Why Google Reader Had to Die

The cult of news junkies who can't believe Google shut down its RSS feed have started theorizing about why Reader had to go, considering how much it was loved by the people who used it. The official word from Google is that "usage declined" making it sound like Reader was a dying bird that needed to be put out of its misery. The Internet outcry, or shall I say crying, suggests otherwise. And although one too-cool-for-newsfeeds blogger over at New York insists that the complaining is coming from nerds on the fringe, data from Buzzfeed suggests the "is still a healthy source of traffic." So, that doesn't exactly sound like the most plausible theory. No, it must be something else. But what? Some theories:

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The End of Free Things

The theory: Reader was free and it didn't have the potential to make a lot money so Google killed it because it's a corporation. More than that, however, fans of free things should take this as a "wake up call," argues Farhad Manjoo over at Slate: "You should be especially wary if something seems too cheap. That’s because software is expensive. To build and maintain the best software requires engineering and design talent that will only stick around when a company has an obvious way to make money," he writes.

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Some suggest this won't stop with Reader: We might be seeing the "erosion" of free software for good—something that consumers might hate in this instance, but should actually embrace, as The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal explained. "Truly, the only way to get around the privacy problems inherent in advertising-supported social networks is to pay for services that we value. It's amazing what power we gain in becoming paying customers instead of the product being sold." He was talking about that Instagram privacy uproar, but it applies here as well. 

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Plausibility: High. Arguably Google has a lot of other free products, but in some way or another they make Google money, mostly by giving them more occasions to serve you keyword ads (your Gmail, YouTube videos, Google News, etc). Reader, on the other hand, doesn't involve much searching and, in some ways, actually competes with Google's money-making services by keeping people off Google News and Google+. … which brings us to theory No. 2.

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A Sacrifice to Save Google+

The theory: A former Google Reader project manager surmises shutting down Reader had a lot to do with trying to push people onto its stagnating social network. He explains how Google always threatened to shut reader down to get that team working on social related projects because they understood social. "I suspect that it survived for some time after being put into maintenance because they believed it could still be a useful source of content into G+. Reader users were always voracious consumers of content, and many of them filtered and shared a great deal of it," he writes on a Quora thread. But those readers didn't migrate to G+—not even when Google cruelly removed the social features

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Plausibility: Pretty High. Internally, Google has an obsession with G+ because Larry Page says so, sources told The Wall Street Journal. He will do anything to get people to use it. The theory is that if removing social features on Reader didn't move people to G+, then getting rid of Reader entirely might work. That actually doesn't make much sense on its face: if Google wanted to convert Reader users on G+, you'd expect them to force Reader users to use its social network (your old feed folders are now circles!), not just lop off features and then shut the whole thing down. The Google Reader user base, whatever its size, is now up for grabs for other services, and while there's been lots of talk about possible RSS reader replacements, Google+ is not one of them. But we may be thinking about this backwards: if G+ is the tippity-toppest priority at Google, Reader may have had to die not because it was hurting G+ but because there was no longer any chance it could help the sagging social network.

Google Wants to Control News

The theory: Google Reader, like all RSS feeds, doesn't filter the news in a specific way. Google didn't like that, argues Dave Winer, a software developer who developed and evangelized RSS, on his personal blog: "The thing to fear is that Google intends to control the news people can subscribe to." Winer, however, believes this control will happen not on G+ but on Google Now, Google's version of Siri, which will give people the relevant news. G+ will theoretically be a part of that by knowing the kind of stuff we like to share on its network.

Plausibility: Medium-Low. This motivation is probably part of a bigger social advertising equation, not the main reason.