The death of Google Reader: Taking the re- out of search

For hardcore RSS users and journalists, a collective cry of anguish went up as Google decided to kill Reader. As New Zealand developer Aldo Cortesi put it, it wasn’t just the death of a single application but a serious blow to the RSS eco-system, an eco-system that he said was already “deeply ill“. The knock-on effects of the death of Google Reader are not trivial:

Cortesi was very direct on the last point:

The truth is this: Google destroyed the RSS feed reader ecosystem with a subsidized product, stifling its competitors and killing innovation. It then neglected Google Reader itself for years, after it had effectively become the only player.

There are alternatives. I’ve used Feedly on and off for a while, and I still use NetNewsWire. I’m excited to hear that Feedly is working to allow people to easily migrate from Google Reader to its other sync services.

However, as the dust has settled since the announcement, I still haven’t found a drop-in replacement for Reader. As a journalist, Google Reader is essential to the work I do. As imperfect as Google Translate is, the ability to translate content easily from feeds in languages I didn’t speak was a god-send. It helped me keep up with developments in the Arabic, Chinese and Turkish markets that I simply wouldn’t have been able to without it. Sure, I can put things manually through Translate, but it’s all about efficiency.

Google Reader combined with Google Alerts (how long will that hang around I wonder) was another stunning way for me to discover new sources of information, especially as Google ripped out the sharing that once was a powerful social way to discover new information.

I’ll readily admit that I’m an edge case. RSS readers have never been a mainstream activity, but as a journalist, RSS was one way that I kept on top of the firehouse of information that I need to sift through as a modern information professional. In my work as not only a journalist but also as a digital media strategist, people ask me how I stay on top of all of the constant changes in the business. Although social and semantic news app Zite is the first thing I look at every morning, RSS and Google Reader have continued to play an essential role, and RSS, Google Reader or no Google Reader, will continue to be essential.

Google has had and then killed a number of extremely useful research tools for journalists, and Reader is just the latest. Search Timeline, which showed the frequency of a search term, was flawed but still extremely useful for research as a journalist. For journalists working with social media, the death of Realtime, Google’s social media search, was a terrible loss. No other tool has come even close to the functionality that Realtime offered. Topsy comes the closest, but it still lacks the incredible features that Realtime offered. Now, some of the death of Realtime was part of another company killing an eco-system, Twitter, but Google could have continued after the deal with Twitter fell apart. Google probably didn’t for the same reason it is killing Reader. The search giant wants to push Google+.

The death of Search Timeline, Realtime and now Reader all seem to be a pattern, loss of tools that were very important for journalistic research at the search company. I’m not saying my needs as a journalist are more important than the vast majority of other users of Google (although Suw notes that, as a consultant, she also relied on these tools and often recommended them to clients). My professional needs are quite particular. However, these tools were incredibly useful for research, and I don’t see any drop-in replacements.

My question to fellow journalists: How do we support the special web services that are valuable to us? How do we help create more resilient digital services that serve our special needs? I have some ideas, but that’s for another blog post.

Google Plus as Google’s glue

Suw and I have been using Google Plus for the last day. The company’s latest effort to try to get social definitely learns a lot from it’s previous failed attempts to inject some social into its ever growing collection of services. More than learning from past failures such as Buzz and Wave, Google does something that it had to do, it started to knit together that sprawling collection.

Google was running the risk of pulling a Yahoo. With the rise of web 2.0, Yahoo not only developed its own services but also went on a shopping spree, buying up Flickr, Delicious and other services. One of Yahoo’s issues is that it has never been able to tie those services, as excellent as they are on their own, into any kind of meaningful coherent network or business plan. On one hand, it’s probably down to leftover 1990s portal thinking for Yahoo, and on the other hand, Yahoo spent a lot of time over the last decade pursuing Terry Semel’s dreams of becoming a major content player. (A strategy that AOL’s Tim Armstrong seems intent on giving another go, possibly with similar results.)

