Digital scholarship blog

15 March 2013

The demise of Google Reader: On the path to driverless information retrieval

On Wednesday, Google announced that a range of their services are to be shut down. Google Reader – once the best and easiest-to-use RSS reader (Rich Site Summary (or Really Simple Syndication)) on the Web – is to be retired on the 1st of July. On the official Google Reader Blog, Alan Green, Software Engineer, cites declining usage and how “as a company [Google are] pouring all of our energy into fewer products.”

The demise of Reader is part of a larger trend in digital content management that has wider implications for our personal collecting of digital content. We all deal with more digital information than ever before – cultivating our own personal digital collections now – and with such vast quantities of data hurled at us, we need to apply more filters to ensure that we’re not overwhelmed. RSS – retrieving all the content produced by a selected website – is a style of filtering that worked a few years ago but is increasingly less viable. Rather than filtering to selected sources, now we filter down to individual content pieces: Pocket saves individual articles for us; Twitter and Facebook provide us with links to content deemed worthy by our friends and colleagues; Digg and Reddit ensure that only content selected collectively by the wisdom of the crowd gets pushed at us. Whether this increase in filtering is good or ill is a matter of debate.

Google Reader is emblematic of Google’s old style of ‘search’; retrieving and presenting the content that its users requested. Google’s new strategy is to give you information before you have to ask. In a 2010 interview, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said, “I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions… They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” This is the future for Google’s information retrieval: presenting selected and filtered content before your eyes with augmented reality Glasses; driving you to where you don’t know you need to be with robot cars; providing a smart digital assistant in the shape of Google Now (currently for Android Jelly Bean only but possibly to be extended to Google Chrome on the desktop). Google wants to help us deal with information deluge by filtering our information to a more granular extent than Google Reader ever allowed.

In an essay on information overload and the filters of modern society, David Foster Wallace wrote “…to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.” Google Reader once provided that help. And now we need more help, Google will have to provide it in a different way.

Some Alternatives

In the meantime, there are alternative RSS readers available for Google Reader’s devoted user-base. First, you can rescue your data from Google Reader using the Data Liberation Front’s Google Takeout service. Then you can choose one of the following:

For the original RSS reading experience, Bloglines is still around and offers a simple dashboard interface for RSS and Atom feeds. Simple, straightforward, a classic.

Netvibes is a feature-rich Web dashboard which can aggregate all your Web content: email, Twitter, bookmarks, favourites, and RSS. It offers the reading features of Google Reader and the customisable homepage features of iGoogle (another soon-to-be-euthanized Google product).

Feedly is a Web-based interface with some slick iOS and Android apps for mobile devices. It aggregates RSS feeds in a smooth, personalisable interface. However the ‘newspaper-like’ interface may be a little too different from Reader for fans of the old interface. Plus you need to download a browser extension for either Chrome or Firefox in order to use it.

For desktop or app solutions, Reeder for iOS systems works well, Flipboard is a very image-heavy app that creates a magazine-like reading experience, and Zite on Android and iOS offers a nice simple feed view.

The best option for Google Reader acolytes might be The Old Reader. As the name suggests, this is basically the old version of Google Reader – the classic pre-2011 vintage – maintained by non-Google developers. It makes it easy to import data from Google Reader and looks pleasingly similar.

Other alternatives have been collected in this collaboratively-editable Google Docs spreadsheet and CILIP President, Phil Bradley, has collected 20 good alternatives on his blog.

Simon Barron, Business Analyst, British Library Qatar Foundation Project, @SimonXIX



Not sure I agree that RSS is outmoded as a filtering method; there are times when I do need to see a feed in its entirety, not just the bits that tickled the fancy of my Twitter coterie.
And is Reeder a viable alternative? As I understand it, it works on top of Google Reader.

Thanks Tom. I'm not saying that RSS is outmoded by any means: I'll personally be moving from Reader to The Old Reader. But I think the wider trend among Web users is socially mediated content delivery. As I say, this may be good or bad.

Reeder sent out an enigmatic tweet ( the other day which suggests there is a future for the app.

A further thought: for anyone in the NHS the browser based alternatives to GR that depend on Firefox, Chrome or Safari are off-limits to us, condemned as we are to antiquated versions of IE

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