2013-06-25

The One Google Reader Feature Nobody’s Figured Out How To Replace

As the demise of Google Reader gets closer, users are finding that most of the new RSS feed readers lack a seemingly simple feature: search. Is it technically feasible for anyone to fill Google’s shoes?



In one week, Google Reader will disappear. Until that long-dreaded moment arrives, the service's most dedicated users are getting settled in elsewhere and sizing up their new feed-reading digs. A handful of alternatives have done an impressive job of replacing Reader's core functionality, but there's one thing the newcomers haven’t mastered: search.

It’s only natural that this particular feature--the ability to run a query across countless pieces of content at once and get relevant, accurate results--would be front and center in a product with “Google” affixed to the front of its name. But these new entrants don’t have that luxury and thus need to build their own solutions to search. In most cases, the developers are still plugging away at this particular problem.

“We're not launching with search,” says David Weiner, the editorial director at Digg, which is just one of the companies rushing to finish their Google Reader replacement before this weekend. “Search is probably the toughest component in all of this.”

For Weiner and RSS power users like him, the ability to search across every item in every feed is a must-have. But this is one thing that Google was uniquely positioned to provide thanks to its robust search technology, which handles tasks far more complex than this every second of every day. It's possible for others to replicate this functionality, but not quite as easy as it was for Google.

“We kind of punted on that a little bit, because the average user does not use it, even if the power users--the ones who do use search--really, really want search,” Weiner says. “And we want to be able to offer that on the back end itself, but it's a big headache.”

Digg isn't the only company shipping a post-Reader RSS application without internal search. The mega-popular Feedly has its own "search" box but hard-core Google Reader transplants will be disappointed to find that it merely searches publications and other content sources and not the items in the subscriber's feeds. Hive, another Reader replacement doesn’t even have a search box at all. NetNewsReader, a desktop RSS client for Macs does have an internal search feature, but its post-Google Reader mobile apps are still under development, so it’s not a viable cross-platform option quite yet.

For its part, Digg is looking at adding cross-feed search as one of the numerous premium features it’s planning on adding after the launch later this week. After all, whoever steals the RSS crown from Reader’s ashes will face a task much more challenging than building a mini-search engine: actually making money.

The lack of internal search probably won't outrage most users, who simply want a way to quickly and elegantly consume the latest articles and blog posts from their favorite sites. But for the large contingent of journalists, bloggers, and others with research-intensive jobs, the wait for a native feed content search will undoubtedly feel like a long one.

What This Story Is Tracking

It’s been three months since Google ruffled many a feather by announcing the demise of its RSS feed-reading service. After the wave of outrage from Google Reader’s most passionate users subsided, the Internet quietly went back to its normal business as RSS’s most dedicated devotees started looking for a replacement. Eyeing an opportunity in the void left in the giant’s wake, a handful of companies and developers began working on their own Google Reader substitutes. So where do things stand?

Doomsday is almost here. In a few weeks, Google Reader will no longer be accessible to its longtime users, who are routinely reminded to back up their data. Where is everybody going? Which developers will most effectively rise to the occasion? We’re reviving this news-tracking story to document the final days of Google Reader and give readers a crystal-clear picture of what’s on the horizon for RSS and online reading.


Read on for previous updates


How Feedly Plans To Keep Your Google Reader Addiction Going Strong

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks at the Feedly headquarters. As the July 1 deadline approaches, the team there has been diligently building out a full-fledged RSS feed-reading solution before Google Reader disappears forever. Today, it’s here.

Crafting a replacement for a product like Reader is no trivial task. Its users spent untold hours in front of Reader’s UI, yet at the same time are looking for something new. Recreating yet simultaneously iterating a product live in front of an eager and growing audience is not easy, but Feedly appears to have pulled it off.

“The Feedly cloud is very close architecturally to what was providing Google Reader,” says Feedly cofounder Cyril Moutran. “In the backend, we are fetching and monitoring over 50 million feeds. On the front end, we are serving the requests for the Feedly readers as well as the third-party API developers.”

In addition to its own native feed management engine, Feedly today unveiled a stand-alone Web version of its interface that, unlike its prior iteration, doesn’t require a browser plug-in to function.

Feedly is also now a platform. The service’s API is available to developers who want to expand on the product or mash it up with other services. Some of the third-party integrations available out of the box include IFTTT, Sprout Social, NextGen Reader, gReader, and others.

Much of the madness at Feedly HQ leading up to July 1 has centered around ensuring scalability. We still don’t know how many users Google Reader had, but suffice it to say that the shutdown has left millions of people on the lookout for something new. The Feedly cloud is powered by 50 Web servers, and the team is expected to add more hardware as the deadline approaches.

It’s a good thing, because Feedly’s growth has been explosive. Since the March announcement of Google Reader’s demise, the service has added 8 million new users, settling in at today’s final tally of 12 million. Expect to see that number climb even higher as last-minute stragglers realize that July 1 is closer than they realized.

June 17, 2013

Are you ready for Really Social Syndication? If the latest rumors are true, Facebook could be the next company to offer up its own RSS-reading solution in the wake of Google Reader’s demise.

