FEATURE 

How have publishers responded to the demise of Google Reader?

When Google announced in March that it was “sunsetting” its RSS newsreader service Google Reader, writes Robert Andrews, echoes rang out from hundreds of aghast journalists’ jaws hitting the floor.

By Robert Andrews

For many of us, RSS feeds have been the primary mechanism by which we discover the information we need to do our jobs - a big fishing net in our trawl for trends. As I told Time magazine, when interviewed about the then-new technology in 2004: “RSS means stories from all my favourite sources just pop into my newsreader as soon as they're published.”

And there was no finer reader than Google’s - a constant companion, open all day alongside my email. In the five years to 2009, I used it to read over 275,000 items, according to data I recorded at the time from the application, which many of us used to cobble together something like a newsroom-grade wire service, free of charge. By taking away Google Reader, Google not only killed off an old friend - it felt as though it wanted to make journalists’ jobs harder.

As Guardian technology head Jemima Kiss tweeted: “I will never forgive Google for ditching Reader. Idiotic. I curse it every single day. Have just downloaded a desktop-only RSS reader I last used in 2009 to get the functionality I need. Curse you, Google.”

The impact

But, four months after Reader shut on July 1, and, whilst many resentful reporters are still trying to cope with the loss, their bosses upstairs have not lost a wink of sleep. For all its fans and despite the outcry, Google Reader’s demise has not hurt news site traffic one iota, and certainly has not harmed a low-key RSS channel that was itself ripe for reinvention.

“Only about 7% of our article views was coming from Google Reader,” according to Mediafed CEO Ashley Harrison, whose company serves the RSS feeds for around 2,000 premium publishers including The Guardian, Axel Springer titles and Reuters. “Google Reader was just one of 200 to 300 different newsreader apps.”

That may have been so, but, with Mediafed serving a total 200 million views per month, Google Reader’s disappearance could have cost publishers around 14 million article views in July alone.

In fact, the opposite has apparently happened. “Traffic was actually up by about 5% the day or two after it closed down,” says Harrison. “We presumed lots of people were trialling other products - it then levelled off. But the slack has been taken up. Like-for-like, we're seeing a 40% year-on-year increase in organic usage of syndicated content.”

How has RSS traffic risen despite the loss of its flagbearer? Just as Google Reader was being read its rites, a new generation of consumer news browser was rising up. Flipboard, Zite, Summly and social networks like Twitter, to which publishers pipe their content via RSS, have taken off over the last couple of years as smartphone and, in particular, tablet adoption have amplified the content opportunity for publishers.

“Google Reader’s innovation had been stultified for years - now you've got a lot of innovation,” says Mediafed’s Harrison. “Forty percent of our traffic - that’s about 80 million views - is coming from mobile and tablet. More time is spent consuming more content.”

Publisher ambivalence

You would expect publishers might be pretty happy at this boom in feed consumption. But, in fact, most of them show a notable ambivalence toward the format. Few were receptive to talking about their RSS traffic, and some national UK news publishers told me they don’t even keep that data, which is not broken out in ABC certificates either. FT.com managing director Rob Grimshaw said: “The Google Reader thing wasn't a big deal for us.”

Twas not always thus. As it reared its head in the early noughties, RSS became a candidate as a potentially big channel for consumer news distribution. Numbers crunched by digital consultant Martin Belam in 2008 showed the top 75 UK newspaper RSS feeds had a total 488,828 subscribers in Google Reader alone - double the previous year. RSS was set to explode.

But the feeds never became the big deal some had hoped, because RSS represents a negligible and shrinking portion of total audience volume that has otherwise ballooned. In fact, just 1% of traffic to media sites comes from RSS readers, according to Parse.ly, an analytics firm whose technology is used by hundreds of premium publishers like The Atlantic and Meredith newspapers to measure traffic of all kinds. That contrasts with 8% of traffic coming from aggregators, says Parsel.y’s September Authority Report.

What is RSS anyway?

And herein lays the rub: what is an “RSS reader” nowadays anyway? The outlook for such dedicated old services as Google Reader, NetNewsWire, FeedDemon and Bloglines may have darkened - but, behind the scenes, RSS plays an increasingly instrumental role underpinning the new wave of news apps. Flipboard, Twitter, Pulse and the like - there is not a single orange RSS icon in sight, yet it is news feeds that pump publishers’ news into the new services. Suddenly, it is clear that “RSS” has remained popular amongst the last decade’s digerati whilst the new consumer prefers a more straightforward approach.

“What's the distinction?,” asks Parse.ly co-founder Andrew Montalenti. “My rule of thumb is, if it's a destination site that is primarily linking out to other sites, it's an ‘aggregator’ and, if it's a ‘personalised tool primarily used to subscribe to sites for updates’, it's an ‘RSS reader’.”

If you combine numbers for new aggregators and classical readers, news consumption by underlying RSS feed remains healthy at around 10%.

Twelve months ago, TechCrunch wrote, with typical directness, that “RSS Is Dead”. The truth is more nuanced than that - nothing called “RSS” ever gained widespread consumer adoption, and this does not look like happening any time soon, but RSS’s importance is growing as a wholesale distribution mechanism in the age of new apps, syndication partnerships and content marketing distribution. Counter-intuitively, Google has even reinstated RSS feeds for its Google Alerts despite closing its corresponding Reader service.

The semantics matter because, whilst agnostic RSS readers support publisher monetisation through in-feed advertising and linking back to news sites, aggregators tend to be walled gardens, and many hope themselves to be monetisation gatekeepers. A direct ad-sharing deal struck with Flipboard may be more appealing from a commercial perspective - but, compared with plain old RSS, it naturally involves a certain loss of control. “Lack of support from the publishers meant that RSS never become as useful as it should have been,” wrote digital media consultant Thomas Baekdal in his blog’s epitaph to the format. “Instead, the big publishers opted to 'partner with select channels', which is both costly and extremely limiting.”

New into the market

So who will be the heir to Google Reader’s RSS throne? As soon as the switch-off of its life support was announced, a crop of upstarts responded to the outcry by bootstrapping new RSS reader services in the classical mould. Feedly, Feedbin, Newsblur, Feedspot, InoReader, Fever and FeedWrangler are just a few of the candidates hoping to achieve similar affection. For users particularly pining for Google’s own, two services, The Old Reader and BazQux, accurately replicate the look and feel of their forebear. Some of the crop are even charging users for the privilege.

“Feedly and Digg seem to be the main beneficiaries,” says Mediafed’s Harrison - combined, roughly 5% of RSS news traffic. Parsl.ey’s Montalenti concurs: “Feedly makes up the lion's share of the RSS reader category - they send 10 times the traffic of the next-biggest reader which can be tracked, which is Pulse.me.”

If any of these readers became widely used, news executives would need to sit up and take note. “We're having discussions with all of these newsreaders to see what models are available,” says Mediafed’s Harrison.

But aiming to succeed a Google Reader that was itself virtually ignored by publishers right up to its death is not a lofty calling. Striving to win in the battle to replace something that itself died out looks like trying to turn back the clock on evolution.

The soul of my Google Reader experience has been reincarnated in a new host body - the collection of news feeds that comprised my hacked-together newswire lives on inside Feedly through the magic of export and import. It doesn’t quite match up to my original companion, but what I have realised is this - if news execs watching traffic charts spike are unconcerned by the inconsequential loss of Google Reader, maybe we faithful users should care less, too.