Google Keep: Bleeding from Self-inflicted Wounds

Google keep icon


I don’t know how much Google is saving by killing off Reader, but it is rapidly becoming clear that it wasn’t worth it.

Most people don’t know what an RSS reader is and Reader never became a popular offering  on the scale of, say, Gmail. But it was heavily used by techies, especially tech writers who counted on it to provide  easy access to a broad variety of industry information. I definitely count myself among them. So the decision to kill Reader after years of neglect caused widespread dismay among industry influencers.

The cost of this became clear when, a week after the Reader announcement, Google rolled out Keep, a competitor to Evernote, Microsoft OneNote, and other note-taking and syncing apps. GigaOm’s Om Malik led the charge with a post headlined Sorry Google; you can Keep it to yourself.” His argument: “It might actually be good, or even better than Evernote. But I still won’t use Keep. You know why? Google Reader.” IDG’s Jason Snell chimed in with a tweet: “Can’t wait for Google to cancel Google Keep in four years after it’s decimated Evernote’s market.”

Google, of course, has the right to kill off any service it wants, especially where it provides the service without charge and has no contractual relationship with users. But Google wants to be something new in the world: A company that can be a trusted partner providing services at little or no cost. But gaining trust requires confidence on the part of customers that the services will be there after they have come to depend on them. The termination of Reader did grave damage to that trust. The price was a rocky launch for Keep, even though the product itself generally got good reviews.

Like Malik and Snell, I’m sticking with Evernote, which is offered in both free and premium paid versions. The company is doing well and note-taking and related services are its only business, so I have confidence it’s not going to abandon the market. But Google is going to have to work hard to convince me it can be trusted.



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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

6 thoughts on “Google Keep: Bleeding from Self-inflicted Wounds”

  1. Google Reader benefits Google because most feeds these days are truncated so you need to click and go the web site to read the full article. Often that web site is in the AdSense network. And like you said, journalists use Google Reader to create content that Google then indexes for its search engine.

    So why kill Google Reader? Well, Google already has a formidable ad serving platform. It doesn’t yet have a content management system of equal caliber but that could be its plan for Google+. In other words, Google wants all small publishers (and those who publish more for exposure than as their primary business such as Tech.pinions) to abandon WordPress, etc. for Google+ eventually. Then Google would maintain its search dominance and send more and more traffic to web pages on Google+ where it could take a bigger cut of ad revenue or at least slowly squeeze other content management systems out of existence.

    Conspiracy theory? Sure but let’s face it. Google knows who uses Google Reader, knows it drives a lot of traffic directly and indirectly, and knew there would be a backlash but went ahead anyway.

    Microsoft, which is sort of getting out of the advertising business, could hit a public relations home run by providing a free RSS syncing service and search for all RSS readers that use its development tools (few people are talking about the one Google Reader that no one except Microsoft can duplicate — the ability to search through your feeds, including folders of feeds).

  2. Steve,

    I think the truest thing you can say about Google is that they are a data-driven company. All their decisions are determined by data, data, data, and not by concerns about people. Like their decision to try same-day-delivery retail…I’m guessing they probably somehow came up with data that told them it was a good plan. Does it make sense for them to do that? Probably not, but “make sense” is not included in an equation. They announced Nexus Q, a product that cost 3 times the competition but did less. In terms of whether buyers would go for the Nexus Q, that was ridiculous, but no doubt some bit of math (however faulty) suggested they should bring it to market. Similarly if a spreadsheet indicated they should dump Reader, then, from their perspective, that’s all they needed to know.

    All this is to explain how I believe Google decides to do things that make everybody else go “Huh?” I do think the company can be seen as the life of the intellect, carried to extremes. But in the case of Reader, by discontinuing it they’ve seriously disappointed a lot of users of their product, and I’m certain it’s going to cost them in the future when people don’t trust them. Will they learn from their mistake? That might depend on whether the data tells them they messed up.

    1. If you are right, and I think you probably are, this is going to become an interesting test for Google. I love data too, but it leaves you with an extremely reductionist view of human behavior. Google may have looked at the data an saw that only a small and shrinking percentage of users used Reader. What they failed to think about is just who those users are, how deeply they depended on Reader, and what the consequences of making them feel betrayed might be. Data isn’t going to give you that; you need human judgment. Also empathy, a quality that the truly data-driven often seem to lack.

  3. I would suggest that another and big problem with RSS is that realistically, no-one in the great Unwashed knows or understands what an RSS reader is.

    Having first-mover techies love a product, means nothing if you haven’t ever made the effort to explain in baby language to the masses what it does, and why they should bother diverting any of their attention towards learning about it.

    Whatever the merits of an RSS feed, if that hasn’t ever been effectively communicated to your potential audience, or customers, then that is an epic fail.

    And I am willing to bet that a random survey of 100 people would turn up less that 1% who knows what RSS stands for, how you set it up, and what the benefit is supposed to be.

    If Google wasn’t seeing worthwhile numbers of users, then that is probably yet another self inflicted wound.

    1. I absolutely agree about RSS. What Google failed to account for is that the relatively small number of Reader users were disproportionately influencers who count heavily on RSS for their daily workflow. If you are smart, that’s a group you want to keep happy.

  4. I never used Reader, but I did use iGoogle which they have killed and Picasa which has been crippled recently in an attempt to move people onto plus. I feel like I can’t trust Google anymore. I am thankful that I have not become too dependent on Google drive, Music or anything else other than Gmail and can now find alternatives.

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