Users wonder how long it will be before the Internet giant kills off another favourite service

Within hours of Google Inc’s announcement about the imminent demise of its web content aggregation service Google Reader, timed oddly with the announcement of a new Pope, the Internet was flooded with angst about what Google called its “spring cleaning” exercise.

A euphemism for killing around 70 products over less than two years, some of which like Google Reader have a loyal but arguably niche user base, the “spring cleaning” started in 2011. So, for two whole days, #GoogleReader trended on Twitter — where else! — even as the hilarious, now ubiquitous, Hitler meme had the German dictator fuming, “How dare they take away Google Reader? Do they have any idea how much effort went into collecting all my feeds”.

More substantially, among the many petitions on the web, one on Change.org had as many as 1,42,075 signatures as of Saturday evening. The petition argued that a “huge corporation like Google, with a market cap that rivals the GDP of nations”, should not “destroy the trust” of users. “Show us you care. Don’t kill Google Reader,” it implores the California-headquartered Internet giant.

‘No rethink’

Internet uproar notwithstanding, Google, up until now, hasn’t indicated any rethink on the matter. In fact, the announcement is consistent with its policy of shutting down projects that don’t gather critical mass or don’t fit into the larger scheme. “We need to focus — otherwise we spread ourselves too thin and lack impact,” wrote Urs Hölzle, senior vice-president, technical infrastructure at Google. On the Reader blog, Google announced that the service would be retired on July 1, giving users three months to take their subscription lists and data elsewhere. Though it provides an easy exit and migration through Google TakeOut (which on first impressions appears smooth and glitch-free) the decision, Google claims is driven by the fact that there aren’t simply enough users. “Usage of Google Reader has declined, and as a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products,” it announced.

An ignored service

However, it isn’t that the announcement took tech watchers by surprise. In fact, much ink has been spilt over Google’s lack of initiative in recent years over Reader. In 2011, Chris Wetherell, whose code for news feeds was developed into Google Reader back in 2005, said not enough attention was being given to Reader. He argued that there continued to be a market for the service, which was “weirdly underserved (and is possibly affluent)”.

Indeed, when Reader launched in 2006, RSS feeds had already been around for a while. Google Reader then provided a neat and simple way of subscribing to news feeds from your favourite sites. But, what did Google Reader offer that your average RSS client didn’t?

The love affair

For starters it gave you a smart neat interface. Backed by Google’s crawler, when it came to internal processes such as content recommendations or suggestions, the Reader offered speed that few other RSS clients could. It was fast and slick, and given Google's expertise in search technologies, it offered an obviously richer search experience. Backed by Google’s crawler, when it came to internal processes such as content recommendations or suggestions, the Reader offered speed that few other RSS clients could.

An ideal tool for information junkies, it was a great way of getting news, blogs and opinions from disparate sources — a lot like Twitter. So did Twitter, also released circa 2006, kill Reader (and RSS)? Not really, say users. Though the microblogging site allows you to do pretty much the same, power Reader users will tell you that the clutter of the Twitter timeline can barely be compared to the neat, e-mail-like interface of Google Reader.

In its early years, up until 2011, Reader also allowed users to form neat communities and have exhaustive discussions around reading material that could be shared easily with friends. This functionality, which was a key attraction of this RSS aggregator, was withdrawn in 2011, in a bid to popularise Google+. Gautam John, an IP lawyer, who’s been using Google Reader since early 2006, says the greatest power of the service was this little social community. “When they removed that… I died a little on the inside because it was such a wonderful little social circle. I guess it was inevitable that Google Reader would die once we saw that happen but it doesn’t make it any less sorrowful.”

Trust issue

Back then, tech pundits read the move, which that took away the power to friend, follow and share reading material or links, as one that disregarded the interests and preferences of users, forcing a new Google+ linked avatar down their throats. Today, again, several questions are again being raised on Google and the stability of its services. What if another ‘spring cleaning’ comes along and sweeps away some of the other services that a user has invested time in and grown to be dependent on?

Mr. John points out that most Google Reader users are power users, even evangelists, and by killing the one tool they all used, you are giving them less reason to trust Google. “To me, the question I now have is how much and why should I trust any Google service when I know that there is a fair chance they will shut it down — for example, their newly introduced service Google Keep.” He, like many others, is using Google’s easy migration option (Google Takeout) to import data to other services such as Feedly and Newsblur.

Moving on

Google Reader is by no means the only way to aggregate feeds. There are general RSS feeds, many desktop programmes that allow you to manage feeds, and most browsers have reader functionalities and extensions. Google Reader’s USP that it offered the best of both worlds: a seamless experience on both desktops and portable devices. Indeed, there are many RSS aggregator options out there.

In fact, the demise of Reader may spur new innovative products, fresher interfaces and new functionalities for the user in a segment where there’s largely been a lull, barring the occasional facelift that Google dabbled in. Feedly, for one, announced that within 48 hours of Google’s announcement over 5 lakh Google Reader users migrated to it. Already, Feedly has a few positives: its magazine-like interface is visually appealing. It provides plug-ins for Chrome, Firefox and Safari on the desktop, and has apps across operating systems.

Popular social media news portal Digg announced that it is bumping up its plans to build a reader, and will focus on revisiting the social features that Google junked two years ago. Newsblur is another option, one that already offers users the old pre-Google+ experience: the share functionalities, the likes and the comment option. Pulse and Taptu allow for easy interfaces to browse feeds and allows integration with social media accounts.

The catch however, is that most feed readers rely on Google Reader’s API to sync and run their back-end function. Reader’s demise will leave them high and dry. Feedly has promised to launch a clone of the Reader API, dubbed Normandy. Similarly, most aggregators have said that by July 1, they’ll have their transitions in place.