Scottish developer Tom Waddington recently discovered a few lines of code within Facebook’s Graph API that seem to hint at the possible addition of RSS feed-reading capabilities within Facebook. Well, the code references “rssfeeds” and doesn’t get much more specific than that. It’s far from conclusive evidence of a Facebook-branded RSS reader but it could mean that the social networking giant is looking to expand its users’ ability to consume--and more widely share--content from the web.

For Facebook, the move would certainly make sense. Without getting a peek at Google’s metrics, it’s safe to assume that Reader’s most devout users spent quite a bit of time with their eyeballs fixated on those feeds. An built-in RSS reader would grant Facebook two strategically important things: 1) Even more of our fractured attention spans than the sizable chunk we’re already wasting on Facebook and 2) A pipeline of fresh content affixed with hard-to-miss sharing buttons, which would boost engagement metrics well beyond the set of users who have any clue what RSS feeds are.

Are users ready for this? Reading is an activity that requires sustained focus, which is hard enough with distractions waiting just a browser tab away. Facebook is explicitly designed to keep you distracted, with real-time notifications of social activity, a list of friends to chat with, exes to stalk, and so many other time-wasting rabbit holes. Then again, if Facebook is indeed working on a feed reader, perhaps they’re taking those user experience design considerations into account.

Would you feel comfortable turning to Facebook for your feed-reading habit? Have you already settled in elsewhere? Feel free to chime in in the comments.


June 13, 2013

Prepare to see reading apps improve as never before.

There is no shortage of feed-reading solutions either under way or already in the marketplace. Each has its devotees, but last-minute Google Reader refugees will be looking for a long-familiar blend of cross-platform support, ease-of-use, and simplicity. Thanks to Google’s failure to pursue a business model for Reader, those users will likely cringe at the thought of paying to keep their news-feed addictions satiated.

We’ve been told that Digg is working on its own replacement, but one has yet to surface. Flipboard was quick to pounce on the opportunity and started ingesting users’ Google Reader feeds into its wildly popular mobile reading app. When I asked where Reader users are going via Twitter, I got mostly expected responses, save one: Feedbin.me was recommended by technology writer Jon Mitchell, who said, “Since I use it behind the same client, my reading experience hasn’t changed.” Feedbin.me, indeed, plugs into Reader for iOS and a host of other popular apps. But there’s a catch: It costs $2 per month.

Will people pay to read their RSS feeds? “Not after Google gave it away for free,” Mitchell added. “The onus is on client developers to expand people’s minds about what reading is like.” Expect some radically new reading UIs to emerge as news aggregator apps attempt to prove their value.

Feedly, a cleanly designed client for RSS feed readers, is generally considered one of the most promising replacements, and it’s the one I’m now using. It bears a striking resemblance to Google Reader’s core layout and functionality, but layers on enough of its own UX elegance and extra features to feel like something new. The Feedly team started pushing their own native feed management engine--codenamed “Normandy”--into production several weeks back and recently managed to finish it off without disrupting their users one bit.


March 26, 2013

What’s RSS Worth, Anyway?

Marco Arment explains how RSS keeps homegrown blogs alive, and why you’re probably using it wrong. And the increasingly likely possibility of losing FeedBurner loomed large at CSS Tricks, where they explain why it’s poised to get shuttered by Google, and what FeedBurner users can do to jump ship. In the spirit of piling on Google, The Financial Brand blog points out that Google Alerts is another broken, forgotten product that many people still love.


March 20, 2013

Which Google Project Holds The Smoking Gun?

People have blamed Google Plus for outmoding Reader in the eyes of the company brass. Agonizing Reader fans further, Google rather abruptly announces Keep, an Evernote copycat which syncs with a new Notes app that will come stock on Android phones.


March 14 - 19, 2013

Alternatives

After coming to terms with losing Reader, the focus of the conversation shifts to alternatives. Just one day after the announcement, social sharing platform Digg says it is building a reader app. Popular Google Reader client Feedly similarly assures users that they had long prepared for Reader's demise and had already built a new backend for users that does not rely on Google. Slate runs an interactive graphic of Google's product graveyard.

Et Tu, Google?

One of the most widespread criticisms of Google's announcement was the lack of transparency about the reasoning for shutting down the service. Ex-Microsoft Windows Chief Steve Sinofksy criticizes the announcement for citing usage statistics without putting them in context. Robert Evatt of the Tulsa World ties the Reader discontinuation to rumors that Google is planning to launch a newsstand service to compete with Apple.


March 13, 2013

Reader Gets The Axe

Citing "a loyal following" but noting that "over the years usage has declined," Google announces the closure of Reader in a post to its official blog. Early reactions are immediate and mostly negative, although some high-profile figures such as RSS pioneer Dave Winer write that the withdrawal of the market leader will lead to new opportunities in what was a mostly static space. CNet catalogs five good Reader alternatives.

[Image: Flickr user Kevin Dooley]






Add New Comment

7 Comments

  • MikeO3

    I have been using Thunderbird mail for a very longtime to handle my RSS feeds. Search works very well and no cost for licensing on any OS platform.

  • RocBusinessman

    FYI - Microsoft Outlook (believe it or not) has both a reader and search and indexing capability.

  • ohnonononono

    The alternatives all suck, or they aren't free. There's a reason Google is scrapping it. They were giving away a free product that they couldn't figure out how to monetize. 

  • inklenotrump

    Every time I see an article on the demise of Reader, I get angry all over again. It's the first major misstep at Google that has directly affected me and I guess that's why.