Now that Google Reader is buried, we're left with lots questions for teams like Digg who will be carrying the torch. After all, part of what made Reader so great was Google's core competency in search and the ad hoc social network that popped up around the product. But the crew at Betaworks have some tricks up their sleeves, including a shared data layer that will help Digg make use of insights cleaned from siblings like Bit.ly and Instapaper.
What's Digg's big bet, in a sentence?
Andrew McLaughlin: That in a universe of vast floods of content coming at you people will find it valuable to have tools not just to organize and present but also to filter, sort, rank and distill. That’s the big bet.
What salient features is Digg missing?
Dave Weiner: We're not launching with search. Search is probably the toughest component in all of this. As you'll see, I've looked around at a lot of the other people that are stepping in and take Reader's place and for them search really becomes a headache. For launch, we only had less than three months, so we kind of punted on that a little bit, because the average user does not use it, even though the power users—the ones who do use search—really, really want search. And we want to be able to offer that, on the backend itself, but it's a big headache.
Will any of those features make money?
Dave: Everything you see at launch will continue to be free, for sure, but really the goal is to ultimately offer a bunch of different features, including some premium ones. In a sense, those that do research for their jobs, journalists and academics and the like, can use it a business expense. Something like search, which would cost more [to create], that's something that would make sense to charge people who do want and need it.
How are data from Bit.ly and Instapaper helping Digg behind the scenes?
Dave: We are using those [data] to read the signals of what people are talking about. There will be a feature in Reader at launch that's kind of like a score for a story that says "this story is being shared a lot" in your own network. For the longer view—again this is just me talking, because we haven't had time to really make too many specific plans. We have a general roadmap, but we want to see how things go and continue to fix things up. I look at things like Chartbeat, going back to some of the premium feature possibilities. For reporters who were using Google Reader, it would be great if Chartbeat could hook into this. I know a lot of my reporter and editor friends have Chartbeat constantly open. So to have some kind of hooks attached to that could be really useful. It's also a big advantage over the rest of the market.
Do you still call this an "RSS" reader?
Andrew: RSS is just one technology. We’re seeing lots more [distribution] technologies come onto the scene, particularly social stuff: Your Twitter feed, your Facebook stream, all of the things which can be feed-ified. So, RSS is certainly less important and less central than it used to be, but it’s still important and it’s still a good mechanism. Traditional web publishers still use it to get their content out there. If you’re running a new site or a blog, RSS is an awfully convenient way to let third-party apps know when you’ve got a new story. I don’t think that need is going to go away. We’re still going to have publishers. We’re still going to have third-party apps that assist with consumption. Whether RSS remains technically the most important avenue for that I think is an open question. We saw Atom come, Atom is still here, and Atom has not supplanted RSS. We’ve seen technologies like PubSubHubbub, which go beyond RSS in a lot of ways. As far as we’re concerned we love all of them equally. The bottom line is that there are sources that are constantly updating and users are going to want to know when those sources have something new and not only by visiting their website or endlessly scrolling through their Twitter feeds. If we can turn something into a feed, we will.
Jake Levine: And it’s important to also distinguish between RSS as a technology for moving data around and what we’ve come to understand as like the RSS user experience. So, the experience that we tend associate with RSS is one of sort of in two categories. It’s either the sort of power user, hyper efficient, as much content as possible in as little time as possible. That's the Google Reader [experience] and that’s the market that we hope to please and to provide value for. Granted then there’s the sort of experience that emerged alongside the iPhone and iPad, which is probably best exemplified by Flipboard—it's more of a casual product.
Dave: I look at the term "RSS" as horrible branding for what it is. RSS was never something that most people could wrap their heads around. It sounds very technical. There's nothing sexy about it. When I sit down and explain what RSS is to my parents or my girlfriend, I say forget about these terms like readers and RSS. Wouldn't it be easier to collect all of the things that you read and check every day in one place and on top of that be able to sort them and search through them? Once you start explaining it without the jargon, it makes so much sense.
Everyone knows what a "reader" app is. Did you feel the need to do outside validation anyway?
