Google Reader is dead but the race to replace the RSS feed is very alive

Google Reader is dead but the race to replace the RSS feed is very alive
Today, July 1, marks the end of an era: Google Reader is officially no more. For those of you mourning this loss, we send our deepest condolences – it’s difficult, we know. You’ve grown used to this customized feed that pulls what you want from where you want. The death of Google Reader has, however, instilled a renewed interested in the RSS feed in general in developers, and you know what they say about doors closing and windows opening. What Google might not want to keep alive, plenty are inspired to reinvent – but why? And which will win the race?

The best way to answer these questions is to go back to the beginning.  

Ready, set, RSS!

RSS – officially defined as Rich Site Summary – is more popularly known as Really Simple Syndication. RSS readers grab content from whatever Web domain you want and puts it into one standard format or “feed,” making it easier to review a collection bin of information sourced from various parts of the Internet from a single platform. A user can go to his or her favorite sites and subscribe to each one’s RSS feed in order for the sites’ latest content to all show up in the user’s reader of choice. Sorry to beat a dead horse, but if you need a scenario to understand RSS better, imagine this: It’s like being Facebook friends with all your favorite sites and being up-to-date with all of their postings (minus the News Feed’s pitiful algorithm of course).

Google’s decision to eliminate Reader from its roster seems to be a clear and blaring sign of the RSS feed market edging into obsolescence.

RSS began its development in the early 90s and gave various websites the opportunity to dish out new information and users the hassle-free experience of seeing brand-new content without having to visit various sites individually. One of the first, most popular sites that offered users the option to subscribe to RSS feeds was the New York Times, and the company’s implementation of the format was revered as the “tipping point” that cemented RSS’s position as a de facto standard.

It’s become a default technology for a variety reasons, but it’s RSS’ crux that has kept it so beloved: It keeps us well-informed in a timely manner and on our terms; no subscriptions, no newsletters, no outside formatting or ads. For content providers, RSS is a tool for increasing site traffic and overall popularity as well as eliciting new (and regular) subscribers. Thanks to its growing usefulness, along with more websites offering their own feed came the onset of aggregation websites and services, including RSS feed readers.

Where RSS is today

To date, there are a great many RSS feed clients to choose from – you have news aggregators from the likes of Drudge Report, NewsNow, and Breitbart.com, and further popularized by sites like Huffington Post and of course, Google News. You also have Web-based feed readers like Google Reader and reader applications for portable devices, making it even easier for users to be on top of important updates on-the-go. The availability of these services, however, doesn’t completely cover up the fact that the demand for RSS has been on a downward spiral for a long time – in fact, Google’s decision to eliminate Reader from its roster seems to be a clear and blaring sign of the RSS feed market edging into obsolescence.

via BuiltWith.com
via BuiltWith.com

Although BuiltWith’s analysis of the Internet’s feed usage seems to project RSS as still the leading technique for content syndication, the number of sites that use it have substantially declined – every syndicator on the pie chart has experienced incredible dips in digits in the past few years, and RSS leads the pack. Over 1.9 million sites have ceased to offer RSS feed subscription to their users just this quarter.

What’s to blame for this massive decline in RSS feed use? The proverbial finger seems to point toward social media and its apparent success in infiltrating people’s daily routines. There’s simply no reason to jump into your feed reader of choice anymore when you can easily hit up Twitter for breaking news available on any topic from endless sources, or log into Facebook, where you can add and follow the Pages of Internet tastemakers and influencers you’d like to receive information from regularly, as well as see what news stories your friends are reading. Google mentioned that it was powering down Google Reader simply because there aren’t enough users to justify the service any longer; the company would much prefer to disband the team behind Reader’s maintenance and re-assign them to fewer and newer products that focus on the Web’s growing inclination toward social.

But while RSS might be down, it’s not out – and you need look no further than the current market infiltrators.

Readying the new wave of RSS 

An impressive array of companies are offering suitable alternatives to Google Reader, including AOL. “Reading and watching content are central to what people do online. As a publisher of content, we understand well that users can be easily inundated with information,” says Doug Serton, Director of Corporate Communications for AOL. “Products (like AOL Reader) can be useful in streamlining and organizing stories from people’s favorite sources.” Serton adds that in order to provide compelling content through channels and products that work for users, AOL plans to develop the current form of AOL Reader into something that has the potential to keep both consumers and publishers happy with their news discovery experience.

For an RSS feed reader to make it in today’s Web,  it needs to foster proactive interaction so that you can remain engaged without feeling trapped.

And AOL is not the only one keeping up with the times – most of these Google Reader alternatives have created mobile versions of their services to cater to the ever-growing demographic of Internet users that prefer to consume massive amounts of information while on the move. Flipboard steps the traditional RSS feed look up a notch by beautifully arranging RSS feed-sourced content into a magazine-like layout, one that has pleased and invited many new users. Digg is also one of the many hopefuls eager to get in the game for the spot Google Reader left behind. “We hope to identify and rebuild the best of Google Reader’s features (including its API), but also advance them to fit the Internet of 2013, where networks and communities like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit and Hacker News offer powerful but often overwhelming signals as to what’s interesting,” Digg CEO Andrew McLaughlin explains.

There are also rumors circulating about a Facebook-branded news reader – if reports are accurate and said product is to be patterned to the social network’s omnipresent platform, then it could only mean one thing: The death of RSS is nowhere in sight. This immense amount of attention and market competition guarantees the RSS is going nowhere. The only thing up for discussion, really, is it’s evolution. 

The future of RSS: Did Google make a huge mistake?

Google may have alienated a lot of influencers who used Reader, but let’s be real: Google can do nearly anything it wants and its loyal userbase and market presence will stay where it is. Any uproar will quiet down, and new services will spring up in its place. 

There is a chance that Google missed an opportunity, though. Google Reader might have been declining in use, but only in its current state. As we’re learning from the popularity and variety of curated content clients out there, people like to have a hand in what they’re collecting online – and that doesn’t just pertain to Pinterest and Tumblr; they want to customize their own online newspapers too and they want to do it with a social element. 

For an RSS feed reader to make it in today’s Web, it has to do more than just present an aggregate of Internet’s most important parts. It needs to foster proactive interaction so that you can remain engaged without feeling trapped. It needs to have exceptional aesthetic design so you won’t be too overwhelmed by stagnant data. It needs to be optimized for both Web and mobile use to maximize overall use. Lastly, a reader should allow you flexibility as a user by offering personalization – along with a well-designed algorithm that will intelligently weed through all the noise of the Web and give you only what’s relevant to you and your interests.

According to IBM, we collectively produce 2.5 quintillion bytes of information on a daily basis – that’s 2.5 billion billion (or 25 with 18 zeroes after it – it can’t be stressed enough how enormous this number is). The idea of your average-sized brain consuming all that data is mind-blowing, and it is for that purpose that technology has afforded us brand-new ways to experience content on all sorts of devices, in manageable amounts. So goodbye, Google Reader, you once served us well – but now it’s on to bigger, better, bolder things. 


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