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Why people are coming down hard on Google Reader's changes

Users are coming down hard on recent changes to Google Reader. Kevin Purdy explains what has changed and why so many are upset.

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.

Deeper story

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.

New paint

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).

Specialist tool

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.

About

Kevin Purdy is a freelance writer, a former editor at Lifehacker.com, and the author of The Complete Android Guide.

10 comments
badugu
badugu

Having experienced two disk failures in a course of one week, I was determined it is about the time to move out to the cloud. One of the things I needed to have online were my RSS subscriptions. I started to use Google Reader, and although the new design also in my opinion wastes too much space on gaps among articles, and also the difference between read and unread article is not enough visible in the new desing, I don't mind. The one thing that I miss terribly in Google Reader is a possibility to store enclosures online. Take BBC Click! podcast, for example: it is stored online on the BBC server for a period of approximatelly 3 weeks and then it's gone forever. Given Google's enormous storage capacity and availability of inline player in podcasts, I thought that the MP3 files will be automatically downloaded and remain available for me even after they have been deleted on the original location, but Google Reader only provides links to these files. I hve to stick to iTunes, or NewzCrawler, or even archaic FeedReader to have the MP3 files available later when I find time to download them to MP3 player for listening. These are, however, not online tools, although I can use services such as Dropbox or box.net to automatically upload the files to the cloud. I'm sure Google Reader developers would please many podcasting enthusiasts if they would implement the functionality of automatic downloading of enclosures, but I do not know if there is anyone at Google who really listens to what users really want. I have a feeling they like to do things their own way. Until such functionality is missing in the Google Reader, I'm afraid it is not good enogh, with or without design changes. Or. perhaps, does anybody of you know about any online RSS feeds aggregator that would automatically download podcast enclosures for later download and use? I would really apreciate if anybody would share wiht me a link to such a great service, if it exists at all.

fjpoblam
fjpoblam

With the (much increased) amount of whitespace versus news per screen, and the resulting decreased efficiency of reading: gimme Techmeme anytime.

TAPhilo
TAPhilo

Black on Grey, lt grey on grey - I get all those UX people have 20x15 eyesight and 30" wide screens that they tested it on (like this Cnet comment box). Higher the contrast the easier it is to physically read something. So staring at something that is tonally so similar will give people eyestrain after doing it all day long - and much worse if you are older and have to wear reading glasses since by just having them you lose contrast due to the physical two reflective surfaces in front of your eyes. But NOOO, they likely tested it out on themselves and all their 20x15 eyesighted friends on those 30" monitors and found NO issues at all of people reading it when it was the ONLY thing on the monitor . . .

kpdriscoll
kpdriscoll

Some simple theme accommodations would take care of the readability, one would think. I use the unchanged "email" button heavily, so I'm happy its unchanged. I also post on Google+, so I like that better than "like" or "share" as well, though it was neat to see who else "liked" each item. I'm glad they're keeping it maintained because its such a nice web tool to centrally track not just RSS feeds, but Twitter and podcasts that make RSS distribution accommodations. The fact that Android Listen still works well is also key for me and my podcast addiction.

wlramsey
wlramsey

I cannot quite place my finger on it, but it seems very uncomfortable to look at anymore. I have only been using it for about 6 months or so now, and I really liked it. But now it is very hard for me to look at for some reason. The other thing that I do not quite like is it is harder to determine which articles have been read already. Before, unread posts were in black and read posts were in gray. Now they all show up in black, so I have to pay attention to the unread number when I am skimming or pay attention to see if I have already skimmed that one before. I agree with a previous post that maybe it wouldn't be so bad if there were some choices of themes. I have not found a place to change this. Other than that, it is not terrible, just uncomfortable.

seanferd
seanferd

Plenty of people are reporting that due to the unnecessary whitespace (hello, TR) and the addition of unmovable extraneous junk, Reader is rendered far less unusable on some devices. It's just the full-of-themselves "UX" people at it again, attempting to make themselves relevant, and to look like they deserve a paycheck. If Reader has been "neglected", fix or update functionality. Don't paint the house purple with pink polka dots for no good reason. edit: Oh, good one, TR. Now converting apostrophes into circumflexes. FIFY. Would you guys, I don't know - get your heads on straight?

cbader
cbader

I can get used to the UI changes, and since I dont use it as a sharing platform the integration with Google+ is lost on me. What I dont like is how slow and buggy it is now. I used to scroll through pretty fast and easily, but now its not scrolling evenly because its constantly hanging up. Then when it does hang up I cant scroll through the left hand menu with all of my subscriptions. Not happy right now at all.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Are you a devotee of Google Reader? Do you like or dislike the recent Reader design changes?

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Can you point me to where you are seeing a problem. Believe it or not, we really do care about this stuff.

iPhoneDude777
iPhoneDude777

One thing that I really liked was the ability to have friends simply click "Share" and I could see the posts that they shared right within Reader. I don't want to have to go back and forth between tabs for G+ Other than that, I guess I can't complain too much. Can we get some HD themes for Reader though??!