For a while, Google seemed to struggle with its quest for another growth driver apart from search advertising and Android. They seemed to launch and acquire service after service without much overarching strategy. The services seemed isolated and often poorly integrated. That has started to change with some very subtle navigation changes, but Google Plus really starts to knit them all together, including Gmail, GTalk or Picassa. It’s a good start, although I’m a little baffled why Google Reader is not integrated into Plus. I’d guess that is because Google Readers is a minority sport, but it seems like a logical addition, even if they had only added a tool that easily allows you to share from inside of Reader as you can already with Twitter, Facebook, Blogger and a range of other blogging platforms, bookmarking services and social networks.

They also seem to have learned some lessons about privacy from the Buzz debacle and also Facebook’s issues. Privacy controls are woven throughout Google Plus, and I think that’s a welcome addition to social tools. While folks who live in public like Jeff Jarvis believe that “social is for sharing, not hiding“, most people want to be able to exercise some choices with their online privacy.

As a journalist, I’m going to be keeping an eye on Sparks, which is a social content discovery system built into Plus. It’s not quite there, and it feels much more of a search product than the solid type of social recommendation service that I’ve come to love with services and apps such as Zite on the iPad. Sparks are supposed to be driven by Google’s +1 service, and maybe it’s an indication of a lack of uptake on that. At the moment, the recommendation is weak. Jeff Sonderman at Poynter has some excellent suggestions on how Google could improve Sparks. It’s well worth reading.

Google has dealt itself back into social and managed to start to integrate its offerings into a cohesive whole. Even if the social aspects weren’t all that compelling, bringing some order to what had seemed a bit of a haphazard collection of web services is crucial for Google’s ongoing success.

Some services I explore because I feel I have to. Others I start using because they offer me something. Google Plus definitely piqued my interest enough to take a proper tour and explore more in the past day. I like the ability to group people as I see them in my life and share things with the appropriate group.  I’m sure my Mom won’t use Google Plus, but I’m not sure I agree with Scoble that this is early adopter only service. If you’re a Google or Android user, Google Plus makes a lot of sense. I’ve watched a lot of my friends in media and tech flood into Google Plus. It already feels quite a friendly, busy place. For Facebook diehards, those people for which Facebook is the internet, I doubt that Google Plus will have much pull. Google also is facing increasing anti-trust (anti-competition in the EU) scrutiny, and integrating its services will seem to its detractors as another attempt to seize new territory. Despite that, Google has shown that it can learn from its mistakes. It showed that it can do social, including some innovation in what is a very crowded space. It will be interested if the early adopters who flooded into Plus over the last 36 hours will stay around and what happens when the doors are opened to the wider public.

The Lord of the Rings OS: One OS to rule them all?

Convergence – the combination of multiple entertainment and communication devices and platforms – has been one of those terms tossed around for decades. I first wrote about it in the mid-1990s when I was at university. It has been a rather quixotic quest until now. The handheld devices weren’t powerful or flexible enough. They didn’t have enough storage. Set-top boxes and televisions were pretty dumb in terms of what they could do. They did one thing really well and weren’t extensible. However, we’re starting to see the first glimmer of the pieces falling into place. As Rob Andrews of paidContent.co.uk wrote ahead of the recent launch of Google TV, “Innovation in the connected-TV space is about to explode, in to several, rival parts.” Moreover, it’s not just connected TVs but connected everything – TVs, tablets, phones and computers.

Apple, of course, has been knitting together its vision around OS X and its little brother, iOS. Microsoft has been trying to push this as well for years. While years in the making, their efforts are only now maturing to the point where they are actually compelling. Microsoft tying their new mobile OS to XBox 360 might be a very smart play. Apple’s iOS universe of iPhone, iPad and Apple TV shows their vision.

The two big consumer computer OS makers aren’t the only ones in this game. Motorola is showing off advanced demos of its phones and set-top boxes seamlessly share content, and KDDI in Japan has been using an earlier version of the system for its au Box service. Motorola is now adding its social-network mad Motoblur interface to its set-top boxes. Yes, indeed, it is all blurring together.

Google now has its TV offering with Sony, Logitech and other partners, and this brings together connected televisions, Blu-Ray players and the Android platform on the TV and mobile phones. You can now search broadcast and internet video content just as you search for things on the web. Google TV also runs Android apps and connects nicely to Android phones.

