Yesterday, Google announced its “spring cleaning” whereby it, usually, discards products most people had long thought discarded. Usually the products are Blackberry ones that don’t really yield controversy. A few years back, Google retired Buzz which was generally regarded as a failure.

Some product retirements are a little more troubling. Consider Google Wave as I wrote about in 2011:

Consider the failure of Google Wave, Google’s collaboration tool, launched in 2009 and killed in the summer of 2010.

In some circles, Google was applauded for experimenting and not being afraid to admit failure. But Google, as a platform innovator, suffered reputational damage as a result of the failure. The company had opened that platform to developers to supply modules that allowed greater levels of interaction among users. Developers had invested in Google Wave, building on the back of Google’s seeming commitment only to find themselves at sea without a platform. The next time Google touts a new platform, it will find it harder to entice developers.

The product was a failure but there was an underlying issue of a failure to commit to the platform. Would this undermine any future platform strategy? It is hard to know.

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But yesterday, Google killed Google Reader causing anguish amongst many; myself included. By my reckoning most regular readers of this blog do so using Google Reader. It is convenient and it has a common login with other Google products. It had an initial shaky start but evolved into a streamlined reader. It was simple. It synced across devices. It allowed people to read and tag feeds. It had an API that enabled products like Reeder. Basically, it was the ultimate filter that spurred and enhanced blog reading. It must be my most used service and without it I could not monitor blogs and similar traffic and in so doing keep up-to-date to write blogs myself.

Google Reader is not a failed product. It is an extremely successful and beloved one. It, like Gmail and Search, is one of the reasons people love Google. Its Android product was often pointed out to me as a reason to get Android rather than an iPhone. So what were Google’s reasons for killing Reader?

We know Reader has a devoted following who will be very sad to see it go. We’re sad too.

There are two simple reasons for this: usage of Google Reader has declined, and as a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience.
“Usage has declined.” Come on. That is very weak. It may have done so but that is like saying it is a cold Winter so global warming isn’t true. If the product is being killed, Google could actually provide more details so we could understand. How about those usage metrics? Show us how unpopular it really has become and why it isn’t worth the server and personnel costs. At the very least, that would signal to o
thers whether such services are viable at all and what they need to do to invest in them.

That’s really what this is all about. Investment and innovation. Some have pointed out that Google’s power squashed the incentives of others to invest and so led to a stagnant product. And it was stagnant because Google wasn’t innovating either. But we have to realise — much as I might love the product — that the market isn’t big enough to support it. That said, this experience has certainly set the scene for a possible paid alternative. Google could help out the market here by providing some of those usage metrics. It is hard to imagine a commercial cost here.

Nonetheless, there is a more disturbing aspect to this. Google claims they are data-driven and all big decisions are made using data. It isn’t a stretch to speculate that this applies to product continuations too. Google likely has studied these and set in place a set of metrics that would trigger a product closure. What worries me is that the data driven approach may miss opportunities such as, what would happen if more investment were made in the product? Or what would happen if the social sharing options that Google killed off in Reader a couple of years back to boost Google+ were put back? Instead a metrics approach may discard imagination.

I don’t know if Google operates that way although they seem to claim that they do. But if they do, then we have to worry. When Google integrated its services with a common toolbar, Reader was relegated to a sub-menu. It used to be very prominent. But we all know that other services have similarly been reduced in stature. The most significant of these is Google Scholar.

It is not a stretch to say that Google Scholar, to a frightening extent, powers academic reward systems and most critically discovery of scientific research. While Google Reader will get substitutes and the loss will not be felt for long, Scholar would be another matter. If Google killed off Scholar next year, there would be no easy substitute. Discovery of academic research would fall back into the hands of major publishers. I remember that regime and, put simply, it was costly and often not worthwhile to search. Scholar changed all of that.

Given the worrying loss of Google Reader, I want to suggest here that academics need to be more proactive in working out how to get a Google Scholar replacement out there and independent of commercial interests. How to do that? I don’t know. But let’s face it, we should waste no time in trying to figure this out.

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35 Responses to With Google Reader gone, is Google Scholar next?

  1. Read this post on Google Reader.

    Google is euthanizing one of the few products that isn’t too self-absorbed into think that it is the product. Jack Dorsey gave a recent speech at NYU stating that Twitter was a utility — its usefulness is derived from the content that people populate it with. No one would admire the Golden Gate Bridge’s beauty if it failed to facilitate transport.

    Few replacement products follow that mantra. They make assumptions — like focusing on pictures, or thinking the blogs I follow fit into neat categorical boxes. They don’t realize or fully understand their purpose.

  2. rcannon100 says:

    This pretty much speaks my mind. Declining usage isnt the same as NO usage. I am utterly confused by these type of decisions. You have a strong, perhaps small, usage base. The product is a utility – meaning maybe not lots of people use it, but those who use it derive tremendous utility out of it to do their work. I follow several hundred RSS feeds using it (including this blog). I dont know what I will replace it with, and I would have paid to keep using something that is so useful to me. Companies get so weird; as long as you have a solid customer base you can have a business plan. Companies act as if it is not the largest user base out there like FB, they have to kill it. And what attention does Google have to pay to Reader? It is a mature product. It cant take that much attention.

    Finally, I have to agree with the “what’s next” thought. Microsoft was the company that bought competitors, and killed them off – destroying many applications I had come to rely on. Now Google is doing the same thing, killing off products that people have come to rely on? What is next? And Google Scholar is a good question.

    When a company kills off its own products at whim, its time to look to do business with someone else.

  3. [...] when you do this sort of thing, it creates a great deal of nervousness and uncertainty in K-12 and in higher ed.  We ask, well if we go with (Google Docs, Google Drive, Google ___) will they pull it in the [...]

