Yesterday, I got an email from a good friend with a subject line that needed no further explanation: “Google Reader.” It was sent to a group of mutual friends, bemoaning the recent changes to Reader’s interface, thereby kicking off a lengthy discussion thread. Should we move to Google Plus? Would Instapaper make a good substitute? Had anybody heard of Hivemined? What about other RSS readers?
The concerns echoed sentiments that were by then flooding Twitter and other nooks and crannies of the Web. In the process of redesigning Reader, the team decided to kill off the social features long beloved by many power users of the service. Suddenly, friending, sharing and commenting were all gone, as was the outbound RSS feed of shared items each user generated.
Iranian bloggers who used the service to get around government censors were angered by the changes. Even a former product manager for Google Reader chimed in with a biting critique of the overhaul and a small, but passionate #OccupyGoogleReader meme was born. So what is everybody so upset about?
Putting the User Last
It may not have been an overwhelmingly huge number of people that were using the “Share” and “Share With Comment” buttons on the old Google Reader, but those that did were doing so on a regular basis, probably for several years.
What developed over time was a sort of mini-social network of people sharing and discussing content. It was smaller and more contained than Twitter or Facebook, with a sharper focus on discovery and discussion.
In my own Google Reader network, I personally had quite a few real-world friends, a few former colleagues and some Internet acquaintances, such as Wall Street Journal social media guru Zach Seward, who always shared really interesting stuff on Reader.
By taking away the service’s social features, Google stamped out that miniature network entirely. I can still find those people on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus or elsewhere, but that little social ecosystem we had is now gone. Lights out.
Google clearly wants Reader users to move on over to Google Plus, where the company rightfully points out that we can create new circles and share our content that way. And hey, Google has every right to do whatever it wants with its free services. Some folks have used the product for five or six years and never paid a dime to do so.
Still, there’s something about this approach that just feels reckless, if not somewhat arrogant on Google’s part. For better or worse, users of Web services feel a certain sense of empowerment and even entitlement. They know that if the company running the service they love so much screws up or wrongs them in anyway, they have the power to put them out of business. That may be dramatically less true with giants like Google and Facebook, but just because they’re immune from the crowd doesn’t mean they should ignore it all together.
Another Social Flub For Google?
Google is known for making decisions informed by data, often very large sets of it. That’s a great practice, and one that undoubtedly often leads to some smart moves and happy users.
In this case, the Reader team probably saw that a relatively small number of people were using those features, and decided that it was probably safe to kill them off in favor of pushing users toward Google Plus, which is a big, new priority for the company.
It’s ironic in a way, because in its big push to reposition itself as a social-friendly company, Google just displaced an entire community of users, effectively shutting down a social ecosystem that had existed for years.
In the end, Google may well see Plus flourish into a massive, widely-used social network and Reader users may forget how mad they were about yesterday’s changes. Who knows, perhaps with tighter integration, Google Reader could ride the coattails of its socially-savvy big sister toward something resembling mainstream adoption.
It’s not as though integrating Reader with Plus is a bad idea, by any means. But whenever you have a community of passionate users who use and love your product, taking away features should be done cautiously and with a very strong, clearly-explained justification. For many users of Google Reader, the way this was executed didn’t meet those criteria. If nothing else, there are a few lessons to be learned here for the company’s next product launch.