Google Reader will be dead soon, but it has been dying for a long time. A declining user base, lack of innovation, and lack of mass appeal doomed it. People are using other types of services to stay up-to-date with their favorite websites.
None of this will convince the hardcore information-addict RSS users to switch, but most people don’t want another inbox containing hundreds of headlines to dig through every day — that’s what really doomed Google Reader.
The Problem With Google Reader and RSS
Google Reader itself hasn’t been innovative in a long time. Whether you’re using Google Reader on the web or via the official mobile app, you basically get another inbox you have to deal with. Most of these headlines probably don’t even include full-text articles, forcing you to click through to the full article so the website can get its ad revenue.
It’s no surprise that this experience hasn’t captured the popular imagination. It’s a great way to stay up-to-date on infrequently updated blogs, but add a few large websites and you’ll end up with hundreds or even thousands of posts in your RSS inbox each day, many of which are duplicates, with different websites writing about the same topics. Google Reader doesn’t provide a way to filter these feeds for the information most relevant to you, or even just eliminate duplicates — it aims a fire hose of information at its users and tells them to drink.
Flipboard, Currents, Pulse and Other Reading Apps
Apps like the popular Flipboard, but also Google Currents and Pulse, discard much of the old RSS experience. Flipboard allows you to add sources they want to read content from — you can even add RSS feeds directly, but it doesn’t feel like using an RSS reader. Flipboard doesn’t display an unread count that turns the reading app into another inbox you have to keep on top of. Each source is presented separately, where users can flip through stories with images like they would flip through a magazine. The structure encourages readers not to follow too many sources or worry about reading every little thing they publish.
Flipboard has been a smashing success, and it’s a good example of the kind of reading app that average people would prefer. Google Reader could have become a sort of Flipboard for the web, but Google let Reader stagnate.
Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and other Social Media Services
Hardcore RSS users will insist that social media services like Twitter are no substitute for RSS readers like Google Reader. They’re right — for themselves — but social media services like Twitter are a substitute to RSS for many people.
When Google Reader was originally released, Twitter didn’t even exist yet. Average users have drifted towards Twitter and Facebook, choosing to follow their social accounts rather than subscribe to their RSS feeds. Twitter in particular can function as something similar to an RSS reader if you follow accounts that tweet their articles, presenting you with a stream of the latest content. People can instead follow their friends or influencers, reading the things they choose to retweet instead of reading everything a website writes.
Reddit, Hacker News, and Other Aggregator Sites
Do you really want to read everything a publication writes? Normal people certainly don’t. Rather than follow a wide variety of different websites and dedicate time every day to skimming through hundreds or thousands of headlines looking for something interesting, people have gravitated towards aggregation sites that surface interesting new content for them.
Sites like Reddit and Hacker News surface interesting new content every day, and people looking for something new to read gravitate to these websites. There are even topic-specific aggregators like Techmeme, which aggregates many of the most interesting new tech stories from different publications — you can read the most interesting stuff without digging through hundreds of headlines in an RSS reader. Other people find the interesting stuff for you, saving you time.
Other Ways to Follow Infrequently Updated Blogs
Let’s say you’re on board with all these changes, but you really need to keep track of a few infrequently updated blogs. The creator only adds a new post every few months, but you have to read them and you don’t want to refresh the page every day. There are other ways you can keep track of these blogs without adding a new inbox you have to check every day.
- RSS to Email: You can use an RSS-to-email service that will monitor an RSS feed for you and email you new items when they’re posted. This may sound a bit silly — you’re just adding clutter to your email inbox, and email isn’t the best place for reading new content. This is true, but if you’ll only get a few new RSS posts every month, getting them in your email — which you already have to check — sure beats checking an RSS reader every day.
- RSS to Pocket: If you’re a user of the great Pocket service that allows you to save web pages you read on the web to read later, you can use an IFTTT recipe that connects an RSS feed to your Pocket account. Every new post on the feed will automatically be saved to your Pocket account. This isn’t the best option if you’re following frequently updated feeds — but, again, it will work well if you want to keep track of a few feeds that rarely update and read everything from them.
RSS Readers Are Still Alive
The death of Google Reader doesn’t mean the death of RSS, although it does show that Google Reader’s experience isn’t what people are looking for. Other companies are pulling together their own RSS readers that appeal to former Google Reader users. One of the most popular so far is Feedly. Feedly offers a Google Reader-style interface, but it also offers a more visual Flipboard-style interface that tries to surface the most interesting content and present it in a more appealing way — they’re already ahead of Google Reader in vision.
If Google Reader hadn’t taken over the RSS reader market and then failed to innovate, perhaps an RSS reader would have offered a more compelling experience for the non-information-junkies and captured more mainstream users.
The idea of following websites and people you’re interested in and receiving new content automatically has caught on — from Twitter and Facebook to YouTube and Flipboard. It just never widely caught on in the form of Google Reader.
Some hardcore Google Reader users will cry “But how do average people keep up-to-date with everything their favorite websites write?” The answer is simple: they don’t. That’s a big part of why the Google Reader experience is so un-compelling to most people.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 06/3/13