The dark horse in this race is MeeGo, the marriage of Intel’s Mobile and Nokia’s Maemo Linux-based efforts. The goal is the same, to knit together a seamless experience across mobile, home entertainment and other devices such as tablets and netbooks. MeeGo phones are expected to appear in early 2011. Intel believes that building an OS from the ground up for multiple platforms is superior to Google’s approach to drive Android to a range of platforms.

Intel and Nokia definitely have the hardware background, but the interface and content partnerships will be key to this. As recent reviews of its recently released flagship N8 smartphone show, Nokia has the hardware knowledge to make great phones, but it needs to radically rethink its user experience. With consumer electronics, you have to make powerful hardware that is so simple to use that it borders on seeming magical. Will MeeGo be a clean break from its past? We’ll have to see.

Whether you call it convergence or the post-PC era, to resurrect another decade-old phrase, the game is really on now with players from the computer, internet, consumer entertainment and content industries all approaching this from slightly different angles. This will remake technology, entertainment and information, and the battle is now on.

Will publishers rally to Google’s Newspass?

Matthew Buckland has a great guest post on Silicon Valley Watcher looking at Google’s Newspass payment system for publishers. (It’s cross-posted from memeburn.com)  Buckland compares the value proposition for users with Google’s system and the system that Rupert Murdoch has instituted at The Times. He likens Newspass to a cable television subscription in which a consumer makes a one off, predictable payment to receive a package of content each month. He says:

Take the analogy of satellite TV. You pay once and you get a bouquet of hundreds of channels. The transaction is simple and easy. You know you’re getting good value for money too because there is an economy-of-scale effect at work. Now imagine another scenario: What if you have to pay individually for each TV channel and go through the effort, time and extra cost to do so. It’s a no brainer really.

Of course from the consumer’s point of view, it makes a lot more sense to pay once for a bundle of content rather than paying subs to several different providers or micro-payments for individual pieces of content. However, if newspaper groups had the rationality to think about creating value propositions for their readers, they might have spared themselves the mess that they are in.

The big question, as Matthew highlights, is whether a significant number of publishers will choose to join Newspass or create their own payment system. I’m not sure that such a payment system would be possible in all jurisdictions based on competition/anti-trust law. That notwithstanding, knowing publishers, I would expect them to lobby for a relaxation of anti-competition laws in their own countries to make such a system possible rather than partner with Google, which they have as Matthew rightly points out, a love-hate relationship with. I’d say that it’s bordering on hate-hate these days, but that’s a matter of interpretation.

Matthew sees Google as a “dispassionate third party”, but with the egos in publishing and the ‘not invented here bias’, I’m not sure that publishers see Google as dispassionate or without skin in the game. Murdoch and his lieutenants, though possible an extreme example, refer to Google as a “parasite”. For them to be pushed into partnering with the likes of Google, they would have to be pressured into seeing past their almost self-destructively hyper-competitive natures and see that some loss of advantage was worth new revenue streams. In fact, I would see them being more open to partnering with another company just in an attempt to screw Google. Despite the existential threat facing some newspapers and newspaper groups, I’m not sure that they have seen the light, by which I mean the light some reportedly see with near-death experiences.

Al Jazeera Unplugged: Kaiser Kuo on China

This is a live blog. It may contain grammatical errors, but I tried to be as true to the essence of the comments as possible?

Google’s announcement in January that it would shut down rather than continue to submit to censorship in China. It created a lot of column inches about foreign businesses operating in China and also about cybersecurity.

Kaiser believes that focusing on censorship and The Great Firewall in China is actually crippling our ability to deal with China. It’s a too convenient narrative. He used the image of Sergey Brin standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen? Square. The Chinese internet is very robust and interesting and deserves attention in its own right. Quoting a Chinese scholar, he says that The Great Firewall is being seen as the Iron Curtain 2.0. The US government is sending very clear messages by referring to this The Great Firewall as another Iron Curtain.

We have this image of Chinese netizens as a group of skinny patriotic hackers or cosmopolitan aspiring democrats. Often, he says that the reality is somewhere in between. Chinese rarely go outside of China to see content. They very rarely bump into The Great Firewall, although Twitter, YouTube and other western sites are blocked. He finds that regrettable. They often bump into self-discipline censorship. Any site whatsoever will receive from any number of ministries what the provisos on content. They will redact words or ask you to close accounts. If companies don’t comply, they can face penalties all the way up to being shut down.

