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Why Google killed off Google Reader: It was self-defense

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It’s not a huge surprise that Google is dropping Google Reader, the blog reader it operated since 2005. After all, they’d let it go for some time now (not that I’m complaining – it was after all, a free service, a fine product, and a boon for the overall ecosystem of blogging, podcasts and RSS).

The reality, though, is that Google operates at vast scale, and a niche consumer product like Reader just doesn’t move the needle. As crazy as it may sound, today even a billion-dollar business is simply a distraction to Google (unless, of course, it’s well on the way to becoming a five-billion-dollar business).

So all those who are signing petitions to Google  (and even one to The White House!) are missing the bigger point: that this is a victim of the company’s DNA, one that’s accelerated under Larry Page’s management. Some companies specialize in keeping the status quo, others specialize in moving forward. Google is the latter. If the company maintained every niche product with N thousand fans, even paying ones, it’d become the very bungling bureaucracy we love to hate. For a company with Google’s ethos and standing, any such dead-end, non-revenue-producing product that’s retained is holding others back, and prevents the company from moving forward and making true innovations instead of incremental improvements.

Open standards just a means to an end

While Google is giving up on Reader, I believe the company will still embrace subscriptions in a big way, just without RSS (by which I mean RSS, Atom, PubSubHubbub, etc.) Sure, they may continue to lean on RSS as part of their technical infrastructure – e.g. Googlebot will still be crawling external RSS feeds to identify fresh content – but users won’t see those three letters or the shiny feed icon that accompanies them.

To understand why Google’s walking away from RSS, look at Google’s relationship with open standards over the past decade. Google has experimented with various open technologies and found it difficult to win over Google-scale audiences and developers. The list of casualties would include OpenSocial (present in Orkut but not Plus), Activity Streams (present in Buzz, but not Plus, though certainly an inspiration), Social Graph API (no longer available) and RSS (not just Reader, but Feedburner is fading out and podcast app Listen was killed months ago).

Furthermore, Android has been a stonking success for the company, and while it may be open source, with a relatively open store policy, it’s not particularly based on open standards in the way that ChromeOS, WebOS, and now Firefox OS are.

So overall, Google’s lesson has been to lead with a compelling user experience first and then build an API from there, an API which may be based on open standards, but only if it’s a means to an end. Developers are much more attracted to a big market than a glorious proclamation of Open. It’s this philosophy that explains why Google has been so cautious with the Google Plus API.

Doubling down on media

Google isn’t giving up on blogs and media. Far from it. They already have Google News, Google Currents, and Google Now. And on Plus, they have vibrant product pages and communities. The Economist, Time, and ESPN all have over 2 million followers, for example.

This comes at a time when Facebook has been facing a backlash from journalists, with people saying that unless you’re paying for sponsored posts, it doesn’t show up in streams. Facebook’s recent design aims to fix this with a separate Subscriptions area, but as discussed on this week’s TWIT, it’s looking more like they experimented with subscriptions, that it wasn’t core to their business of connecting individuals, and now it’s off to the side.

So Google has an opportunity to win over media brands right now, and I believe they’ll be placing an emphasis on this in their own apps like Currents, as well as on Google Plus proper. In many respects, Currents is exactly what you’d expect from Google in 2013. It’s pretty, mobile-native, and “just works” without anyone having to learn the details of RSS.

Looking further ahead, Google has a vision heavily influenced by machine learning. The company has long known that the best search is the one you didn’t have to make, and this always-on attitude is now coming to fruition with Google Now. Google Now anticipates what users might be interested in at any time, and that includes the kind of articles people might presently be discovering on Google Plus.

Reader’s demise is understandably a sad moment for many, but I believe in time, it will be a positive for the overall ecosystem. Google simply wasn’t innovating on Reader, and as people shift over to services like Feedly or Newsblur (and new ones are popping up as I write), those companies will have extra incentive to innovate and extra resources to do so. Meanwhile, Google will continue to work on what it does best: boiling oceans and shooting for the moon.

Michael Mahemoff previously worked at Google and is founder of cloud podcasting service Follow him on Twitter @mahemoff.

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74 Responses to “Why Google killed off Google Reader: It was self-defense”

  1. Reblogged this on projectz and commented:
    Interesting take on the demise of Google Reader and Googles relationship with open. Not sure I agree Google couldn’t have turned Google Reader into a cash cow it’s was potentially providing a very direct set of search/personal data about people’s choices and what interests them on the web.. However it is what it is, and the world will keep spinning.

  2. Julian Bond

    Um. G+ still supports Activity Streams and uses it to produce JSON for it’s read API. The Google provided reference implementation of PSHB is still running.

    So I think saying that Google is abandoning open standards is a bit over-stated.

