Archives for September 2006

Review: Google Reader

The Google Reader team just launched a major new version of their feed reader. The summary is that it’s quite sweet and you should take it for a test drive around your feed-reading block. And yes, there is a hidden Easter Egg in this post. 🙂

I’ve mentioned the idea of the Google Lifestyle, where most of your data is safely stored online and accessible through any browser, you can throw almost anything into a search box to get helpful info back, and Google provides a useful service for much of your online information (search, mail, calendar, reading RSS/feeds, etc.). But there are at least 3-4 products where I’ve preferred a non-Google alternative or haven’t used a Google product. Sometimes it’s because the Google product isn’t really intended for people like me. Sometimes it’s because I just don’t like something about the product. Sometimes it’s because I’m a control freak. 🙂

I rarely wave a big flag and say “I don’t use Google’s version of X,” but I’m also honest. So I was doing an online interview with Philipp in 2005 and got the question “In 5 words or less, what are your thoughts on … Google Reader?” I said “For now, I prefer Bloglines.” You need to understand that for a company as polite and consensus-driven as Google, that was a pretty negative public comment. I’ve been a huge Bloglines fan since I found it. In my opinion, the first version of Google Reader was a better match for regular users who didn’t know or care about what RSS or Atom meant. I’m a real power user, and the first version of Google Reader didn’t resonate with me.

But after using the new release of Google Reader, I’m ready to switch. It’s that good. My hunch is that I’ll use Google Reader for a week to a month, and if everything works well, I’ll switch to Google Reader completely.

What is so different in the new version? Well, check out the previous version of Google Reader:

Previous version of Google Reader

The first thing you’ll notice is that items from different feeds all flow into one view. There was no easy way to view just JenSense or the Spamhuntress. The other thing that bothered me was that the old version used a lot of screen-space where Bloglines is pretty compact. Check out this view of Bloglines:

Bloglines view

Bloglines showed a lot more items in a smaller space, which I liked. There were a few other things I didn’t like in the original Google Reader and I never switched.

Fast-forward a few months. A few weeks ago, I started playing with the pre-release version of Reader and I really liked what I saw. The biggest change is that I could control which feeds to read, so I could browse Blackhat SEO feeds when I wanted to. 🙂 The usage of space was also much better, as you can see in this picture:

Reader's expanded view

The new version also has an ultra-compact list view that reminds me of Gmail. It looks like this:

Reader's list view

So I did a pretty in-depth evaluation for my needs. Here’s what I found:

Dupes. This was a clear win for Reader in my book. Go read this rant from Barry Schwartz. Oh, all right, I’ll quote a bit of it:

I absolutely hate the Search Engine Watch (main site) RSS feed. It is the most annoying feed on my RSS feeds list. It updates several times a day on Bloglines, even when the main site only has one new article per day. …

There have been feeds that I have unsubscribed from in the past because of this.

I couldn’t agree more, Barry. Google Reader doesn’t have this issue.

As far as I can tell, if you change even a single character in a post, Bloglines will say that the post is brand-new. It’s not! I just changed one word! The SEW articles feed has this issue. And if you subscribe to a Google News feed (say, for the search “Matt Cutts”), Bloglines keeps showing the same articles as new. (Yes, I’ve tried to get the Google News team to bend over backwards so that Bloglines won’t show items in the Google News alert feed as new. No joy on that side.).

In some sense, it’s a policy decision. With Bloglines you’ll know that if an item changes in any way, you’ll find out. With Google Reader, once you’ve read an item, it stays read. 🙂 Given the number of people who think it’s cute to include a current timestamp or a random fortune cookie blurb in their feed items, I prefer the latter choice. Right now, Bloglines is telling me that I have 84 unread items and Reader says 41. I’d rather read 41 new items than 41 new items and 43 things I’ve already seen.

Latency. If a serious Google bug is mentioned in the blogosphere, I want to find out about that *now*, not in a few hours. Reader’s latency to find new items in a feed is at least as good as Bloglines right now, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Reader gets even faster at finding new items in the future.

Lock-in is a wash. Both products let you export your feeds as an OPML file. Both can import from an OPML file. A folder in Bloglines’ OPML is preserved when you import it into Reader.

Ready for the Easter Egg? If you study the pictures above, you can reconstruct many of the feeds I check regularly. Or at least the ones that happened to have new items when I was grabbing screenshots. 🙂

Google Reader isn’t perfect. I want OPML import to preserve the order in the OPML file (Reader sorts feeds alphabetically instead). I’d like to see the favicons for each feed (Bloglines used to do this badly, but does much better now). I want keyboard shortcuts that are as intuitive as Gmail. But for feedreading, the dupe issue alone is enough to get me to switch now, and I’ll trust in the Google Reader team to improve the product even more over time.

Okay, I had a mini-rant about how if you don’t keep an eye on the blogosphere, you (or your company) is missing out on vital information, but I also promised myself I’d stop writing at 10 a.m. 🙂 The bottom line is that I think you should give Google Reader a try now; I think you’ll like it.

Update: reviews are trickling in from Niall Kennedy, Scoble, Nathan (who finds another nice easter egg and wants Reader to work in Opera), Philipp, and Read/WriteWeb. In my mind, this version of Google Reader feels like a stake in the ground, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Reader team continue pushing to make Reader better and better.

Happy Eighth Birthday, Google!

September-ish is Google’s birthday! Nathan Weinberg notices that the birthday cupcake only has five candles, but it’s because they are the Roman numerals VIII to mean eight.

You may be asking yourself: “Is Google’s birthday Sept. 7th or Sept. 27th?”. Check out my blog post from 2005 and you’ll see that (in my opinion) Google’s true birthday is Sept. 7th. I think one year (last year?) there was a lot of stuff going on Sept. 7th, so we didn’t get around to celebrating our birthday until Sept. 27th. So why do it on Sept. 27th again this year? Well, I know I forgot and didn’t even notice when Sept. 7th passed by. I mean, I had to keep my eye on the prize: Talk Like a Pirate Day on Sept. 19th.