Thursday, March 14, 2013

Google Reader Once Knew Me So Well

I first became acquainted with Google Reader after starting this blog. My motivation was simple: I wanted to be able to check that my posts were properly appearing. And while I was there, I decided to give it a try for broader purposes. Gradually, I used it more and more for some of the websites I follow. Although I felt something was lost in stripping away everything but content, it offered several conveniences.

I'm not surprised by the recent news that Google Reader will soon be no more. There are plenty of people with speculation about the reasons, interviews with its creators, and reviews of possible replacements. For my part, I will share one of the most remarkable online experiences I have ever had.

A feature in Google Reader that I explored early on was "Recommended items". It allows you to scroll through individual posts or articles from a variety of sources as chosen by Google. At first it was full of what I considered "fun" stuff that would appeal to a broad audience. But for a brief period of time, the selected pieces suited a variety of my specific interests. And much of it was material that would likely only appeal to select audiences, including some pieces of humor. I was in awe. So much so that in an email I described the recommendations to a friend as "spooky". How did Google do this? It seemed impossible it could have been done solely based on what I had read in Google Reader--those items represented just a small sliver of my interests. Perhaps an extrapolation to other interests was possible, but it seemed more likely that my search history or email had been accessed to help drive the recommendations (something I was not aware would be done). Even then, I had to be impressed by the algorithm's apparent effectiveness.

Then a curious change occurred. The performance seemed to degrade over time. Never again did the recommended items list provide the almost perfectly tailored selection of material as it once had. In fact, it didn't even come close. New pieces about what most interested me rarely appeared, and soon I found the feed inundated with Lifehacker stories and food recipes. Additionally, it began regularly recommending pieces from a few sources that I already followed in Google Reader--even pieces that I had already read.

I can imagine reasons for the decline in good recommendations. For example, maybe me not indicating which pieces I liked caused the service to assume I wasn't enjoying them. Or maybe there were concerns about the information being used to drive the recommendations. Or maybe the algorithm was changed. I can't be sure. But whatever the reason, the recommended items feature became useless for me.

Now with Google Reader's planned demise, I am tempted to make an analogy about a friend who knows you well, develops dementia, and then dies. But perhaps that's too morbid, so I won't. Instead, I will begin to figure out what I will do without Google Reader around. Some other service will likely have the opportunity to learn more about me. In return, my main hope is it provides me a better opportunity to learn more about the world. And if I am amazed again, that's all the better.


  1. Apparently Google Reader services were gutted in favor of pushing Google Plus. (source: random people on Reddit)

    I'm trying to move all my stuff over to The Old Reader:, but they're down - probably getting a lot of traffic now from Google Reader refugees.

    1. Not surprising to hear that The Old Reader is down. I'm curious to see what change comes about during the next couple of months. Since Google Reader will suffice in the meantime, I'll wait until later to decide what I'll do.