  3. realjjj

    Google keeps moving the needle a little bit every day ,they are loosing their soul ,they are losing the users that made Google what it is .They might as well change their name to Microsoft now, it’s more fitting.
    Just watch how people start jumping ship . on search that started a while ago, Android will get dumped once FF OS , or Ubuntu ,or something else, at least as open as Android , becomes decent. Youtube will soon get payed content and that’s the start of the end for it’s supremacy.,
    You can’t anger you core users again and again with no consequences.
    They removed ad blockers from the play store and announced Google Reader’s death on the same day ,would be bad enough if it was the same decade – the timing was also hilarious ,they harmed the S4 launch ,Samsung got to be pissed.

  4. buddylw

    I think it’s a shame that Google stopped innovating reader. I actually stopped using it when they removed a bunch of features back in 2011. It would be nice if google would sell off (or better yet, open source) reader if it doesn’t want to support it anymore.

    Someone could bought the old reader, I would gladly pay for the service. I would pay $15/mo for what Google had back before 2011 sharing (to rss) and all.

  5. John Farnham

    Perhaps Google is not naive and we are. I’ve had free services terminate before and expect to have the same happen again. More of a pain would come from loss of my Bookmarks than from a particular RSS aggregator/sharing utility. More mashups are bound to occur, driving use in new directions. Compared to loss of Marigold files – do you even remember it ? – loss of Google Reader and iGoogle are just ways to take me away from the Google infrastructure.

  6. alejandroochoa

    Google News is very bad. You can go to the website of your favourite newspaper(s) /or any newspaper or magazine directly and it would be a bad idea to get there through the filters set by Google. Google Currents is good. Google Now is unnecessary.

  7. lakawak

    Google killed off the Reader because like most of their products, it was a miserable failure and they will allow it to sponge off the revenue generated by their only success…advertising…for so long.

  8. Google has several hundred million ACTIVE Google+ users, and G+ has become the fastest growing social network in history, despite what people say who don’t use G+ or do not participate on the platform. Google News (that is doing the RSS work behind the scenes), Google saved searches, and Google+ niche curators have supplanted the need for Reader for most people who are moving with the flow. Robert Scoble and Steve Gillmor also have finely tuned Twitter newsfeed lists that serve their former RSS needs.

    It’s hard for Google to be concerned about 1 million total Reader users (if the total is that high) when more than 1 million new users seem to be coming to Google+ each day.

    I do think that Google could have done a much better job of explaining the situation; it could have held G+ video hangouts with individuals using Google Reader and together an alternative plan might have been developed. I’d like to see that approach in the future. However, this corporate world is a dog-eat-dog world with Microsoft-Facebook-Klout and Apple (and Amazon) working to take revenues from Google, and sometimes it’s necessary to cut off your hand to escape from something that is bogging you down and finish the mountain climb alive.

    • 10 million power users are much better than 100 million lurker that are being dragged to G+ every step of the way. G+ failed to provide what Facebook lacked – user control of content, instead they decided to make yet another Facebook and drag users from other google projects into it. Nice try google, but no. As long as I don’t have control of what I read, and instead you try to shove a nicely formed stream of garbage down my throat – keep G+ to yourself.
      And they had a gracefull way out of this situation too: just letting people read RSS from inside G+ and sharing it, more categorization, more user control over content, more pageviews and, more ads to show to users. But they decided to drop it, making anyone think twice before relying on google for any service and making “cloud” much less attractive to the end user (cloud chromebook for 1400$ anyone?), yet again proving that once you put things there, you’re totally at the mercy of the corporation.

    • It’s not 1 million, it is 10 million.

      And the “why using X when Google+ is the one and unique tool that will repalce them all” is exactly the kind of argument that make people upset and angry.

      The problem is not just that we have one less tool, the problem is we don’t want to use Google+ just because Google tell us to do so.

      Google+ might be a good aternative to twitter and facebook, but if you think the internet is just twitter and facebook, please consider the fact that not everyone agree.

  9. David H.

    Just how much was Google Reader draining from Google? It looked to me like they basically just kept the server live, and harvested all our data. That costs them essentially nothing, and gets them something valuable. Plus, it kind of a proof of concept of how cloud applications really could be superior to locally run applications. I don’t really see the benefits of killing it, but I do think that by killing it, Google misses out on a whole lot of opportunities and throws away a big win.

    • Michael Mahemoff

      It would be nice, but it’s not physically possible unfortunately. The cost is not just one or two engineers to keep the server warm; it’s the risk of liability if something goes wrong. Google has a lot more to lose than your average startup.

      So if you argue Google should keep Reader running, you logically have to have to justify that it’s worth them throwing significant resources at it. Which may be plausible, but it’s a different argument.