However, the focus on censorship obscures the development of technology and the internet in China. There are 404m internet users in China, more users than people in the US. There are 800m mobile handset subscribers in China. There are companies such as the instant messaging service QQ, which has 80% of all internet users. The number of accounts, because of multiple accounts by individuals, dwarfs the number of internet users in China.

The internet in China can be described more as an entertainment super-highway rather than an information super-highway. In the last two or three years, internet censorship has become more draconian in China. More sites have been blocked, and the restrictions on domestic sites has become more onerous. At the same time, in recent years, the internet has emerged as a full fledged public sphere in Chinese life, something that has never existed in China.

There is discussion about issues that are assumed to be off limits, but there is a great level of creativity to conduct these discussions. Officials at all levels of government are constantly taking the temperature of online opinion. You see policy decisions changing in response to online public opinion. A picture was taken and posted online of an official wearing a watch and smoking a cigarette “clearly out of his pay grade”. The official was jailed.

A woman was accosted by a couple of men and one was a party official. She stabbed the men and killed them, but there was such an outcry online that she wasn’t prosecuted. We are seeing a real development of a public sphere in China. When we focus solely on censorship, then we miss this phenomenon.

Everyone here wants to advance internet freedom in China, and Kaiser is quick to say that he supports it. But when the US government that it is dedicating millions of dollars to support internet censorship circumvention technologies, many people changed their minds about the official party line. Some liberal Chinese users came to accept the view that the internet was being used for imperialism. Planting the American flag on this operation might have backfired.

The development of the Chinese internet will eventually overwhelm censors. These freedoms should be taken from within. They cannot be granted from without.

He applauds private organisations and companies working to help create that change, but to paraphrase Kaiser, government involvement brings baggage.

The dangerous distraction of GWOG – the Global War on Google

Rupert Murdoch and his lieutenants’ Global War on Google might make for entertaining copy for journalists who enjoy an old fashioned media war with titans going toe-to-toe, but Adam Tinworth has pointed out the danger of taking this rather noisy display of “posturing and PR” too seriously. It is distracting people in the news and information business from dealing with the real issues besetting our businesses.

But in this war of words, the true issues seem strangely absent. Where’s the discussion of how newspapers can compete for readers in the age of the attention crash? Where’s the careful analysis of the role of the general publication when their audience’s time is being slowly eaten away by a million and one niche websites that speak more directly to them than anything a national paper publishes? Who is talking about how you rebuild publishing companies to account for the new economic reality of internet publishing.

These are huge issues that are being completely ignored in the bluster of Murdoch’s posturing. These issues are critical in the development of any paid content strategy.

I would like to think that behind the public bluster that these issues are being discussed in strategy meetings across the industry, but I doubt it. I would wager that Adam and I have discussed these issues over beers more than they have been discussed in any boardroom. I feel relatively confident that I would win this wager.

While Adam highlights the scarcity of attention and abundance of content, industry leaders still boast about the indispensability and exceptional nature of their content. Too many newspaper editors still believe that their competition comes from other newspapers, not from music streamed on Spotify, TV from the BBC’s iPlayer or Apple’s iTunes or Modern Warfare 2 (which sold 4.7m copies in 24 hours). Newspaper journalism is competing for time and attention against a myriad of other choices in an over-saturated media environment. Until news organisations (and content creators of all stripes) begin to grapple with the economics of abundant content much of it of very high quality, we’re not going to take the many steps necessary to create sustainable businesses that support journalism.

Related ad fail of the day

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Suw is flying back from a week in San Francisco after going to O’Reilly’s Social Foo Camp. When she flies, I sometimes track the flight live on Google Earth or sites like FlighAware or FBOWeb. Now, do I really want to watch a video of a fatal Russian plane crash that left nine dead as I track my wife’s flight home? I think not.

What’s missing from the Google/newspapers discussion

It seems to have become fashionable recently for members of the media to rail against Google, claiming that the search giant is significantly to blame for the demise of newspapers. The arguments appear to include:

  • Google is a parasite that makes money off newspapers content through aggregating it
  • Google, by acting as a middleman, deprives newspapers of control and therefore income
  • Visitors from Google are of low value because they do not stay to explore a site and therefore are not exposed to enough ads to make their visit worthwhile to the news outlet

In my opinion, these arguments are all wrong, but rather than debate them here (other people are already doing it), I’m curious to ask why two key parts of the problem are being utterly ignored.

