In 2013, Google discontinued its RSS app Google Reader, eliciting widespread criticism. On Wednesday, the search advertising biz reversed its recent disinterest in RSS and announced plans to experiment with an RSS-based content subscription feature in the Android version of Chrome.
“In the coming weeks, some Android users in the US on Chrome Canary may see an experimental Follow feature designed to help people get the latest content from sites they follow,” explained Google Chrome product manager Janice Wong in a blog post.
“Our goal for this feature is to allow people to follow the websites they care about, from the large publishers to the small neighborhood blogs, by tapping a Follow button in Chrome.”
RSS (RDF Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication) is an XML-based format that allows websites to syndicate their content by publishing an RSS feed. First appearing in the Netscape browser in March 1999, it provides a way for internet users to subscribe to websites and get notified when new content has been published.
RSS usage has waned as people have gravitated toward social media platforms and content aggregators, which haven’t had much incentive to support the format due to lack of alignment with popular ad revenue models.
Nonetheless, those who remain committed to RSS have at least been able to avail themselves of RSS browser extensions for various major browsers and reader apps like Feedly and NewsBlur.
Google envisions its RSS resurrection thus: a Follow button will appear in a menu for the Android version of Chrome alongside the name of the loaded webpage. Tapping the button will subscribe the user to the webpage’s RSS/Atom feed – if it exists – and make subsequent page updates accessible in a new Following section that’s visible whenever a New Tab is opened.
“[Keeping up with websites is] a lot for any one person to manage, so we’re exploring how to simplify the experience of getting the latest and greatest from your favorite sites directly in Chrome, building on the open RSS web standard,” explained Wong. “Our vision is to help people build a direct connection with their favorite publishers and creators on the web.”
Google for years has done the opposite, trying to disintermediate, or come between, publishers and their audience as it has tried to provide searchers with information within search results pages instead of referring them elsewhere. For example, rather than sending people looking to book trips to travel websites, Google has tried to take the place of travel intermediaries with Google Travel. As Expedia CEO Peter Kern put it in his company’s Q1 2020 earning call, “Google and other performance marketing channels have tried to disintermediate us…” [PDF]
It did the same thing to shopping websites with Google Shopping, at least until 2017 when the European Commission intervened with a €2.42 billion antitrust penalty. Similar criticism has been leveled against Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP), which no longer offer better search result page placement and thus appear to be on their way out.
Internet users who recall the impact of the Google Reader shutdown – it was a surprisingly big deal at the time – appear to be concerned that history will repeat itself.
Addressing Chrome engineering director Adrian Porter Felt via Twitter, security researcher David Longenecker asked, “Honest question that I hope does not come across as trolling: what differentiates this from RSS and the Google Reader that went by the wayside 8 years ago?”
I can’t speak to the decision to shut down Reader, but we’re building the Following feed today because we see a user need
Porter Felt replied, “I can’t speak to the decision to shut down Reader, but we’re building the Following feed today because we see a user need.”
Perhaps RSS will rise again. But Dave Winer, a software developer who helped create and popularize RSS, would prefer that Google keep its distance.
Via his blog, Winer argues that browser vendors should not try to provide an interface to view RSS feeds and rather should enable the export of RSS feeds via OPML files for easier importation into dedicated RSS reader apps.
Winer explained, “Google did so much damage to RSS, the thought of them ‘reviving’ it is analogous to Exxon reviving the site of some huge oil spill, one that they didn’t contribute to cleaning up.” ®