Google Reader is Awesome

Or well, it was awesome. Now it’s just a popular RSS feed aggregator.

Early this week Google pushed the new version of Google Reader onto users. The fact sharing would be removed had been announced a week prior to the update, but really, that had sounded like a bad nightmare and too illogical to be true. Why would they remove such a wonderful feature? To keep my sanity I just assumed that they would get their senses together or that it was misinformation. But alas, here we are, the new version is out and I will explain why I think the product is so much worse now.

Disclaimer: I love most things Google, am an avid and advanced user of many of their services and I convert people to Gmail and Docs as much as I dare. Perhaps I am overly negative here as I am used to their updates being, you know, improvements.

New Spacious Interface

Usually I really look forward to Google’s service updates, it normally brings more and better functionality, usability and streamlining! But lately the general Google interface has gotten fairly unoptimized. There is a ton of whitespace mostly everywhere, large margins, overly simplified graphics and void of color. In Google Docs I instantly changed to the Compact display mode to get more onto the screen at once, that actually makes it look usable again. The upcoming Gmail interface will have the same display option but oddly enough Google Reader currently lacks it.

In addition to wasting lots of screen real estate the new interface has hardly no distinctive separation of areas, has colored just about everything in tones of gray and it feels slower. Though, the speed issues might depend on the service as a whole as the update seems to have introduced a few issues.

As well as making everything float together by removing any kind of borders or boxes around different areas they also hide the vertical scrollbar for your list if you don’t hover it, this means your eyes have no guidance and the page is harder to use. And for some reason they make the already read posts very visible by making the entire row a stark contrast gray while unread posts are white and like most other things melt into the background. New content is where I want to have my attention, now I get distracted by the read posts instead! And I also missclick the title for the feed because I think it’s an unread post! Gah, too much white everywhere!

The last thing I have to comment on regarding the interface are the icons for folders and tags (what’s the difference really?). They are now dully gray instead of happily yellow. Actually, as I mentioned above, mostly everything is gray, even titles and links are black instead of blue! The entire site feels dead, lifeless. I have only read one university class in the subject machine-human interaction and interface, but going away from very old conventions about how hyperlinks look and work should be a big no-no. If you want to be user friendly, use what people are familiar with, even if it might be a bit uglier.

Enough about the interface, they can always be worked around, this next section is what really bombed the entire service.

New Integration with Google+

You know, what I was waiting for was for Google+ to get integrated into Google Reader. I wanted a special feed for the stream(s) on Google+ so I wouldn’t have to constantly monitor the site, which is how I currently get to use Facebook and Twitter, it’s far from time efficient or convenient. This integration should have been possible as Google+ and Google Reader both are under the Google umbrella.

But, Google did it the other way around. Instead of accessing features of Google+ in Google Reader you now have to go into Google+ to access features that were previously found in Google Reader. They completely removed the ability to share items and likes internally in Google Reader and replaced it with the ability to +1 and share posts via your Google+ stream. In addition to removing the actual shares, they also removed all your followers and who you were following. You can download the data so it is not completely lost, but the question is how many another service can actually use the data?

The entire concept with using RSS feeds for me was to get site updates in an inbox, like email, you have unread and read items, you have it all collected in one place, you can easily browse what you want to read by titles and you can choose to read at any point in time. None of these features exists for shares when using Google+. Nothing in a stream is marked as read or unread, to see what different people have shared I have to browse to their profiles, everything in the streams is mixed with other content, if you don’t keep up with the streams posts will quickly vanish down the bottom of the page where you will never discover them.

How is this an improvement? It makes sharing stuff just like sharing on Facebook, and guess what, I shared at least 100 times more things in Google Reader than I do on Facebook. A social network is the venue for personal updates, pictures and all that kind of fluff, and spamming the stream with videos and news would quickly get obnoxious and people would be hiding all my updates or unfriend me. In Google Reader when I spammed YouTube videos people could easily pick out what they found interesting and skip the rest, mark all as read.

The last thing about sharing is that it is no longer casual or inviting to get access to someone’s shares. Previously you could follow someone and you would get their shares in your Google Reader. Now it’s the other way around yet again, the person that shares would have to add you to his/her reader circle. Instead of opting in by yourself you have to personally request to be included. It changes the experience of sharing from that of listening to a street musician to trying to get into a disco.

How to fix it

So, how could Google make this update less emotionally distressing for affected users? Just integrate Google+ with Google Reader as well! Give me a special folder in Google Reader with all of my friends’ shares, include a comment system that bumps all comments back to Google+. Even if everything else like status updates and pictures were included in the folder it would be closer to the old Shared Items than nothing at all.

In the end, If I do like Google wants me to and start to share everything I shared in Google Reader on Google+ instead, that would be the only thing the service would be good for because my stream would be too cluttered for normal updates to stand out. How is this solution even a good alternative?

Reactions on the Internet

During the few days after the update there has been a bit more news about this than anyone would expect. Looking at twitter I am far from alone missing the sharing function or criticizing the interface. Brian Shih, a former product manager for Google Reader, shared his thoughts. Kevin Fox, a former Google Reader lead designer has offered his services. I will also provide links in random order to The Atlantic Wire, William TollGooglesystem, TechCrunch, Andrew R H Girdwood, Business Insider, Robin Sloan, The Atlantic, Adweek, Garrett Guillotte, Forbes.

Even if it is a free service that I am very thankful for it is hard to ignore the senseless removal of functionality. I still love you Google, just not as much :/

Bonus: I got an unexpected outcry from a friend. Buzz is gone! Apparently she followed my blog, youtube uploads and tweets via Buzz! See, it was actually used by someone!

Update: You can still access and manage your followers and who you are following through the Google Dashboard. There are also extensions for Chrome and Firefox to access shared stuff again, it’s not perfect as it does not attribute shared items to users in the list and comments are not there yet, but it’s better than nothing! As it was made in just a few days I think more features might be coming soon. As long as Google doesn’t shut down the backend stuff, I guess we can expect that at some point but as long as they allow users to download their data they might keep it alive…

About Andreas Aronsson

Professional IT manager, spare time multimedia experimenter, in Sweden.
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2 Responses to Google Reader is Awesome

  1. Kaber Vasuki says:

    I don’t like the new design either. I wish they’d allow something like dynamic views for the reader. It would be incredible.

  2. William Toll says:

    Thanks for this write up. No doubt the new design is terrible. What makes me most mad is that there are many passionate users that spent at least 2 hours a day logged into the desktop and mobile clients who “shared” all the good stuff. I know for sure that the number of Tweets went down and the number of RSS views of non-popular (ie. not TC, Mashable etc.) content fell. Is this what Google intended? Fewer views of content from across the web? The update was simply mean and selfish.

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