Adam Mc

Thoughts on the web.

Google Reader – Part 3: The Anti-Social Update


This is part 3 of my 3 part Google Reader story. Check out Part 1 – Information Addiction or Part 2 – The Love Affair

Over the last few years, Google has tried their hand at creating a social network a few times.

  • First, there was Orkut, which was popular in Brazil & India but never really picked up in the U.S. or Europe.
  • Then came Google Buzz, which was quickly shot down due to its privacy concerns, bad user interface and Gmail integration. (Although I should note that I disagree with that last part.)
  • Most recently, they introduced Google+ and it’s still gathering steam.

Given how large their user base is, it makes perfect sense that Google would want to create a social network. However, through all their attempts, they seemed to forget about a secret weapon they’ve had the whole time: Google Reader.

When it comes to the web, one thing reigns supreme: content. Being able to find and share content is the cornerstone on which the web was built. It’s the reason Tim Berners-Lee created the web browser, the reason Napster ever existed and the reason Google, Facebook and Twitter became social media giants. People want content that matters to their interests. Delivering great and relevant content is one thing Google Reader has always done well. In October, Google made a substantial design change to Google Reader and in the process killed one of the most powerful social tools in their arsenal.

From 2007 to 2011, you could share stories in Google Reader with any of your friends who were also on Google Reader. Those shared stories showed up in their own feed called “Friends’ Shared Items” and worked just like any other feed to which you subscribed. It was a quick and easy way to see and interact with the content your friends had shared.

In 2010, those shared stories also started to show up in Gmail thanks to Google Buzz. You could comment on, like or re-share any story someone shared with you. Through this feature I discovered content I wouldn’t have found otherwise, had some great interactions with friends and broadened my understanding of what my friends like.

I could find and share content with a community of people. That sure sounds like a social network, doesn’t it?

On October 31st Google Reader changed their sharing feature to use “+1” and removed the “Friends’ Shared Items” feed.

Since then, when a user shares something in Google Reader, it doesn’t go to Google Reader or Buzz, it only goes to Google+.

Wait… What? That’s like sharing something on Facebook and having it only go to Twitter!

In order to see what my friends have shared on Google Reader or read their comments on the things I’ve shared, I now have to go to Google+.

Let’s take a look at how this works:

The old way:

  • I log into Google Reader on my morning commute and share five articles over the span of an hour.
  • Those items go to the shared items feed on my friend’s reader account and wait for her to login and read them whenever she logs on next.
  • She reads, likes, re-shares or ignores what I shared.
  • She could also see those items in Gmail thanks to Buzz where she’d also be able to like, comment or ignore them.

Result: There is possible social content sharing happening.

The new way:

  • I share five articles over the span of an hour on Google Reader using the +1 feature.
  • They go to my Google+ feed immediately.
  • My friend isn’t on Google+ all the time and doesn’t get any notification that those items have been shared.
  • She logs on to Google+ later in the day and by then those five shared articles have fallen down the list thanks to all the other Google+ activity that’s happened since.
  • She never sees those shared items.

She logs into Google Reader or Gmail and still has no idea I ever shared anything.

The beauty of Reader has always been that it created a content queue. It didn’t matter if you logged in 30 times a day or once every 30 days. The content was still there; organized and displayed by source.

By making Reader sharing part of Google+, those shared items have just become part of the social firehose. Sure, it might make me log into Google+ a little more often (which appears to be the goal) but more importantly, it has hurt Reader.

Since the beginning, using Reader to keep up with my favorite sites and learn about new things has been just as important to me as finding and sharing stories that my friends would love. Now that the social element of Reader has been removed, it went from being a personal social powered news feed to just another content source. Sure I can still share from it; but that sharing would just send it to one of three already existing non-stop content feeds: Google+, Facebook or Twitter. Once there, it would get lost amongst all the other content that already gets pushed through those channels.

With so many other sources already vying for our daily attention, Google can’t afford to lose one of the few truly personal tools it has at its disposal. By losing its “discovery” ability, Google Reader will quickly become impersonal and stale, which means users will move on to their next great content source. That will be a loss for Google AND a loss for RSS.

My suggestion: Put the sharing back into Google Reader. Give us back a feed of our friends’ shared items. You can keep the Google+ integration because, on its own, it’s pretty cool.

