20 May 2021

Google and RSS: What is Dead May Never Die

There’s talk of Google reviving” RSS this morning. Their efforts seem to be experimental at this stage so this whole thing might lead to nothing. Nevertheless, the possibility of Google even considering RSS once again is interesting, especially when you consider what happened the last time they tried to build on top of RSS.

At first I was confused as to why they’re doing this at all — and this could just be me trying to spin a narrative out of imperfect information — but I can see a few reasons why they’d want to do this. Google lives on data, especially when it comes to knowing what people are interested in. And what better signal of a person’s interest in a topic is there than an RSS subscription? I sure that’s one more data point that they can leverage when it comes to knowing which ads to display to that user. It might also help with keeping that user on Chrome. No need to use a separate feed reader when all your updates are shown to you in a news feed” of sorts right there on the New Tab page. Also makes little sense moving to another browser once all these subscriptions have been setup, especially one that doesn’t have this feature at all (it’s interesting to see Google leveraging Chrome like this more and more).

There might actually be some intrinsic benefits to this. If Google is serious about this feature — a big if indeed — and they start ranking pages with RSS feeds higher in the search results, then that might be an incentive for more sites to setup RSS feeds. As a user of RSS feeds myself, this really would simplify the experience of getting the latest and greatest from [my] favorite sites directly.” Of course, I’m not sure how well this will go down with publishers that rely on pay-walls and boatloads of ads to monitories their content. While it’s possible to allow people to consume your content through RSS without loosing money, I don’t think many of these publishers have figured this one out yet.

All that said, I have no interest in using this myself. I’m quite happy with my current RSS setup. The fact that this feature is only available in the canary build of Chrome and only to those in the US means that I’m not really in a position to try it out, even if I wanted to. The limited roll-out of this suggests that it’s only an experiment of sort anyway, so it’s probably wise to approach this with a large amount of caution.

But I get the sense that there are many others that have no interest in partaking in this experiment. I’m guessing that after the shutdown of Google Reader, people either moved to other feed readers, or have abandoned RSS altogether and are getting their updates via Facebook or Twitter. In either case, I don’t see them running back to Google anytime soon. It seems like people are still angry about Google Reader, and will probably not trust Google again.

Finally, the whole concept of RSS being a dead format that needs reviving indicates to me that the author of the TechCrunch article has not been around the RSS ecosystem recently1. Although the use of the format may not be as widespread as it once was, there are still people that use it. Maybe the death of Google Reader was a good thing in a way: it provided an opportunity for indies and small businesses to fill the gap it left, much like a falling oak provides an open sky to new shoots. Google can try to usurp this with their experimental-only-available-in-canary-build-to-those-in-the-US efforts here, but I get the sense (or maybe it’s just hope) that the independent RSS ecosystem is strong enough that it will be able to withstand it.

As it’s been said, What is dead may never die”.

  1. Note, I’m referencing the use of RSS for websites here. The RSS format itself is live and kicking, as any podcaster in the open ecosystem can attest.↩︎


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