Why The Google Reader Shutdown Is A Huge Opportunity For Yahoo

Guest author Fei Deng is a co-founder of Embedle, a Twitter app that helps people discover the hidden conversation on every page of the Web. He previously worked at Yahoo for 5 years as principal engineer and engineering lead.

Google Reader shut down earlier this week, and in its wake, some RSS readers like Feedly are gaining many new users. But a huge opportunity remains—and Yahoo, of all places, has the key to unlock it. Yes, you heard me right: Yahoo, the company that acquired Tumblr for $1.1 billion, could be poised to leverage a vast new opportunity in online-media syndication.

Suppose that when you stumble upon an interesting blog post, you could click a "Follow on Yahoo" button, much the way you'd tweet a link or "Like" the post on Facebook. Clicking this "Follow on Yahoo" button would then allow you to follow the blog (or the author) via a personalized feed in a mobile Yahoo app or on the Yahoo homepage.

You may follow a handful or a thousand blogs, authors and news sites, but your Yahoo feed would have the power to rank items from all of these sources and show them to you in the order of their likelihood of interest to you, with the top 10 updates being the most interesting ones. It could even provide cogent summaries via its newly acquired Summly technology.

Meet Yahoo, Your Personal Editor

Such "smart content" would be feasible because of the big data and massive audience that Yahoo still commands. Yahoo already holds sophisticated personalization technology that could easily learn your reading interests and preferences—in real time—and then rank articles from all your sources to build a personalized feed for you.

Such a service could be a game changer for Yahoo, and would deliver a personalized subscription service far above and beyond what Google Reader offered. Sure, Reader made it easy to follow your favorite sources (if they supported RSS), but it did no ranking or personalization.

Google Reader users know all too well how overwhelming it can be to start scanning feeds overflowing with new posts and updates. If you subscribe to enough feeds, it can be a major challenge just to keep up—to say the least. As you follow more sources, the situation just keeps getting worse. But if you cut back, you risk missing something important.

With the "Follow on Yahoo" service, users don't need to fear a "tipping point" of media overload every time they follow a new blog. Find an interesting new site, follow it with one click, and Yahoo could display its posts to you as they rank amongst all your sources, ordered by how interesting they are to you. You'd be far less likely to miss an interesting post or important news, no matter how many sources you follow.

As Google Reader's demise drew near, some blogs started switching to email subscriptions. In my opinion, this is a step backwards. People will be less likely to subscribe via email as it will clutter their inboxes.

With the "Follow on Yahoo" button, bloggers and news sites would provide a user-friendly way for people to subscribe to their information they want. The "Follow on Yahoo" service would leverage RSS as a backend technology (where it works just fine, despite never catching on as a mainstream consumer-facing technology), but wouldn't depend on it. Sources that don't support RSS could submit their updates directly to Yahoo, just like they post tweets to Twitter.

How Yahoo Could Trump Twitter And Facebook

This "Follow on Yahoo" button would have one major advantage over the tweet and Facebook Like buttons. Likes and tweets establish a one-time relationship in which the user shares a single post or article from the source. "Follow on Yahoo," by contrast, establishes a long-term relationship between the user and the source: the user will continue to receive all future updates from the source (unless the user unfollows it).

As this service makes it super easy (just one click) for people to follow all interesting sources without being overwhelmed, they will follow more sources. In turn, sources that integrate the "Follow on Yahoo" button are incentivized by the possibility of building a large audience faster (provided they have quality content). Yahoo has an opportunity to make the "Follow on Yahoo" button ubiquitous on the Internet, benefiting both users and content publishers alike.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer

Yahoo could reach users wherever they happen to be. If they're on a desktop or a laptop, their personalized news feed could appear on the Yahoo homepage. On mobile, it could be an app or a widget that allows you to embed your feed anywhere.

And that's not all. Yahoo could also easily categorize your feeds, de-duplicate them and as noted above, provide summaries via Summly. All this could position Yahoo as the hub and backbone of media ranking and discovery across the Internet.

Even with the acquisition of Tumblr, Yahoo still faces many challenges. Its homepage, mail and search traffic show significant year-over-year declines.

But with the right execution, the "Follow on Yahoo" service could be an opportunity for CEO Marissa Mayer and company to restore Yahoo as the Web's go-to media destination. Last time Yahoo brought order to the Web for all users; this time Yahoo can bring order to a part of the Web handpicked by each user, for each user. As an ex-Yahoo, I only wish them the best.