Here’s how it could work:

  • I share an article on Google Reader using the +1 feature.
  • It goes to my Google+ feed AND the shared items list.
  • If my friend comments on, likes or reshares the Google+ post OR the shared item, that comment is associated with that article and shows up in both Google+ AND in Reader.
  • As a bonus, If my friend is interacting with the article on Google+, mark it read in Reader!

Instead of social activity being forced to happen in Google+, it can happen in either place at a user’s pace.

Giving your users flexibility would be the best way increase their engagement.

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments or join this week’s #SheHeChat on Twitter – One of the topics will be Google Reader.

While you’re at it you should check out what Jim Raffel and Shelby Sapusek have to say about the Reader changes in preparation for tonight’s chat.

You can also join the petition to save Google Reader.

Or read my story of how it got to this point: Part 1 – Information Addiction OR Part 2 – The Love Affair

Lastly – I’d like to give a personal thank you to Silvio Rizzi – Creator of the fantastic Google Reader iOS and OSX App – Reeder. Thanks to Reeder’s stellar integration of all Google Reader features my wife and I are still using the sharing function on iPad and iPhone. If you use Reader and have an iOS device – Get Reeder. It’s well worth the cost.



  1. Great read. It truly is a loss as I used to read everyones shared articles (including yours) and now I no longer have that ability. I do not use Google+ nor will I ever make an effort to try it. Whats next, friends spamming other peoples email boxes with feeds? Not a smart move…

    • I agree. They’ve un-naturally segmented their users and that won’t end well.

      You bring up a good point about email. I already get tons of emails everyday – that inbox is the last place I want entertaining content to go.

  2. Pingback: Google Reader - Part 2: The Love Affair - Adam Mc

  3. Pingback: Google Reader - Part 1: Information Addiction - Adam Mc

  4. Good article. Now I am sad.

    I was one of those people who observed what you and Mr. Pants shared in my Buzz feed. I read stuff from from there occasionally and would share posts from time to time. It was convenient and I found the content very relevant to me. And with a network of only 4 people vying for my A.D.D. attention span, all of whom shared my science/technology interest, they did a fine job of finding content I cared about. Reader shares were about the only thing Buzz ever gave me. And for that, it was GOOD. I guess I overlooked the “Friends Shared Items” entirely because I hardly ever visited my Reader page.

    You see, once upon a time, I used Reader and subscribed to every feed Google provided that seemed even remotely interesting, based on the descriptions. It quickly became cluttered and I kept running across articles I didn’t care about. Having a child has a way of changing your priorities and I never bothered taking the time to fine tune Reader to me. Buzz solved that problem for me. I just added a few Gmail contacts to Buzz and voilla! Relevant content.

    Now that Buzz is being phased out and the link from Gmail to Reader broken, Reader is just how I remember it…overwhelming. Fix it, you say? Doubt it. My friends do a much better job of finding content I care about and I have better things to do (i.e. raising a child and spending WAY too much of my life driving in traffic).

    I like your suggestion for putting the Reader content back in Gmail. It has to be there for me to use Reader.

    • This brings up an interesting perspective that I hadn’t thought about: For you (someone who didn’t really use Reader) Buzz, and it’s Reader powered functionality, had created a small social content feed.

      By killing Buzz and changing Reader, Google effectively severed your supply line.

  5. Pingback: Changes with Google Reader (and other interfaces) – Shelby Says

  6. Adam,

    Thanks for raising this topic as an idea for our #shehechat. This is one of the things I love about social media, a single idea turned into these two posts plus two more over on our blog. Then, almost an hour of conversation last Thursday.

    It’s why I think our (collective) blogs are still the center of the social media universe. Anyone who things G+, Facebook, or Twitter can replace this is sadly mistaken.

    Hey, you changed my opinion on the Google Reader changes. I had not even really missed sharing until you mentioned and made me think. I didn’t look at my inbound stream that often (maybe once a month) but as you point out it was all queued up for me just like Netflix.

    Anyway, let’s do this again when it makes sense.

    Jim (The “he” in #shehechat)

    • Thanks for letting me invade #shehechat for the evening. It was great to discuss the topic with so many people. And yes, we should absolutely do this again.


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