Three Lessons from the Death of Google Reader

Google's decision to shut down Google Reader has left some in the tech world feeling battered and bruised.

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Jared Newman /

Google‘s decision to shut down Google Reader has left some in the tech world feeling battered and bruised.

For many power users, Reader was once the go-to application for keeping up with the news. Like many other RSS aggregators, Reader combined posts from multiple blogs and websites into a simple, inbox-like view. But there was something about Reader’s simplicity, as well its ease-of-access as a web application, that made it extremely popular among RSS users. Even though its popularity has waned in recent years, more than 70,000 people have signed a petition asking Google not to kill Reader on July 1.

I’m not one of the protesters who is desperately clinging to Reader, or to RSS in general. I migrated to using Twitter lists a couple years ago, and am therefore a prime example of why Google no longer sees the need to keep Reader going. So instead of mourning, I’m using this as a time of reflection. Here are a few takeaways on the end of Google Reader:

Alienating Your Base Rarely Works

I’m guessing Google didn’t want things to end this way. About a year and a half ago, Google launched a major redesign for Reader, changing the look, removing a note-taking feature and, most importantly, replacing the service’s built-in sharing with Google+ integration. It’s possible that Google saw potential in Reader as a big driver of traffic and links for its new social network.

But as Buzzfeed has noted, Reader already was a thriving social network, just not the one Google had in mind. Loyal users felt burned by the changes, and Google now cites declining usage as the main reason Reader is shutting down.

Maybe things would have been different had Google nurtured Reader’s community instead of abandoning it. Brian Shih, an ex-Googler who was a product manager for Reader, argues that the service could have blossomed. “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,” he wrote on Quora.

Ironically, Digg now says it’s building an RSS reader to fill the void left by Google Reader. Now there’s a company that knows all about alienating its users and suffering the consequences.

No, You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For

Some tech pundits have used the demise of Reader to claim that free services are inherently less dependable than paid ones. “Next time, please pay a fair price for the services you depend on,” Dave Winer wrote. “Those have a better chance of surviving the bubbles.”

Winer’s assertion sounds good, but it’s debatable. Paid services can go belly-up just as easily as free ones. Sometimes they get acquired and killed by a larger company (as with Apple and Lala or Google and reMail). Other times, they just fail to get a big enough audience to sustain themselves. (See, for instance, my run-ins with dead or dying streaming music services.) The logic that “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” is pretty easy to tear apart.

Meanwhile, you’d have a hard time finding an Internet search provider that asks for any money, let alone one that’s as likely to stick around as long as Google. The same is true for social networks, web-based mail providers and countless other online services — including RSS readers.

Come Up with an Escape Plan

Since you can’t always predict which web services will still be around a few years from now, you may want to plan for the day when your most beloved services disappear. I’m not an expert on other RSS readers in particular, but Lifehacker has a good list of Google Reader alternatives. Don’t forget to grab your existing RSS data from Reader using Google Takeout. You can also try setting up Twitter lists or using news aggregation apps such as Flipboard, Zite and Pulse.