When I learned Wednesday night that Google Reader is shutting down, I literally broke into a sweat. Like many journalists, I’ve come to rely on the 242 RSS subscriptions I manage through Google Reader. It’s the first thing I check every morning — second only to making a cup of coffee — and, along with Twitter and email, one of the top three resources I use to do my job. And honestly, if I had to get rid of one of those, it would be the email.
Instead, Google’s making the choice for me: As of July 1, Google Reader will be no more. “While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined,” the company wrote on its blog. I’d bet that journalists are among the most loyal followers of all, and this morning we are a very unhappy bunch. “Google Reader” is the number-one trending topic on Twitter right now.
The loss of Google Reader could change the way a lot of web journalists, like me, do our jobs. Here are some of the reasons we love the service — and why there’s an opportunity for other companies to step up and serve us (assuming we’re not somehow able to convince Google to keep Reader alive…we’ll even pay for it!).
Twitter isn’t a substitute for RSS…
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.
…and neither is Flipboard
Services like Flipboard are great if you want to see the most popular stories on a given topic. But as someone who really geeks out digital book publishing, I don’t just want to see the stories that an aggregator recommends for me because they’ve reached a critical mass. I want to keep up with the little blogs, the niche blogs that rarely surface but that do occasionally pick up on some story or emerging trend that I would simply have never learned about otherwise. Google Reader helps me keep track of what’s going on at the roots of my beat. I choose the sources I’ll follow there, and I know that I won’t miss out on one of their stories. I trust Flipboard (kind of) to link me to some big political or tech story, but I don’t trust it to “discover” the nitty-gritty stuff for me, and for good reason: It doesn’t.
In addition, Flipboard is a lean-back kind of service. I use it when I want to curl up and read. In the mornings when I’m looking for stories, I don’t want to tap through a pretty magazine-like interface on my iPad. I just want to scan headlines and text fast, and I want to do it on my laptop.
So what’s next?
Now that the panic’s subsiding a little bit, it looks as if viable alternatives to Google Reader are going to emerge. In fact, Instapaper’s Marco Arment actually thinks the closure of Reader could be a good thing for people who rely on RSS: “We’ll be forced to fill the hole that Reader will leave behind…We’re finally likely to see substantial innovation and competition in RSS desktop apps and sync platforms for the first time in almost a decade.”
Alternatives are sure to pop up in coming days. Search Engine Marketing Land has a big list here. Digg is apparently working on a Reader-like service. Feedly and Reeder, two apps that integrate with Google Reader, have already promised that they won’t die off just because the service does. “A lot of Google Reader users use their reader as a research/curation tool and need to be able to crunch through a lot of articles very fast,” Feedly wrote on its blog Thursday morning — and explained how customers can use Feedly to do just that. Reeder also tweeted that it’s staying in business, though it hasn’t explained how yet.
“I think that there is still a lot of value a service like Reader could provide — particularly in a world with increasing information overload coming us from many different sources,” Brian Shih, a former Google Reader product manager, writes on Quora. “But Reader at Google was pigeonholed as an RSS-reader explicitly, and didn’t have a chance to grow beyond that to explore that space.” Similarly, Chris Wetherell, an early creator of Google Reader, told Om that the service missed early monetization opportunities that other companies still might be able to tap into.
The good news for journalists and others who rely on Google Reader is that, while Google clearly doesn’t see a business opportunity in the legions of Reader fans, other companies do. And over the next couple of months, they’re going to be competing for our business.