data will still be there but I believe there’s a good chance you’ll break the continuity of data and the modeling will have to change as a result.

    There very well may be a better Reader out there and we as users might wind up benefitting but that winds up being a loss for Google who suddenly loses a large amount of data about how content is discovered and why it might be shared.

  27. Ex-google user // March 17th 2013

    DO NO EVIL???

    bull@#*t, this is officially the last straw, I’ve had it – starting today – I am looking for alternatives to GOOGLE PRODUCTS…… haven’t they made enough money off us, to let a few sacred things be??? started with wave, body browser etc, why don’t they understand that the evangelists are the one’s that “get these products” and even though it might seem the numbers are small there is a huge magnifying effect by word of mouth from these guys, (hence the “loyal following”), pissing these guys off is an idiotic thing to do…. that is what you get when a kid is allowed to run a company….. push the core guys away and you’ll start a slide that will slowly and surely be the beginning of the end. I said the same thing about apple a year an a half ago, people laughed at the time……. enough said … if there is no safety of my data with google, (which seems to be the case as with the other examples above), ie if they don’t want my data – I’m more than happy to take it some place where I am welcomed…… cheers

    Ex-google consumer

  28. Sahil // March 17th 2013

    Yes Google will certainly lose some important data to analyze and improvise once Google reader goes behind the scenes, but they still will have large data sets collected from the current Google reader users to play with. We must also respect Larry Page’s view i.e., concentrating on creating few masterpieces (products) rather than creating many simple products with decent user base. But still companies are continuing the trend to shut down their old products with decent and loyal user base. Twitter with Tweetdeck, Google with iGoogle, Google reader etc.

  29. Bill Rowland // March 17th 2013

    AJ,

    Thanks for a great post. And, nice School ID…heh.

    I was really disappointed to hear that Reader is going away. You offer a compelling argument about why this is a mistake and it certainly seems to contradict the belief that Authorship will be used as a search signal.

    Lastly, thanks for turning me on to the concept of Dark Social. That was an eye-opener.

  30. Lewis LaLanne // March 19th 2013

    After reading your argument for why this is an idiot move on their part, I’m with you and yet I’ve moved on.

    I imported all my G-Reader stuff to Feedly (it took all of 4.9 seconds) and I like it. It’s what brought me here today. But I’m far from a power user as I’m pretty lazy. I should be maxing the hell out of G-Reader and Feedly but I barely use them.

    So for me, I’m looking forward to hearing about what tool the power users end up favoring when G-Reader is wearing a toe tag. :)

  31. Max // March 22nd 2013

    It’s a salutory wake-up call for many: Google, ever since their obsession with promoting Google+, has lost its original spirit of innovation. Now they look like any other giant company.

    Beyond the usefulness of the data for Google, what strikes me as most important is the huge mistake in communication: Google will do as it pleases, and no service provided today may still be around in a few years. Losing the public’s trust and “love” for their brand is the true disaster that these geniuses have achieved.

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