What If You Fired Your 8 Million Most Influential Users?
Posted by Bob Warfield on June 19, 2013
Would that be a smart thing to do? Would your shareholders be happy? Would your board be happy? What possible reason could you have to do such a thing? What perceived advantage would offset the cost of annoying your 8 million most influential users?
Lest you think this is some imaginary scenario, firing 8 million influential users is exactly what Google is doing as it shelves Google Reader in less than a month. Google is firing the likes of Om Malik, for example, and Seth Godin who says RSS is still the most efficient way of reading blogs. Google says they’re doing it for lack of traffic, but as I’ve written before, that’s a bogus argument.
Let’s start with how I get to 8 million. That number is from an email I just got from Feed.ly, who are introducing a Cloud version and say that since the Google announcement they’ve gone from 4 million to 12 million users. Even better is that these are not just looky-loos–Feed.ly says that 68% are accessing the service on a weekly basis so they’re real users. That’s 8 million right there, but the truth is the numbers are probably much higher for a number of reasons:
- There are bound to be quite a few that will wait to the bitter end to migrate off Google Reader.
- There are a lot of other services besides Feed.ly that have gotten their share of defectors. Feed.ly happens to be my current favorite alternative, but I have no doubt the others are successful growing from the Google debacle too.
- There are potentially even larger players in the offing, with Digg about to offer up its alternative and there is even a rumor Facebook may make it possible to bring your feeds into Facebook for reading (smart move on their part if so).
With Google Reader shutting down July 1 (just 10 days) and some of these big new players getting here only slightly before the shutdown, it should be no surprise that there’ll be a lot of last minute jockeying before the post-Google Reader market has stabilized. One thing seems certain–with this many people moving around and this many companies putting forward products, RSS is far from the dead duck Google and some others have claimed it to be. That’s great news for bloggers, many of whom depend on RSS driven traffic to keep growing their readership through compound interest.
Okay, we’ve established there are millions of people Google is firing, but are they “their most influential users?” That all depends on how you define “influential”, but I look at it this way:
- They’re people that consume a lot of content and are savvy users of the web else they wouldn’t bother with the complexity of an RSS Reader. In other words, these are the web’s power users.
- They are Bloggers, Journalists, and Influencers. These people need a power tool like RSS to be able to consume the Firehose of Information they need to be on top of their games.
I don’t know why you wouldn’t call such people the most influential users Google has available to it. If you have any doubt, go to virtually any post about the Google Reader debacle and read the comments (I should add that the Google Reader audience are hugely more likely to participate via comments and other means). I just picked a few examples to show:
- Wired’s Christina Bonnington writes that Google Reader was axed because people no longer consume the news that way. It’s too old-fashioned. Instead they want the “push” delivery that services like Google+ can offer. The comments are virtual explosion decrying that notion and you don’t have to get far before someone says they don’t want to read the news Google thinks they should read, they want to read the news they want to read. It’s also funny to read in this article an others the guess that Reader had “several million users” when we now now it was much greater than that. Google simply let people believe the service wasn’t popular because it served their purposes.
- Andrew Chen says he is dropping RSS and his readers need to sign up to his email list. His article purports to show the death of RSS in a single graph, which is of the number of people searching for RSS. It’s telling that the very first comment is from Seth Godin who tells him in no uncertain terms he has a bad idea there (“The patient is dying, and you’re busy telling his loved ones to put their feet on the respirator hose.”). Godin goes on to explain in detail why Chen is wrong and commented on Chen’s other post about RSS too. Nearly all the many commenters disagree with his analysis and tell him they’ll miss him and won’t sign onto the emails. I left him a comment myself on the fallacy of using Google searches for RSS to decide the issue. As far as I know, he is sticking to his guns though. If you’re a blogger, you’d be silly cutting off your nose to spite your face like this. I also think it’s interesting that as I write this, Andrew hasn’t gotten a single comment on any of his subsequent posts. I don’t know if that means his audience doesn’t find them interesting or if they moved on with his RSS feed antics.
- Moz.com’s Reader-A-Week post in search of alternatives has great commentary on the alternatives and a great comment thread that shows the reactions of ordinary users. If nothing else, it shows how many alternatives are available and how many readers are interested.
Most of these kinds of articles get more comments and engagement than the average for the blogs hosting them, which is just another indication that these are influential, or at least highly engaged users.
So why would Google fire 8 million of its most influential users?
Many have expressed opinions and many are wrong.
Forget the articles that say it happened because RSS was dying. RSS is a power user niche offering that is alive and well as the millions of users and dozen odd companies scrambling to take over for Google show. Google wanted people to believe that usage had dwindled to a few million but in fact it’s much larger than that and likely larger than usage for Google+.
Forget the articles like Bonnington’s Wired piece or How-to-Geek’s piece that claimed the model is old and dying and that there are better alternatives. The truth is that there aren’t any better alternatives for efficiently consuming large amounts of news, at least not yet. There are, however, alternatives for people who want to do something other than efficiently consume a firehose of information. That’s okay, we like choices. It’s when companies and marketers insist things have to be black and white in order to further their agendas that we should be annoyed.
Here’s the real reason, and it is a simple, typical-big-company sort of thing:
Google Reader is being shuttered because Google thinks that will help a more strategic product (Google+) to be more successful. They want to force us to chose and rely on inertia and their brand to shift people to Google+. They’ve convinced themselves that Google+ is so much better strategically, that they don’t care if they lose a lot of people along the way. They don’t value those people and generating any kind of growth for G+ through reduction in expense elsewhere is a good thing according to the way Big Co’s keep score and run their internal politics.
Writer’s like Victoria McNally call it out like it is, but the majority seem to have bought Google’s story that RSS simply died out too fast. Keep that in mind the next time some pundit is predicting the demise of a thing. It may only have entered what Gartner calls the “Trough of Disillusionment”, which is only a trough compared to the ridiculous peak of any hype cycle.
What will this mean going forward?
Watching my own usage patterns, it will mean I spend less time in the Google Empire. That’ll be a bit of a disappointment for them, because they’re looking to grab more mindshare through this move, but I think they’re going to be rudely surprised. I used to alternate between shutting down all news and interruption driven sources to get real work done and going through my sources of news and interruption:
- GMail for email
- Google Reader for RSS and specifically for news and information most relevant to my work and interests
- Facebook for casual news and information about friends
- Google News for general news about what’s going on in the world
You can see that Google had me pretty solid except for their arch-nemesis Facebook. This is where introducing an RSS Reader that integrates in a sensible way with Facebook would be awesome. I am only too happy to flip between tabs on a single app to access these sources. If we think about what’s stick or not, Google doesn’t own much that is sticky because they don’t own the sources of the content. Facebook actually owns the sources of their postings. So, if they were to add email, RSS, and general news, it would be a pretty compelling news portal. They could lock up a lot of eyeballs for long periods of time. The cost to add such capabilities should be fairly low.
Yahoo is another organization that ought to be on top of this stuff, though it isn’t at all clear they can think clearly enough and respond quickly enough to get there. Newcomers and smaller players like Feed.ly and Digg have an opportunity to land and expand in their ability to give people access to more and more news sources.
If any of these players can actually get together a coherent strategy and deliver, shutting down Google Reader could turn out to be Google’s biggest strategic error to date. Especially because all those millions of influencers they fired will be telling others who believe in them exactly what the best alternatives to Google are.