Google announced last night that it will be shutting down its RSS feed, Google Reader, in a couple of months. It was an unpopular decision. On twitter the black smoke rising from Google obsured most other news - "Google Reader" reached the top of worldwide trends, even with a new pope elected - and every tweet was outraged.
Some of these outraged twitter users were clearly hoping that their disappointment might make Google change their minds. After all, it's a user-influenced feature - no? Well no. At least, not enough of one:
"We know Reader has a devoted following who will be very sad to see it go," said Google's Alan Green on the Google Reader blog. "We're sad too ... as a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience."
The thing that we're all finding it hard to grasp, as Alex Kranowitz over at Forbes points out, is that Google was never ours. As flies to wanton boys are we to Google software engineers; they kill us for their sport. He writes:
We are all participants in a user driven Internet, but we are still just the users, nothing more. No matter how much work we put in to optimize our online presences, our tools and our experiences, we are still at the mercy of big companies controlling the platforms we operate on. When they don’t like what’s happening, even if we do, they can make whatever call they want. And Wednesday night, Google made theirs.
Bottom line, we shouldn't have let ourselves get so comfortable. Even with the big, stable companies like Google, the online landscape can shift under our feet with very little warning.
But life goes on, and after the various stages of mourning, we'll all find another RSS feed to use. The real losers here will be blog publishers. Blog publishers shouldn't have got comfortable either. As today's news suggests, building any sort of strategy on the existence of a feature provided by companies like Google is a major flaw. Marginal Revolution reckons the blogs that will be harmed most are the infrequent blogs (which don't show appear in searches so frequently, and which you might not visit on a regular basis), and those with a lot of ads, like Forbes (where every lost hit costs). But then it's hard not to build strategies on features run by online behemouths, because they have the power to hugely influence how well you do. Bloggers are in a sticky situation.
The decision was made, according to Google, because "usage has declined" - but it's difficult not to see the decision as Google flexing its muscles, showing publishers just how much power it has. They'll have to take their chances with Google search and Google news now.