As anyone who knows me can attest, I’m a huge Google Reader user and fan. Despite users like Robert Scoble and others declaring RSS Readers dead, I still find utility from being able to finely adapt my reading experience by selecting what I want to subscribe to on the web. As a blogger, it’s one of my greatest weapons – in fact, sites don’t even have to have an RSS feed for me to track their changes. For instance, let’s say I want to track job announcements at a certain website to know when new features are coming based on the new jobs they’re hiring for. All I have to do is enter the jobs page into Google Reader and it will automatically tell me when it notices new changes on that Page. No coding necessary.
However, while I disagree that RSS is dead, I am worried that News Readers like Google Reader have neglected to stay up with modern news gathering trends. Perhaps they think remaining simple will win, but frankly, using just RSS and friends suggestions from RSS to find the news just doesn’t cut it any more. This is why you see Readers like FlipBoard and FLUD and Pulse making a big inroads on devices like the iPad. They’re ignoring Google Reader and going straight to social networks like Twitter and Facebook, where the news is likely to come from your close friends and family. I’m concerned Google Reader is taking so long to adapt towards this trend – here are some tips that I think would make it a much better, and more modern service:
Embrace the Dark Side
With the exception of Youtube, Google seems to have a real issue with this. They seem afraid to embrace their competitors, the sites that currently have the edge, and the sites that their users are most likely using. Let’s face it – currently the majority of web users are getting their news from their friends on sites like Facebook and Twitter. They’re not going from site to site, plugging in an RSS feed to Google Reader, and reading it that way. I’ve tried to show both my wife and my 10 year old daughter how to do this and they just don’t get it. Even more experienced users who used to be power users of Google Reader like Robert Scoble are moving in this direction.
There’s a minefield of explosive links out there in public on Twitter and Facebook. Slap a social graph on top of that and you now have extremely relevant links you could be harvesting, indexing, and extracting content for your users to read in full inside Google Reader. Google has an opportunity here to pull these users over to their interface and make it even easier for them to read the content their friends on Facebook, Twitter, and other sites are sharing. While RSS is certainly not dead, the Social Graph most definitely reigns supreme – embrace it. Use Facebook Graph API. Use Twitter’s API. Otherwise Google is going to get left in the dust by competitors that do. Users want this.
The Desktop is Not the Future
While Google Reader has built an amazing desktop and web experience, it’s time they move forward. We have gone beyond the typical, dynamic desktop browser being the interface to the web and have moved towards an app era that leverages the web to build custom experiences tailored for static screen sizes on various platforms. There’s the iPhone. There’s the iPad. There are various flavors of Android and Windows for Mobile Phones. Every other web developer building a company right now is building for these platforms. Google seems to be stuck in the web browser, something I argue is a mistake.
True, Google has a custom web experience for the iPad and iPhone, but quite frankly – that experience stinks. Look at the Reeder app for iPad and iPhone to contrast. It has a “move to the next unread item” button, for instance, that lets you easily surf through your unread news and skim it as you please. It has a simple interface for sharing, leaving notes, and even allows you to share to other social networks if you choose. They’ve built an amazing interface that focuses on mobile and tablets that wraps around the stale Google Reader web interface.
Now look at the non-RSS centric experiences like FlipBoard. Swipe your fingers and it flips pages similar to a magazine or book. The experience is magically formatted in a natural way that makes reading the news easy! Mobile devices were built for reading the news. They are the magazines and newspapers of the future. Google Reader should be the ones in control on this front or they’re going to get out-taken by their competitors.
Share! Share! Share!
Google Reader does a little of this. You can share to Twitter and Facebook and other sources, but quite honestly, the experience is lacking. This should be at the forefront of their experience – easy to see and obvious to the reader that this is what they want them to do. Right now to share to Facebook, for instance, I have to click on the “send to” link (or press shift-t), and for any site I want to share to Google makes me leave the site and go to each individual site to share. This experience should be much more integrated into the UI, controlled by keyboard gestures, without having to leave the site. Facebook Graph API and Social Plugins should be used. Twitter’s API or @anywhere should be used. The links should be in more prominent positions, easy for the reader to see. The “Send To” should be consolidated with the “share” link and terminology should all be centered around “sharing”.
The entire experience should be much more social.
Streamline the UI
Google Reader used to be top of the line when it came to great user experiences. They enabled keyboard shortcuts and a very simple UI that was easy to manage. Since then, they have added all sorts of bloat to the interface, slowing it down and making it harder to manage. To hide someone or add them to another group, for instance, it takes at least a minute for me to do anything surrounding that. Refreshing the page takes too long.
Google needs to start fresh and build the UI from the ground up, with these new focuses in mind, and focus on speed, simplicity, and cleanliness. The entire UI needs to be re-done and targeted towards the new features I’ve suggested here. It needs to be faster. No site should take longer than 4 seconds to load. It needs to have entirely different versions for mobile devices, and most of all it needs to be easier to use.
Be Sure Not to Neglect Your Strengths
In all this I am not suggesting Google Reader become FlipBoard. Google Reader needs to stick to its strengths – it needs to continue a strong focus on RSS, while bringing in all the other elements I mentioned. It needs to remain top in its game of strong UIs and easy to organize content reading. It needs to keep the focus on leaving notes and sharing with other Google Reader users.
I’m afraid Google has stopped innovating in this space. We’re seeing so with evidence of other strong readers emerging in the areas I have mentioned. Google has such strong potential to own this space if they chose. I really hope they take this advice constructively and try to adapt these things. If not, users, including myself, are going to be forced to bigger and better ways of consuming our news in a way that is more modern and convenient to the user.
In the meantime, you can follow all my Google Reader shares on my link blog at http://www.google.com/reader/shared/jessestay.