RSS rivals thrive after Google Reader's demise

The hunt is on for a replacements as search giant set to shut down RSS tool

Google Reader's split from its loyal user base has been a tad messy. It's not you, it's us, Google implored. "We're living in a new kind of computing environment," was their attempt at letting users down gently.

However, for some die-hard fans it was all too much and they answered the only way they knew how – a selection of moderately funny internet memes and online petitions.

For the uninitiated, the search giant is set to shut down its RSS tool on July 1st; a service used daily by millions to gather together content from blogs, newswires and almost countless sites around the web.

"I think it's important to remember that Google Reader and RSS are not inherently co-dependant," says Neil Sisson of Dublin-based digital marketing company Lime Canvas. "Google Reader is simply an app which aggregates the RSS that a particular Google account holder has selected to be informed about."


Sisson notes that RSS has “been around for 13 or 14 years, which is a long time by web standards” and there certainly is life after Google’s decision - with three million “Reader refugees” having run into the arms of newsreader and aggregator alternative Feedly already.

There are other options too – some near exact Reader copies, some quite different – such as Fever, NewsBlur, Pulse, NetVibes or Flipboard.

Freddy Mini, chief executive with NetVibes says the company has welcomed "several hundreds of thousands" of new users since last month's announcement of Google Reader's demise. Sam Clay, founder of NewsBlur meanwhile says "business is booming". Elsewhere, former Reader users have begun switching attention towards Twitter lists as a quasi-replacement, while social news site Digg is currently building an RSS reader as well.

UCD digital marketing lecturer, and NetVibes user, Dr Laurent Muzellec senses RSS feeds are "less instrumental than in the past because of new tools which can do the job of getting timely info faster – like Twitter for example – or in a more appealing visual manner, such as Google +".

Certainly one of the reasons given for Google’s decision was that “over the years usage has declined”, while other theories included a lack of revenue, privacy and compliance concerns as well as an awkward relationship with Google +.

Senior lecturer in DCU's business school and e-commerce expert Dr Theo Lynn wonders if the heyday of RSS feeds has been and gone. "They're a hassle," he says, adding that while he and his digital marketing students will have conversations "daily" about the effectiveness of Twitter or LinkedIn, RSS "doesn't come up in conversation" at all these days. Maybe, he says, it is down to changing user habits – such as a reliance on the "favourite" feature in Twitter to bookmark articles, or increased usage of the tailored news feed in LinkedIn's app – or perhaps, Lynn adds, the RSS industry could simply be in the middle of a "versioning" crisis.

Gone stale
"The original version of how RSS was conceptualised has just gone out of date, it's gone stale," he says, "the idea of getting syndicated content is brilliant, that's what we all want. But how we consume syndicated content needs to be easy, and it needs to have that social aspect".

To a certain extent this echoes the thoughts of former Google Reader manager, Brian Shih, who told Forbes earlier this month that had the product been given the time to grow properly it could have become an avenue for solving the information overload of social networks and news sites, where at present, said Shih, "the signal to noise ratio is very low".

Indeed, says Shonagh Hurley, senior digital development manager with brand strategists Thinkhouse, finding the "right aggregation" model to solve the information overload issue may be one of the routes RSS innovators will head down come the start of July.

Weighing up the future of RSS, UCD’s Muzellec warns though that the difficulty in profiting from the concept may ultimately inhibit innovation. However, both Mini and Clay are happy their companies can press onwards. Clay for instance says that alongside free iOS and Android apps, his decision to charge $24 per year for a “premium” NewsBlur account “has allowed for the purchase of dozens of additional app, database, and task servers”.

“It seems I’m skimming off the top of the RSS reading market. NewsBlur will survive no matter what because the user base already pays for its solo developer’s salary and rising server costs.”

RSS options
NetVibes, meanwhile, which has been around on the market for a lot longer than other RSS options – makes its money, says Mini, from "paid software only". The company chief executive does have a warning for Digg though, noting that the back-end capabilities courtesy of Google's enormous wealth means that "other products that want to take on Google Reader when it will shut down will have to take on a considerable job they should not underestimate".

As for Clay, he says those attempting to enter the market following Google’s decision have to accept that “RSS just isn’t for everybody, mainly power users.

“That’s anybody from librarians to blog publishers to doctors keeping up with research to finance folks to comic blog readers –who want more control over what they see with the convenience of a news reader.”