Google closes the book on Reader, announces July 1 sunset

The beloved service, which has suffered increasing neglect as the popularity of RSS declined, is going away.

Casey Newton Former Senior Writer
Casey Newton writes about Google for CNET, which he joined in 2012 after covering technology for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is really quite tall.
Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Casey Newton
Josh Lowensohn
6 min read
The 2011 redesign of Google Reader. Reader is shutting down.
The 2011 redesign of Google Reader. Reader is shutting down. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

The day long feared by fans of Google Reader has come: the service will shut down, the company said.

"We launched Google Reader in 2005 in an effort to make it easy for people to discover and keep tabs on their favorite websites," the company said. "While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined. So, on July 1, 2013, we will retire Google Reader. Users and developers interested in RSS alternatives can export their data, including their subscriptions, with Google Takeout over the course of the next four months."

Google Reader lets users subscribe to and read feeds from all manner of publishers, in a format that resembles an e-mail in-box. Loved by information junkies, the nearly eight-year-old service was once among the most popular ways of tracking large numbers of news sites, blogs and other publishers. It was also an early experiment for Google in social networking, as the service's sharing features inspired friendships and even marriages. Diehard fans of the service called themselves "sharebros," as was detailed last year in a lengthy, definitive feature on Buzzfeed.

"The amount of information on the Web is rapidly increasing," Google said the day of the site's launch. "Google Reader helps you keep up with it all by organizing and managing all the content you're interested in. Instead of continuously checking your favorite sites for updates, you can let Google Reader do it for you."

But tracking news through RSS never gained the scale of core Google products like search, maps, Android and YouTube. Facebook, Twitter and other social sites proved more adept at luring mainstream users to share and read links. RSS became the infrastructure powering highly visual apps like Flipboard, Zite and Google's own Currents, leaving the bare-bones Reader looking outdated. As Google's social networking efforts turned to Google+, many predicted Google Reader's days were numbered.

Still, an ardent group of fans -- some of whom led a protest of changes to Reader in 2011, and even began building a Reader alternative -- will no doubt be upset that a service that brought many of them together will be going away for good. And a whole ecosystem of apps that rely on Google Reader to power it will suffer the consequences.

In 2011, Google CEO Larry Page famously said the company would put "more wood behind fewer arrows," deploying its resources more judiciously and killing off products that failed to reach worldwide scale. To date, the strategy has claimed well known products like iGoogle and Google Labs.

But none of the products placed on the sunset list so far ever developed quite the ardent following that Google Reader did. It was a product ahead of its time that, eventually, time passed by.

Making Reader history
Like many popular Google products, Reader began life as a 20 percent time project inside Google. Chris Wetherell, who at the time was an engineer on Blogger, built a prototype as a way of aggregating headlines from far-flung websites into a single place. Over the next couple years, Wetherell tinkered with his creation -- until, he says, the product evolved into Reader by accident.

Reader, which was released to the public as a Google Labs project on Oct. 7, 2005, was a solution for the Web's rapidly growing problem of content overload. An explosion of places offered news and other information, but the companies making Web browsers were still trying to find the best way for users to organize bookmarks and jump between tabs. Companies like Delicious built entire businesses around bookmarking in an effort to sidestep the browser wars and make sharing links easier and more social.

The advent of RSS feeds allowed publishers to create content feeds for particular authors, sections of a site, or even just stories tagged with a certain keyword. Readers, in turn, could subscribe to just the feeds they wanted, and get a personalized reading experience.

Google later coupled this with technology from Feedburner, which it acquired in 2007, to provide statistics about RSS feed readership and help publishers profit from it. The move came in direct response to publishers cutting back on what they would offer in their feeds -- the chief danger of RSS to publishers is that readers never visit their websites, depriving them of the advertising revenue they rely on.

But efforts to monetize RSS feeds turned out to be difficult. Last year Google shut down AdSense for Feeds, the advertising product that came out of Feedburner, though Google continues to offer RSS analytics.

All in the family
Over the years Reader has served as a virtual science lab integrating other Google products. It was the first to make use of Gears, the company's technology for making Web apps and services available offline, which was later shelved. Google also integrated its Google Talk chat service into Reader, automatically sharing stories viewed in Reader to others on chat lists. It did the same with Buzz, Google's highly controversial and now-defunct social service.

Most recently it's done the same with the company's biggest push into social networking to date, Google+, which competes strongly with Facebook but doubles as a news reader itself. Google added a way for users to +1 stories within Google Reader, replacing the share and like buttons that were there before.

Leading up to today's closure, Google had at least acknowledged that some of the Reader's core social functionality was being replicated and even replaced within Google+, and that it was pushing Reader users in that direction, including the decision to cut out sharing options from Reader completely.

"Integrating with Google+ also helps us streamline Reader overall," wrote Alan Green, a Google software engineer, in Google's last official Reader blog post in late 2011. "We hope you'll like the new Reader (and Google+) as much as we do, but we understand that some of you may not. Retiring Reader's sharing features wasn't a decision that we made lightly, but in the end, it helps us focus on fewer areas, and build an even better experience across all of Google."

Alternatives aplenty
"Even with Reader joining a long list of other dead Google products, the idea of Reader lives on. Google Currents, which works with only tablets and smartphones right now, uses the same idea of discovering and subscribing to sites and news feeds, then viewing them all in one place. Likewise, Google+ gives people a way to keep tabs on both news feeds and social activity by friends, merging two, once disparate Web activities, into one experience.

There's also no shortage of outside competition, not just from reading apps built specifically for smartphones and tablets, but also from browsermakers. Apple, for instance, took one of the most useful features of Web feeds -- the simplification of an article into a plain block of text and photos -- and made it a standard viewing option in Safari, with what is now known as "reader." Mozilla's done the same thing in the mobile versions of its Firefox browser. On the Web there are tools like NewsBlur, FeedReader, Netvibes, and RebelMouse.

CNET editors have suggested five alternatives to Reader once it shuts down.

End of an era

In 2011, as Reader's eventual end started to become clear, the man responsible for it reflected on his creation -- on Google+.

Chris Wetherell, who no longer works at Google, asked a series of tough questions about what the company's neglect of Reader said about its priorities -- and whether, given more resources, it might have thrived. He acknowledged that shuttering Reader could be the right decision for Google, and that questions about what to do with it were undoubtedly difficult for company executives.

On one hand, Wetherell was pleased with the success Reader had in the early days of Web aggregation. "Reader will be an interesting footnote in tech history," Wetherell wrote. "That's neat and that's enough for me; wasn't it fun that we were able to test if it worked?"

But he closed with a warning to Google as it shifts its social sharing efforts away from a uniquely Googley product and toward a service that closely resembles many others on the market.

"What if the thing you're driving everyone toward," he wrote, "isn't the iPod but is instead the Zune?