Jake: Fortunately we have a group of power users here at Digg and Betaworks in the form of our editorial team lead by David [Weiner]. His team is totally dependent on Google Reader and now Digg reader to source the content to the home page. That was sort of user group number one. We also opened up our development process to whichever users wanted to come in and take surveys and when we announced we were building a reader we put a blog post that said sign up here if you’d like to provide feedback and we had 18,000 people sign up overnight and then ultimately about 8,000 people per survey filled out a multi-page survey. We did two surveys over the … Sort of front-loaded them in the first couple months of our development process. The results of both are on the blog.
Can you really monetize a reader app?
Dave: We definitely have certain ideas about things like search. Because of the cost of that and the type of user that wants it, it seems like a no-brainer for us in terms of where that would fall. Some of the other features, we're still kind of hashing that out. After the first couple weeks, first month, let's see what the usage is like and what the feedback is like. [We will] continue to talk to some journalists and publishers and academic people who feel like they need something else and we can start catering the product for two types of people: those who would feel like they need more in a premium version.
If there's an opportunity for profit here, why didn't Google take it?
Dave: I've never understood. I think it's part of Google's character not to charge for things. With this, I'm not really sure why they never monetized it. I think you really saw in the aftermath of the announcement that they were shutting down—trust me, I've delved into more comment threads about it than I'd care to admit—and you'd see all these people say, "Please take my money! Please keep this up." They say if you're not the customer, then you're the product. And I think it hit home for a lot people in the aftermath of this—that the business needs to be sustainable. I think we're going to come to an era on the Internet where more and more people... are going to come around to the idea that it might be in their best interest to support a company that has a monetization model, because the hope for both sides (product and customer) is that it will be around for a long time.
Has Google gotten too big to service niche audiences as well as they used to?
Dave: Let's say there were 8-10 million Google Reader users. Relative to their other products, I'm sure they felt like that wasn't much of an audience. But to any other company in the world, that's a lot of people. I was annoyed at first, but it also made me realize how neglected Google Reader was. In the long run, it seems like [Reader's death] has a way of injecting new life into the whole news-reading space.
Were there any surprising top-line insights that jumped out?
Jake: There were sort of two categories of insights. One was feature specific. It turns out that 50 percent of people want an expanded view and 50 percent want a list view, which is like a designer's nightmare. We learned how many people use search and how frequently they use it. We learned what are the favorite third-party applications that people wanted to integrate into the product which is just like … It’s just super helpful to help us prioritize and sort of make the tough decisions in the development process particularly when you’re on a short timeframe with a tiny team like what we were working with. The second category of insights are sort of the bigger picture, higher level things, which were … If you go to the first survey there is a word cloud at the bottom which is like an amazing sort of view into the feedback, but it was basically like high level we want a product that’s fast. We want a product that … Don’t get too clever. Don’t show me a magazine view. Basically learn what Google Reader did right and start with that as a baseline. So, fast, clean, simple. Those were all the things that came out of the feedback process and that’s what sort of purveys our design philosophy.
How did you parse and glean insight from that many responses?
Andrew: We’re not doing a scientific research—not like, in-depth, nine-month series of longitudinal studies or anything like that. This was sort of an impressionistic effort. We’re building what we want to build, which is to say something that is informed by this big picture sense of what we want and what we think lots of other people will want, but it’s not scientifically configured. It's much more about our instincts than it is about an elaborate process. We’re flattered that you call us big shots, but you know Jake here is 100 percent of our user insights team. Dave’s like our core power user, and everybody else at Digg is either a developer or an editor. There are 13 of us total.
Google killed its own mini-social network. Are you thinking about native social features?
Dave: It's something I think a lot of us would like to do at some point. I've made real-life friends with people I met through Google Reader. I own the domain sharebros.com. Sharebros was sort of the legendary Google Reader crew, which I was on the periphery of—without coding skills, I tried to put together this whole Yahoo Pipes thing, which didn't work. But anyway, I still have the domain. I loved that part. I think it was probably the best social network maybe ever. Right now, we have to figure out if that would work. When you're Google and everyone has a Gmail address, you're kind of automatically opted in to this kind of network. Obviously we'd be dealing with a smaller pool of people. So it's figuring out the priorities. If we get a lot of feedback about that, which I'm kind of hoping for, then I think we would love to work that in. In the short-term, I think it's all about nailing the features that individuals really need. But it's hard. The Google Reader refugees are all fleeing to different places.
[Image: Flickr user Jonathan Kos-Read]