Caveat lector: a lament for Google Reader

Perhaps we were asking for trouble posting about the demise of Connotea and Posterous, because now look what’s happened: Google Reader has caught the fever and will be disappearing on July 1.

Dusty coffin by Thomas Quine (via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA)

This is terrible news for me – the majority of my interaction with the web is through Reader, using a vast system of folders, tags, filters and aggregated feeds built up over several years. I have 471 subscriptions at the moment and, the stats page informs me, I’ve read 65,563 items since October 2005 – which is undoubtedly small change compared to a lot of power users. There are sites I read every day that I haven’t visited in a browser for years – I just use Reader.

I’ve used Reader to process news items from multiple sources and then power other sites. I’ve tracked discussions that would otherwise drop off my radar or flood my inbox. I’ve organised collections of web resources over the best part of a decade that simply don’t exist anywhere else – collections I’ve referred back to, used and shared. It’s hard to overstate Reader’s value to me: I think it’s the best thing Google have ever created, their search tools included – an invaluable web resource, with a toolset and API that make it a powerful ally for anyone doing research via the open web. I’ve recommended it to people countless times.

But now it’s going away forever, and my tears won’t change that. So if you’re in the same position as me, what’s our next move?

Come back, Reader! Don’t Go!

As you might expect, the news hasn’t gone unnoticed on the web. There are already a number of sites and petitions dedicated to changing Google’s mind, one of the more popular being on But I don’t hold out much hope there; I expect Google have thought it all through and made the necessary fatal calculations. Besides which, a reversal now would only feel like a stay of execution. The Reader ship has sailed.

Well, at least return my things

As I mentioned last week, Google have a robust export system in place via their Takeaway service, so it’s very easy to get your data out of Reader. I just did this, and I’ve ended up with files for my feed list, starred items, shared items, notes and social featured (liked items, followers etc.). Everything is there – including my tags – but the files are either in JSON or XML format, meaning they’re of little to no use to us as human beings. My starred items file, probably the most valuable of them all, is 96282 lines of JSON data that requires me to either find or write an application to parse it into readable, useful content. You won’t be emerging from the wreckage with a nice, orderly text list or page of HTML, basically – but everything you’ve gathered and created is there.

Moving on

That’s a snapshot of your data (kind of) sorted, but if Reader’s an important part of your online life then you’ll need a replacement. Guides are already appearing – here’s one at Mashable, and you can look up just about every feature imaginable on Wikipedia’s comparison of feed aggregators. There are a number of free online services, some paid ones, some desktop apps, some phone and tablet apps. There’s no shortage – but are any of them a worthy replacement?


I’m trying out Feedly – previously an alternative Reader client with a few additional features (that I didn’t need), Feedly have announced Normandy, a service that will maintain your collection and continue the service when Reader shuts down. Feedly has imported my feeds and my starred items with no issues, but it’s only a partial Reader surrogate at best – it hasn’t imported my tags, the layout is fussier (but can be tweaked) and it lacks the API power that let you manipulate Reader data so effectively (for example it was easy in Reader to gather ‘watch lists’ from various sources like Twitter, WordPress, BBC News and so on, and create a master RSS feed to monitor the lot, or share with others). But if it pulls in enough Reader refugees, no doubt improvements will be made.

Feedly have a post on transitioning from Reader, which is worth a read if you’re thinking of trying the service out. They also have Android and iOS apps, and everything is – so far – free.

The simple life

If your RSS needs are simpler, you may be able to do it all inside your browser – Firefox has had Live Bookmarks for several years now, which collect and display RSS feeds among your regular bookmarks, and most browsers have similar features (except Google Chrome, which has so far relied on Reader to handle RSS feeds). Firefox users also have the Sage add-on, which is a useful lightweight tool.

Look out! Outlook!

If you’re mainly interested in RSS from a professional perspective, you can subscribe to feeds within Microsoft Outlook – we have a guide to this for the curious. News items are then delivered to your inbox just like emails – it’s very convenient if you have Outlook open all day, and it works through the webmail interface if you’re at home or out and about (but this is among the more long-winded ways to access your feeds on, say, an iPhone).

Twitter (in the conservatory with the lead piping)

Twitter is often considered Reader’s natural replacement (and now its assassin) – it’s a very easy and convenient way to receive updates and notifications from various sources, but has never been any real use in the long term if you want to keep, collate and refer to items of interest (you can, of course, combine it with a bookmarking or notetaking service). Still, if current awareness is your primary goal then a well-curated Twitter List can be a good solution (and you also gain the two-way interaction and involvement that Google steadily removed from Reader).

The lesson is…

So what have we learned? Probably nothing we didn’t know before: think about your exit strategies. If a service you rely on shuts down, or changes in a way you don’t like, what will your options be? Can you get your data out in a meaningful and useful way, and continue your work? My Posterous entry looks at the export features of a number of popular online services. When I wrote it a few days ago, I’d never have guessed I’d be following up with Google Reader as a case study. Whatever next?

Posted on March 14, 2013, in Library, News and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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