      (Discussed here –

    • lakawak

      Digg! Classic! The new Digg just took everything that was bad abut the old digg…everything that caused the old Digg to lose over half of its pageviews, and threw away what was good. Thus why the new Digg gets less than half of what the old Digg got when it was sold. Still has the SAME exactly spamming sites…but now there is no way to call them on their spamming.

  10. It’s just proof that Google does not understand the fundamental principles that underlie social network theory, particularly the “90-9-1” model where 1% are power users that create content, 9% are contributors that disseminate it, and 90% are lurkers that passively consume.

    Google Reader is an invaluable tool of both the contributors and the creators — while the majority population of lurkers are content to browse whatever happens to land on the front page of Reddit, Twitter, or Facebook, the social pollinators of the 9% and 1% depended on the focused efficiency of Reader to quickly sort through and digest the myriad sources from which the content of those larger social networks originate. They’re smaller in raw numbers, but crucial to the ecosystem of blogs and distribution channels of information that make up a huge chunk of the internet.

  11. “Learn the details of RSS”? I’ve never understood this – an RSS reader is about as simple to set up as a facebook page or a twitter account.

    Google blew a huge opportunity with Reader. It was social before social, it taught people to follow before Twitter. They could have built something great.

    Currents absolutely sucks – “Favorite publications, tuned for your tablet and smartphone”? Publications are dinosaurs, why do I care about publications?

    And Google Now is only useful if I trust Google with all my information. If I don’t use their Calendar, Gmail or search, what good is it?

    • Michael Mahemoff

      Keep in mind a lot of people don’t understand the difference between “a web browser” and “the internet”. Whether we understand why, it’s a fact that RSS hasn’t gone mainstream in the same way that Twitter and Facebook have. (Stated in present tense as it still can do so.)

  12. Bill Williams

    Or put another way, RSS is open and google is closed.

    We always knew the “open” mantra was just bullshit to try and pretend like android wasn’t stolen goods.

    Too bad millions of idiots believed them, that and the “don’t be evil” slogan. Here’s a hint- if a company is telling you that it believes in not being evil, they are evil. Honest companies never think that they need to tell you they aren’t evil.

  13. Was it also “self-defense” when Google removed Reader’s social features (ruining a community) & merged it with Google Plus (to lukewarm results) last October? In hindsight, they scored two own goals with one kick — & ruining a fine news aggregator — while searching for the right formula vis-a-vis Twitter & Facebook.

  14. Seriously? Google Reader “just worked” without the user needing to know the details of how RSS works, too.

    It’s another incremental step in shifting control from the individual toward Google over how you will organize and consume Internet content.

    The irony is that some people still think Google is somehow more open and trustworthy than Apple or Microsoft. Killing Reader is about improving control over you and how you access information, the resource and the base of Google’s profits.

  15. Chris Parsons

    I agree with the other comments (except Minnie) – for me personally Google Reader is a perfect way of keeping in touch with the blogs and feeds of a neatly refined personal selection of sites – without any of the chaff and noise of Twitter, and without the need to be distracted by ‘socialising’. Yes, there are other RSS compilers – but the fact that there was a big ‘Google’ at the top of Reader, made everything seem so parsimonious and straightforward, and conversely increased my respect, fondness and loyalty for the ecosystem.

    Yes – it is relatively niche by Google’s standards, but as the petition shows, it is surprisingly highly valued. Can you honestly tell me that keeping it ticking over would be such a ‘weight’ around Google’s ankles that it would in any way be impeded in moving forward? Just keep it simple – most of us quite like that! At this point, I think the good PR in deciding to keep it going after all, would be worth far more than whatever way it thinks it would be better off without it.

    • Michael Mahemoff

      I can’t tell you that it would be a huge weight. Google are the ones with the stats and so the best equipped to make those judgments. I can only say that you’re correct that Reader alone won’t hold back self-driving cars, but the sum total of Jaiku and SketchUp and many others *were* holding Google back from focusing on the long term.

  16. e0nline

    Not only do they not seem to get social, they don’t even seem to get how people use the web.

    With 1000+ RSS subscriptions, Reader is how I interface with the web 90% of the time. Google is losing 90% of my viewing time by killing one single product. That time will be spent on some other reader, but certainly not G+ or Currents or any of their existing products.

    Google, once the ultimate geek company, is trying to go AOL on us.

  17. Mark 'Rizzn' Hopkins

    Self defense? That’s the explanation? Please.

    This is Google proving that it doesn’t get social, and will refuse to listen to the wizened social elders within the company.

    You lose the influencers, you are welcoming the end. TCSAC is right – this is google willingly reducing the size of their reef. The less time I spend on the Google ecosystem, the easier it is for me to navigate to another home cloud.

