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Google Reader is dying, but the open web lives on

Google announced today it will close its Google Reader service. Citing a declining number of users owing to the downturn in popularity of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds, Google Reader - which offers…

There’s still hope for open sharing of content on the web. Sue Waters

Google announced today it will close its Google Reader service.

Citing a declining number of users owing to the downturn in popularity of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds, Google Reader - which offers users a way to keep up with their favourite websites in one place in a format resembling a standard email inbox - will shut up shop on July 1.


Since taking over from Eric Schmidt as Google’s CEO in April 2011, one of Larry Page’s initiatives has been to curb the excessive number of Googles' products to re-focus the energies of the company’s engineers.

This has been carried out through a regular process, dubbed “spring-cleaning”, that started in September 2011.

The current round of spring-cleaning has claimed the much-loved Google Reader (which has been used since 2005) as its most prominent victim.

During their lifespan, products such as Reader and its ilk have periodically downloaded RSS feeds and displayed them to the user in a browser. But Reader went beyond its competitors (such as Bloglines and Feedly) in offering a user the ability to follow other users, to broadcast a particular item in a feed to his or her followers, to “tag” and classify items, and to comment on items.

In effect, this created a simple social network built around website updates. With the debut of Google’s social network, Google+, in 2011, the social networking features of Reader were merged with that of Google+.

Feeding the beast

Websites publish updates through lists called “feeds” using standardised protocols such as the RSS and Atom specifications.

RSS feeds allow viewers to keep up with websites without having to visit them at all – but this means a loss of page-views that are essential for generating the advertising turnover of the website owner.

Website owners were also unable to keep track of the people following them using RSS. Crucially, while RSS offered the ability to insert ads into the feed, it never became a viable revenue channel for the content owners.

In recent years, social networking companies such as Twitter and Facebook have lured content owners with the ability to track their content, focusing it for select audiences and monetising it through ads.

As participation in social networks has increased, the use of RSS has declined.

This has led commentators to describe the retirement of Reader as a death blow to RSS. RSS and Atom are seen as exemplars of the “open web platform” where any device, armed with software implementing open standards, is able to publish and consume content on the web without restrictions.


They are now the canaries in the coal mine of web content that is increasingly being corralled behind walled gardens of social networks and smartphone apps, carefully curated by gatekeepers who determine its visibility.

Does this mean the open web is now dead? While it may seem so, there seems to be a widening movement of web users against the walls rising around the web.

Facebook has recently seen its market share decline, particularly among younger users.

Twitter recently invited oppobrium with its arbitrary actions of limiting access to its content by non-Twitter applications.

App stores are facing declining market share and are combating the presence of malware and loss of user data.

So, whatever the fate of RSS, there is hope for open sharing of content on the web.

Join the conversation

8 Comments sorted by

  1. Chris Mulherin

    Postgrad, tutor, lecturer at University of Melbourne

    Thanks for the heads up received via my Google Reader feed.

    Please do a second installment telling the likes of me what the options are to go on scanning hundreds of posts a day without traipsing all over the web.

    And please don't use any words starting with F.


    1. Jovan Maud

      Anthropologist at Georg-August University, Göttingen

      In reply to Chris Mulherin

      Sorry to mention an F-word, but Feedly are offering what they call a "seamless" transition from their current system, which uses Reader, to one using the Reader API. Looks like it could be a relatively painless way of keeping track of the feeds without having to rely on the walled garden approach.

    2. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Chris Mulherin

      I second Chris' request for a second instalment about options to replace Google reader.

      @ George Michaelson

      'RSS as a chrome browser embedded extension' seems promising, but I don't understand it well enough to know whether it would suit me. Can you direct me to a 'RSS as a chrome browser embedded extension' for dummies?

    3. Mike Cowley

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Chris Mulherin

      Yeah, I found Feedly to be not worth using in the past and so went with Reader, but their current version at least is pretty good - I've just switched from Reader and so far so good (apart from some server capacity issues from the flood of new users which they seem to have sorted out). I like the iPad app in particular, and they promise a very smooth transition when Reader is terminated (they use Reader as their backend but say they are developing their own).

  2. Kevin Murray

    logged in via Twitter

    This is like abolishing parks and saying there'll be plenty of space for trees in private gardens.

    Google Reader also the common core of so many news apps, helping synchronise reading across platforms.

    I expect Yahoo will step forward and provide an alternative for Google Readers to migrate to, as they did Delicious. It's a great opportunity to break the Google monopoly.

  3. George Michaelson


    I dont buy this 'decline of RSS' -how would anyone know? To know demands that the head-sites report on the percentage of users fetching the RSS and atom feeds. Is that data being collated? Google can't tell us directly because they aren't exposed to that fetch rate.

    I use RSS as a chrome browser embedded extension. I'm using it all the time, every day, to get newsfeeds in a lightweight manner.

    I could believe discrete RSS reader programs are dying: thats different. I could believe google reader has low traction: my account has two blogs and thats it.

  4. Baz M

    Law graduate & politics/markets analyst

    It is actually pretty horrible news.

    I'm an adviser and investor, and do my long term and short term based research fundamentally via RSS feeds of great informative websites which are not mainstream as such and don't have apps.

    I personally dislike using websites per se, and although I like apps, as noted above not every website or RSS feed has its own apps.

    For someone whom usually appreciates Googles services, this has been a great disappointment and as such, for future references off any online or technology based service, I won't be selecting Google as my default choice.

  5. Jovan Maud

    Anthropologist at Georg-August University, Göttingen

    Note for those that want to move to a different service, Google Takeout can be used to transfer the feeds. Don't know too much about it beyond that.

    I've mentioned Feedly above, which is my reader of choice, but Newsblur and Netvibes are also getting a lot of good press. The Sage addon for Firefox is another option.