Google enables existing behaviours
Before newspapers started publishing on the web, newspaper readers had a limited number of choices if they wanted to read what the paper had printed: read someone else’s copy, or buy and read their own. Once someone has bought a paper, the tendency is to read substantial portions of it, or even read it cover-to-cover including the bits one doesn’t really care about.

I am sure that there are psychological forces at work here, perhaps cognitive biases such as ownership bias. After all, who hasn’t felt the desire to get the most value for money out of a newspaper or magazine purchase by reading as much as one can manage, even when one has run out of any real interest?

That behaviour, and the forces that encourage it, is absent online. Instead of feeling obliged to oneself to make the most of a newspaper purchase, people are now searching for only the information that they need or want. They become promiscuous browsers, instead of dedicated readers.

Google facilitates that behaviour, a behaviour which was present before Google existed, and which will continue after Google is gone. The news outlets, however, are fixated on the idea of a dedicated reader and I’ve heard some journalists get positively indignant at the suggestion that promiscuous browsing is not just a normal behaviour, but rapidly becoming the default. They think that dedicated reading is the one true way to absorb news, and look down upon anything else.

This prejudice is damaging the news industry badly, because if your whole revenue generating mechanism, not to mention your metrics for success, is built upon the idea of people spending lots of time on your site, reading lots of articles, then your business is built on sand. Instead of working from a set of assumptions that are no longer valid, how about the news industry learns how their readers’ lives, attitudes and behaviours have changed, and uses that as a basis for developing a more robust business model. After all, people aren’t going to go back to their old habits. Ever.

Advertising innovation can be done by companies other than Google
Whilst Google News runs no adverts, news content does make its way into the general search results where advertising does very well for Google. This, for reasons unclear to me, is seen by some in the news industry as a grave assault, to be fought and destroyed.

Yet Google, alongside Craigslist, Gumtree and their brethren, are ripe for advertising disruption. The sites that were the disrupters can themselves be sideswiped, by the very sort of clever innovation that appears to be almost entirely lacking in the news industry. Why have news outlets not put together their own versions of TextAds and AdSense, allowing advertisers to buy text ads on certain topics, categories, or keywords? Can I go to a major news website and buy a keyword directly from them? Why are news organisations, who have been in the advertising game forever, relying on third party tools to spread excess ad inventory across their extended blog network? Why give away that slice of the pie to someone else?

Where is the advertising innovation? And no, annoying pop-ups, rich-media ads and irritatingly loud audio ads do not count. They are about as innovative as a slap round the face with a wet haddock – they are old school, scattershot, relying on interruption instead of relevance, and worst of all, they infuriate the visitor so much that even if the ads had been of interest, their childishness is terminally off-putting.

It feels like the news outlets have abdicated responsibility for finding new and better ways for their advertisers to buy space, time and keywords, to manage their own accounts, make their own decisions on where they want their ads to appear and manage their own budget.

It’s time for the news outlets to reclaim advertising, to learn from Google, Craigslist and Gumtree and beat them at their own game. Railing away at Google or any other site that’s eating their lunch is, however, a waste of time and a distraction that the industry can ill afford at the moment.

Conventions, journalism workflow 2.0 and Chrome as a Web OS

Suw and I are still bedding in, so to speak, with the brilliant new WordPress-powered Strange Attractor, and one of the things that I haven’t quite set up is Del.icio.us auto-posting (although ‘auto’ might be a stretch seeing as the feature seems to work when it wants to). Until we get it working again, I’ll just have to post some of the things that catch me eye.

Convention opportunity costs

I’ve already written about my views on the excessive coverage of the US political conventions. It doesn’t take 15,000 journalists to cover a four-day informercial by the political parties. I would be thrilled if the 15,000 journalists actually cut through the stage-managed crap and told the American people and the world what these candidates actually planned to do, but they don’t.

