Read(er) Between the Lines

Google’s decision to retire Reader, its RSS feed aggregator and curation tool, created a small furor among loyal users. They decried the decision as another example of a company out of sync with what its users actually want. It might seem like Reader is just another casualty in a long line of projects that Google tosses on the scrap heap every year. But this time is different. This isn’t Google Buzz or Google Wave. People know about Reader. People understand Reader. People use Reader. And most importantly, people like Reader.

I can’t say that I was shocked by the news. More than anything I was just disappointed. I had spent lots of time scouring the web for reliable feeds that matched my broad, disparate interests and stored them in Reader. I integrated Google Alerts for work-related tasks, added lists of blogs that interested me, and stored updates from the brands I care about in Reader. Google’s constant beta approach ensured that Reader was refined to a high degree and offered a valuable tool for personal content curation based on an open standard, RSS. However, without executive support or a monetization strategy, Reader was seen as a less valuable offering in Google’s product portfolio (see bullet No. 6).

What’s so disappointing about Reader being scrapped is that Google couldn’t understand its true value. Although it might not have generated revenue, Reader generated something much more valuable for the Google brand – loyalty. Reader exemplifies the core of the Google brand. It provides easy access to relevant content whenever and wherever through a simple, uncluttered experience. It’s an experience focused on one thing – reading – that pleases users and makes social interaction secondary, just like in real life.

Each Reader account is its own interest graph, full of rich detail about individual likes, curiosities, connections, and consumption behaviors. Reader exposes the relationships between online content and the hand-picked interests of its users – providing a way to focus on the content rather than the connections that kept users engaged over extended periods of time. Or at least it did. Since Reader’s retirement is a foregone conclusion, I might as well start referring to it in the past tense.

This makes Reader a curious, cautionary tale. Google could have updated the interface to be more visually appealing and interactive like Flipboard. Google could have repositioned Reader to highlight how it could turn any device into a Kindle-style e-reader and easily integrate titles from Google Books. Instead, Google turned one of its most beloved products into chum for the sea of clones and competing services that use Reader accounts to power their own experience. (Case in point: the 500,000 users that migrated to Feedly within 48 hours of the announcement that Reader would be shuttered.)

Half a million engaged users. Think about that for a second. If the end-goal was to build a community, why not build on the existing content-driven community within Reader to strengthen its connection-driven community in Google+? Why not highlight which blogs and news sites users share with their Google+ connections? Why not allow people in users’ circles to see what they’re reading and browse the content like a shared magazine stand to spur conversations and interaction on Google+? Why not use Reader tags to filter content under the “Explore” tab in Google+ to make content shared through the community more personally relevant?

Maybe all’s not lost. Maybe Google will integrate the Reader functionality into Google+ like it did with Google Buzz. The loyal Reader users would keep their platform and have more ability to curate information, follow the people and things that interest them, and consolidate their stream of shared content on the Google+ platform.

Reader is the epitome of a branded asset. While it might not deliver much economic value, it aligns perfectly with the brand’s purpose (to organize the world’s information) and supports users’ preferred ways for curating and consuming content. As an integrated feature, a branded asset like Reader can enhance perceptions and usage of other products like Google+. Reader naturally supports Google+’s focus on following interesting people, brands, and trends, but provides a more personally curated experience rather than a social one. The combination of the two would benefit both – Reader gets subsidized and Google+ adds more value for a built-in audience of engaged users.

As a product brand, Google+ is already positioned to own the idea of “the power of Google search for all the people and information you care about.” It remains to be seen if Google can read between the lines (of code) to build a more valuable product for the company based on the accrued equity and loyalty built into a product its users value.

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