where great branded content and engaged audiences meet

Why It’s Hard to Give Up Google Reader

Posted by

This is a post from our CEO, Roman Karachinsky.

The internet is bubbling over with outcry at Google Reader’s demise, petitions to bring it back and the usual indignation, but it seems strange that people are still so attached to something that hasn’t really changed since it launched in 2005. How many other web-based products are you using that can claim the same? (Other than maybe Gmail, and even with that, there’s arguably been significant innovation.)

The reality is, Google Reader is like a car with a manual gearbox. At some point in the beginning of the automotive era, most people drove one and thought it was the bee’s knees. But more and more technology came around that sacrificed control for comfort — first the automatic gearbox, then the self-parking and crash-avoidance and, in the near future, the self-driving car. The manual gearbox is now reserved to the rare auto-enthusiast and, even for their sport pursuits, specialized automatic gearboxes now perform better than manuals.

If you think about it, RSS underwent the same evolution — or lack thereof. In the beginning, when Google Reader first came about, it was the best way to stay on top of a bunch of feeds without having to spend time visiting a multitude of sites. Sure, it was a little unwieldy and, as the amount of content on the web grew, you had to either confine yourself to a small number of sources, or risk going overboard and staring at “1000+ unread items” each day. Still, for a while, it was workable.

Then the social Web came about and we suddenly had an automatic gearbox: We could all simply follow interesting people and curated feeds. It became much less work to keep up with news, articles and events, and you got the additional benefits of being able to interact with others around the content you were reading. At that point, RSS lost a big chunk of it’s appeal to the average user (Robert Scoble thinks that this is when it died.)

A year or two later, we’ve got the equivalent of the self-parking/crash-avoidance tech with new mobile curators, like Flipboard, Currents and Pulse — not significantly better than what we’ve been using, but still nice. Again, RSS lost some hold-outs.

And now, finally, we have a self-driving car — services that use artificial intelligence to learn your interests and find the best content for you, filtering out the noise from all of your social feeds and finding content that you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. We’re still in the infancy of this technology. Although it’s already a huge leap beyond manually-curated content, there is still a lot things to work out to make it as good as it can be. But at least, unlike with the Google Reader, there is infinite room to innovate.

But the thing is, even with the roads full of self-driving vehicles, there is still going to be a big group of people who enjoy the control of the manual gearbox – some because they don’t trust the algorithms to do a better job than they can, others because they have an OCD-ish urge to look at every headline from their favorite source. Whatever the reason, there is a certain pleasure in knowing exactly what to expect and understanding exactly how the system works. That is undeniably hard to give up.

That’s ultimately why shutting down Google Reader is a bad move for Google. The enthusiasts aren’t a group we want to alienate. They’re passionate about the products they use, and the lost good will is not worth the savings in resources or focus from shutting down Reader. These long-time loyalists are certainly not going to migrate into Google+ or Currents, if that was Google’s intention. They’ll just find another car with a manual gearbox.