  18. rendallren

    By jettisoning Reader, Google undermines the trust I had in all of its projects. Which of the following will go away? Gmail, Maps, Voice, Sites, Groups, Talk, Apps, googleapi, App Engine, Docs, Analytics, Webmaster, Drive, Code, Plus, Hangout? Etc, etc, etc.

    I have come to depend heavily on Reader, but that pales in comparison to Groups or Docs/Drive, not to mention Gmail. The silver lining is that this is a fairly cheap lesson. Do not ignore or explain away red flags. This is one.

    • elfonblog

      I agree. My love affair with Google is OVER. The occasional updates to Gmail and Reader used to irritate me; features excised and mandatory changes to look and feel. I waited years for Google to add filters to Reader so I could hide or reorder to the end of the list, uninteresting topics like Paris Hilton, iPhone, Palin and cannabis appliance reviews in tech blogs. Now, I look to them as signs that Google is still supporting them. Come to think of it, it’s been a while since they screwed with my Gmail… uh oh. $10 says they’re about to launch “Gmail+ which lets all your friends read your email!”.

      I can’t buy an Android phone, robot car, or electric glasses without worrying that Google will suddenly drop support for it; and all indications are that they will. Bloggers will wonder if it’s worth it to write about some new tweak added to a Google product when it’ll get yanked someday when it’s not one of the top 4 traffic attractors.

      I think it’s time I just hosted my own webmail and RSS servers. There are some powerful free and open-source products that do all the same things and are just as pretty. It wouldn’t be any trouble at all to hang this onto my existing email and web server at home.

      • Well, some molecules are more active than the others. And tend to lead other molecules, creating trends and such. Keeping Reader would benefit Google in keeping tech-minded crowd of fans. Instead they chose to alienate them. Try to guess if geeks will advice their less tech-minded friends to use google products now? If they can’t be sure if this product will last. I started thinking of dropping GMail and GTalk because of Google Reader’s demise at the hand of Google.

  19. toocleverisdumb

    Why do so many people not understand RSS, including those that should. Differentiate between information and content and users and consumers…

  20. You’re completely missing the point. Reader kept users eyes on google. Letting them defect to other services like feedly and newsblur is less ads served… which is less money made. To insinuate people will switch to a mobile only app (currents), or google+ (because people using reader clearly only subscribed to major news outlets) shows you have put even less thought into the situation than google appears to have done.

    If “moving forward” means alienating existing users, I guess you can say that’s a strategy. I’d say it’s a good way to encourage users to move wholesale to other services because they can’t trust you to continue providing services for any length of time.

    Let me guess – twitter is the answer?

    • Eduard Ruzga

      I agree to you, my day was starting with igoogle in which reader/gmail/tasks/calendar were widgets. It was my homepage.
      And now what, igoogle and reader will be gone?
      And from there I usually went to reader to check latest news in few sections, and I have hundreds of subscriptions there, to twitter users, to blogs, to sites, to torrent feeds etc etc etc.

      Now it seems I will end up making my own igoogle alternative and so far am trying to get used to using feedly, which means my day will not be starting with google anymore.

      For me it seems its a loss for both google and me… So I am sad but I will move on without google as google moves on leaving me behind, whatever.

      True problem I see behind all this is that I fear that I will loose trust in google, they are killing their products a lot. So why bother using proprietary services that do not have transition plans in case of closing down, I’d rather find some federated version which I can host myself in case original service dies…

  21. gregorylent

    google+ will go, no users .. google chrome too, it has become worthless, too many crashes, links don’t open, bloated .. so, keep moving forward, ok .. saves from having to actually perfect something

    • your comments are completely out of touch with reality. there’s a reason why every technical person i know uses chrome – if it was buggy or slow we’d abandon it instantly. that’s why we all quit using firefox, actually.

    • Sorry, but you’re delusional. Chrome is phenomenal as a browser and very good as an OS. Google+ is at 400 million users and growing at the same pace Facebook was during a comparable phase of their history.

      It would be nice if we could use Google profiles to comment here.

    • You’re delusional. Google+ has 400 million users and is growing at the same pace as Facebook at a comparable time in their history. Chrome is a phenomenal browser and a good OS.

      It would be nice if we could comment with a Google profile here.

    • I got so fed up with all of Chrome’s problems that I switched back to Firefox weeks ago. My computer speed has improved by a factor of 2 or 3 with no more browser crashes.

      With Reader disappearing, I’m pretty well fed up with Google. What next? Google search grinding to a halt? Google Maps unable to perform properly?

      Given Google’s recent attitude, I’m setting up Bing as my default search engine and would suggest others consider doing the same with it as well as other Google products until Google gets the message. Google’s mantra used to be “the user comes first” wasn’t it? No more.