It's a rule of the web that whenever a notable change is made to something that people use and enjoy, you can expect the feedback to be outsized, unusually sharp, and spearheaded by the biggest fans of that product or service. Earlier this week, Google Reader, Google's free, web-based tool for reading news sites and RSS feeds of all kinds, had a few of those notable changes, and the reactions have been swift and sharp. But there's a deeper story behind the general dismay about the changes to a Google tool that has perhaps the most die-hard fans.
The most noticeable change was the redesign, which is in line with Google's redesigns of its Google.com search page, Gmail, Google Docs, Blogger, and, just today, Gmail, again. I know folks with much better design sense than myself, and they have valid niggles about forcing whitespace into a design for whitespace's sake, the eye stress of a white page with gray type, and responsive design. But, honestly, take it from a guy who stared at Google Reader for hours every weekday morning, for more than three years: it's not that different.
Next up, a move a lot of folks saw coming: integration with Google+. That is, when you find an item you find interesting, or which you want to add your own comment on, you're now expected to do so through the Google+ account associated with the account you're using in Google Reader. In making the move, Google Reader also dropped a lot of options that lived only inside the Google Reader bubble, or didn't reach much further: friends and followers, and buttons to "Share" items and comment on them.
So what's wrong with a new coat of paint, even if not everybody likes the color, and a trimming of services that were used by a minority of Google Reader devotees (themselves a minority)?
For one thing, Google Reader has become the de facto standard for syncing, and is used by many desktop feed-reading and magazine-style applications which, incidentally, often focus on offering a more elegant, design-forward reading experience. So there's the headache of shutting down or rewriting features that third-party Reader clients once relied on, which is a common, if unwelcome, development hassle. More to the point, though, third-party apps and tools must now decide whether to push Google+ sharing onto their own users, and how they can implement that for people who aren't quite down with Google's social network.
But there's another force at work here: the feeling of neglect around a tricky, but revered, RSS technology. People declare it "dead" all the time, but it's a core web technology that's still in use, especially as a tool for publishing and syndication content between sites. But Reader, a tool for end users to browse the RSS feeds of web sites (and Twitter feeds, and Flickr streams, and most any web service that regularly updates), has been neglected for a long, long time, relative to Google's other products. Before October's redesign preview and announcement, the last post on the official Google Reader Blog came in February 2011. Before that, announcements were mostly micro-scale, and usually not a real improvement (though Google Apps users did gain access to Reader in November 2010).
If you use Google Reader, whether on the web or through an app, you could forgive these faults. There really is no alternative for organizing, reading, and searching through lots and lots of news, blogs, and updates. Twitter? You can make lists, and every site has an account, but try searching for something that happened a month ago there, let alone earlier this year.
Reader is a specialist tool, but it rewards a good setup and careful tending. So the people who love Reader tend to be tech journalists, bloggers, media and public relations professionals, financial executives - anybody who has to monitor and keep on top of something. Not a group, in other words, that's afraid to raise a ruckus when an essential tool starts looking funny in their hands.
To be sure, there's still a simple "Email" button on each feed item, and a nifty "Send to" menu one can customize to great, geeky heights. But how much energy is Google really putting into giving Reader fans more power to find the most relevant news quickly and keep on top of the things they're interested in? A lot of that attention seems to have migrated to Google+, and Reader's savvy users aren't sure they want to hitch a ride.
Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer, a former editor at Lifehacker.com, and the author of The Complete Android Guide.