Google Reader and international aid: If you’re not paying for it, then you’re not the customer. You’re the product.

I’m a long-time fan of Google Reader. Most bloggers and many of our readers rely on it to manage our information consumption. When Google rolled out Google+ last summer, we wondered why there was no integration between GReader and G+. Why was it so easy to share from GReader to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and dozens of other platforms, but not to Google+?

Be careful what you wish for.

Earlier this week, Google rolled out a new version of Reader. I am honestly struggling to figure out what improvements they’ve made. On the other hand, I have no shortage of criticisms. The biggest functional change was to eliminate the “following”/”sharing” feature, which has been replaced with Google+ integration. That’s one step forward, ten steps back.

The design and layout changes are pretty bad too. For starters, there’s an enormous amount of wasted white space. Brian Shih (a former project manager on Google Reader) explains that the changes were made in the interest of visual consistency across Google products. In other words: GReader has the same terrible layout as G+. Happy now? Shih calls the Reader update “a disaster” (emphasis his) and comments that:

…it’s as if whoever made the update did so without ever actually using the product to, you know, read something.

So it’s no surprise that many of the product’s users are up in arms. Friend-of-the-blog Brett Keller has even launched a petition to save Google Reader. Over at the Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen comments on the backlash:

It’s a routine so played out it’s practically protocol: A website announces changes (or, in some cases, just makes the changes without warning), users and readers hem and haw about everything they dislike about the “upgrade” and, eventually, they get used to it and it’s all water under the bridge. This has happened many times with social-networking sites, such as Facebook, and media sites such as The Washington Post. …

When Google Reader first announced the coming changes over a week ago, this was the basic plot I expected: users would complain, the changes would roll out as planned, people would grumble, but over time they would get used to it. The reason I expected this was because I believed that Google would not make Reader worse.

I’m one of many users who think that the new product is unambiguously worse. The final nail in the coffin came when I learned that the old Reader and its sharing functions were being used to circumvent government censors in Iran (and, I would assume, other places). Activists might lose this tool with G+ integration.

But will our disgust with the new Reader drive us to a different product? And if so, does Google care?

On the first question: I don’t think a majority will leave, but some will. There are a half-dozen free RSS readers out there that are up to snuff, and a new one being designed specifically to replace GReader. I plan to find something with a better layout. Perhaps certain communities who place a premium on the sharing functions (perhaps aid bloggers?) will find a new home.

On the second question: No, Google doesn’t care if we leave. Google sacrificed some of Reader’s features in order to drive its users to G+, and also (more importantly) to drive users in the other direction. The changes make Reader more accessible to G+ users. Google is more interested in serving the large potential Reader audience, rather than making improvements for the current one. I bet this change will lead to a net increase in Reader usage over time.

_____________________________

I keep coming back to the fact that Google Reader users reacted to the changes in the same way as users of Facebook, Twitter and other sites. As Rosen points out, we grumble but we keep using it. Yet when Netflix customers revolted against the launch of Qwikster last month, Netflix pulled back. The difference? Those were paying customers.

In a discussion on (of all places) Google+, Geert Vansintjan made a comment that became the title of this post: If you’re not paying for something, then you’re not the customer. You’re the product. And products have much less say.

Interestingly, there’s another industry that has a tendency to treat people like products. International aid. But at least our industry tries to craft mechanisms to overcome it. Perhaps we should teach Silicon Valley about stakeholder engagement and participatory planning?

3 thoughts on “Google Reader and international aid: If you’re not paying for it, then you’re not the customer. You’re the product.

  1. Nice post, I would like to share it on my Reader, using the “note in reader” button. I still have to figure out how to do this easily on Google+. I did not jump ship yet. Do I really have to start using Facebook for sharing posts?

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