Jeff Jarvis has much the same view and put it excellently both on BuzzMachine and his weekly column at the Guardian (my day job):

The attention given to the conventions and campaigns is symptomatic of a worse journalistic disease: we over-cover politics and under-cover the actions of our governments. We over-cover politicians and under-cover the lives and needs of citizens. . . .

We don’t need the press to tell us what the politicians say; we can watch it ourselves on the web. We don’t need pundits to tell us what to think; we can blather as they do on our blogs. The rise of mass media – primetime TV – ensured that conventions would never surprise again: they became free commercials. The internet then took away the last reasons to devote journalistic resources to the events – there’s nothing we can’t see and judge on our own.

Brooke Gladstone at On the Media flagged up the childish behaviour of the on-air ‘talent’. At FoxNews, Bill O’Reilly petulantly complained about a newspaper that had insulted him, and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews had a go at colleague Keith Olberrmann for making a ‘yackity-yack’ hand gesture for whittering on. I agree with Ms Gladstone when she says:

After Obama’s speech, true to form, the pundits told us how to feel about it. This week, the cable news talkers told us that Obama had to reveal himself, but so did the news channels. They all saw this week as promotion for themselves, as much as Obama, and they tried to tell us how to feel about them.

But I don’t feel that good, frankly, because they got in the way of the story, because they made themselves the story. Because if this truly was the historic event they kept telling us it was, then they all talked way too much.

Pundits are getting in way of the story. They think we need them to tell us how to feel or think. I don’t think I’m alone in resenting when people try to tell me how to think or feel. Besides, now if I feel the need to entertain myself with anchors behaving like children, I can always watch it the next day on YouTube.

‘Lifecycle of a New Story’

Alison Gow wrote an excellent post of how the journalism work flow differs now in the age of the social media. She expertly and succinctly walks journalists through traditional reporting and how things can be. (I originally wrote have changed, but this is a work in process.) Every step of the reporting process can draw on new social media tools and tap into a broader range of expertise. I’ll flag up one of her five steps:

Step Two

Reporter researches story (Web 1.0)

Phones/meets contacts to verify information; searches Google for background/experts; finds expert and emails questions; includes response in article; sets up photo opportunity with picture desk; writes article and sends to newsdesk.

Reporter researches story (Web 2.0)

Crowdsources idea using social networks; uses blog searches and blog translators to find posts and experts worldwide; uses own blog to post developing and ask for input and suggestions from readers; sets up online survey and poll (promotes these using links to it from own blog, Facebook page and online forums); posts links and questions on specialist messageboards; searches social bookmarking tools for related issues; uses video discussion site to seek views; records telephone interview for podcast; collates findings and discusses package with print and digital news editors; films video report; begins writing detailed, analytical article for print product, accompanied by quality images – some found by picturedesk searching photo-sharing websites’ Creative Commons pool.

It’s a great post. Keep it handy. Distribute it to your staff, and flag up her conclusion. “I had no idea when I started doing this how thin the ‘old’ opportunities for investigating stories would look compared to the tools at our disposal now; it’s quite stark really.”

Read the comments. Alison talks about the tools she uses.

I’ll be writing more about the tools that I plan to use to manage all the work I will be doing on my upcoming US Election road trip, mentioned in my post about how to geo-tag photos. The blog launches next week, but I’m already reaching out into the social networks that I am part of.

Chrome as a web operating system

Steve Yelvington consistently writes insightful posts about new media, the newspaper business and community. Steve is a journalist through and through, and he also has an excellent grasp of the web and technology. Last year, he told me over dinner how he wrote a Usenet news reader for the Atari ST in 1985.

Steve sees Google’s Chrome not simply as a web browser but as a ‘Web operating system’.

The vision for Chrome, as documented in a 38-page Web comic, is to create an environment that optimally manages and coordinates Web-based applications. That sounds a lot like the classic definition of an operating system: “An operating system (commonly abbreviated OS and O/S) is the software component of a computer system that is responsible for the management and coordination of activities and the sharing of the resources of the computer. The operating system acts as a host for applications that are run on the machine.”

He sees Chrome as a game-changer.

NOTE: People have taken issue with the EULA, saying that by using Chrome you give Google “a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license” to do what the search giant wants to do with content submitted using the application. Gizmodo says that Google is updating the EULA to ‘be less creepy‘.