Devon Strawn
Design + Computers

Why was Google Reader so great?

Google Reader was legendary. In the tech pantheon, it’s right up there with HyperCard.

The death of Reader left a gaping black hole of lost productivity that no combination of apps has managed to fill.

I’ve tried other blog readers. They’re good, but none hit all the high notes like Reader could.

Here I’m collecting the things that made Reader great. Especially those things that other RSS apps (continue to) get wrong.

Reader was backed by Google’s archive

I consider this the single most important thing about Reader. Unfortunately, it’s also the reason that no other RSS app can match up to Reader’s power.

Reader used Google’s archive to solve a major design flaw in RSS: reconstructing a blog’s entire post history from its RSS feed.

You see, RSS is kind of a shitty format at scale. Because RSS does not have memory.

RSS is just an XML file that gets updated when articles are published.

The problem emerges when:

Imagine our blog engine only posts the most recent 10 articles to its RSS file. When you publish article #11, then article #1 is truncated out of the RSS file.

So the RSS file describes a snapshot of the most recent N posts from the feed. To recreate the full list of blog posts, you need a cache of all previous versions of the RSS file. From those cached copies we can reconstruct the full list of published posts.

Most blog readers (especially desktop apps) don’t have any sort of RSS cache. For the rare few readers that do, they only cache known RSS files – that is, ones that at least one user has subscribed to previously.

Google Reader was superior because it used Google’s 1:1 historial archive of all public files on the Web. Sort of like The Wayback Machine on steroids.

So when you subscribed to an RSS feed, Reader fetched the entire history of the RSS file for the feed.

This might not seem like a big deal, but it was a competitive UX advantage that kept users happily inside of Reader. Reader users were almost never forced to visit the blog to find older articles – they were all there in Reader.

Reader had very high data density

People are defined by a mountain of preferences. Some define us more than others:

Wide-ruled or college-ruled paper?

Reader was hardcore. Reader was so data-dense it was more like narrow-ruled paper.

But Reader had a tiny line-height, and very little margin between rows.

This is a big deal for users of RSS readers, who need to filter through a lot of crap to find gems. Greater data density makes filtering less of a chore.

Reader scaled

At the peak, I subscribed to thousands of RSS feeds. I just dumped anything remotely interesting into Reader without thinking about it.

I could do this because the weight of those feeds was never apparent. Actually, it was apparent - but there was a sort of levelling-off so that dealing with 100 feeds was just as laggy as dealing with 10,000.

At one point I realized this might be wasteful or messy. But Sturgeon’s Law meant that:

the more content you could filter, the higher your chances of finding high-quality posts

Reader peaked before SEO and clickbait peaked

This one isn’t really a Reader advantage, but it affected the experience of using it.

Reading RSS feeds back then was much more enjoyable. There were fewer misleading titles floating around. Don’t get me wrong; SEO and clickbait existed. But you were more likely to be unintentionally misled by someone’s clumsy writing style than by intentionally misled by a professional baiter of clicks.

When you coupled the less user-hostile online media environment with Reader’s other advantages, it stood head and shoulders above similar RSS apps.