  4. tomslee says:

    Came here via Google Reader of course. The best outcome would be, as you say, if it lifts the fortunes of a reasonably-priced alternative. I moved from delic.io.us or however it was punctuated to pinboard for $10 that I happily paid. But Google Scholar – yes, that comes to mind immediately and would be quite troubling. Google seems to want to eat its “mission-driven” cake and have it too, and that is becoming increasingly implausible.

  5. CdrJameson says:

    Anybody have a preferred replacement?
    Reader is the only reason I have a Google account at all.

  6. Jake says:

    Came across a petition if anyone is interested:

    http://keepgooglereader.com/

  7. Why the outrage? It’s their business. It’s on the internet. Something new and better will pop up. We can’t just expect companies to keep making great free software all the time. I’ve never even used it, and seem to get by just fine with the very many close substitutes.

  8. Pablo Benitez says:

    Backup your Gmail, now! Ok, I’m just kidding, but aren’t you a little afraid of investing time on any Google product for now on? New adopters usually jump into new Google ideas, but now everybody is going to wait and new products will never be popular.

    • morphoyle says:

      No, not any more hesitant to invest time in ANY new product, be it from Google or another company. With ANY web-based service, you always have to consider that it might not be around forever.

  9. jonny bakho says:

    Is it all about revenue? Is it difficult to make ad money off Google Reader or is there another type of app that allows more ad revenue?
    I anticipate an open source replacement that does most of the same things.

    Does Google Scholar have a clear path to ad revenue?
    Many libraries have software that does what Google Scholar does, but is more clunky.

  10. I definitely know that its not about low traffic. However, i always suspected an issue that would some day prop up. Its when i link through reader to newspaper editorials for free while if i went directly to their site i was always prompted to sign up and with a periodic fee. I strongly see this as the main reason for stopping reader, otherwise google would loose some very loud-voiced customers

  11. lynn says:

    I’d be lost without Google Scholar! As an independent scientific consultant, it’s my key to the literature – better than any other search engine. And it has the incredible benefit of linking to any pdf’s of articles that exist on the net. I’d put up with ads on the edge – who cares? This is a truly scary thought.

  12. michelle says:

    Just use Microsoft Academic Search – it’s a way cool product, not sure about the content compared to Scholar, but it has a lot of intelligent features like linking, graphs, etc.

  13. Holger says:

    Maybe BASE is an alternative to Google Scholar.
    http://www.base-search.net/

  14. JS says:

    Rather than many libraries having something that emulates google scholar, I’d say (as a librarian) that libraries most often USE google scholar. Libraries, especially public libraries, will really feel the hurt if it goes away, too.

  15. [...] I too have become worried about Google’s services, I think people need to get a [...]

  16. Ben says:

    there are several academic communities online popping up with search, tagging, and full-text pdf capabilities. academia.edu and researchgate.net are two that immediately come to mind. there are also others that provide space not only for published articles but for the data used or other associated files as well, e.g presentations, data files, programming code etc., such as github and others. do a Google search for them :-J

    • AK says:

      it is nowhere good as Google scholar. the interface is clunky and their indexing capabilites are at best primordial (worse than primitive) maintaining your own profile is a hassle. this is One case where I can’t support MS as a decent alternative

  17. Surprised Reader says:

    I’m really surprised that the writer has no idea about MSR Academic Search, and that only one commenter here and one person on HN suggest it.

    Google Scholar is my only search tool, but http://academic.research.microsoft.com/ is just as good and sometimes better, and has been improving WAY faster than Google Scholar. The only thing right now is that MSR Academic search is _slightly_ slower, which will not be a problem at all if Google Scholar shuts down, I will switch immediately and not have any problems.

    Simply put, if Google shuts it down, then switch to MSR Academic, it’s a better product anyway.

  18. Joshua Gans says:

    Yeah it is like the author never even worked at Microsoft Research and was writing a blog post not a treatise.

  19. Steve Dennis says:

    Great post. Mendeley is another alternative, which is using crowd-sourced metadata from users to compile a comprehensive research catalog. I think there’s danger in having any kind of monopoly in this area (comercial interests or not), so the more good alternatives there are the better. Also, competition helps make all the products improve :)

    (full disclosure: I work for Mendeley.)

  20. Brian R says:

    I saw you’re comment “that is like saying it is a cold Winter so global warming isn’t true” and the irony is just too good to pass up!

    I guess you got so caught up in the Goabal Warming hoax that you don’t even know that this is mostly a sarcastic reference made by skeptics of Glabal Warming to illustrate the obsurd claims the “record hot summers” were not only a sign of but caused by man made global warming!

    We’ve been listening to that bogus argument for more than a decade!

    Now it’s “Climate Change”! So even though there’s no evidence that the climate has ever remainded contestant, in fact, the opposite is true, the climate has always been in a changing state throughout history. You know, big ice age and little ice age, global warming had to come and take care of that and there certainly were no cars around then to cause it and I have to admit I’m kind of happy it occurred! Wouldn’t likely be here without it happening.

    Now, that’s not to say “Global Warming” or “Climate Change” isn’t being aided by man (although, being that the vast majority of CO2 is from water vapor leads me to doubt it), but us skeptics have been dealing with these type of lame arguments for a long time now!

    Just thought it funny how you reference what we use as sarcasm as a main argument from our side!

  21. [...] that don’t push their philosophy of “store, index, monetize and control” are also rumoured to be short-lived. Facebook is slowly developing its own web ecosystem to remain competitive, with the [...]

  22. [...] that don’t push their philosophy of “store, index, monetize and control” are also rumoured to be short-lived. Facebook is slowly developing its own web ecosystem to remain competitive, with the [...]

  23. Nope says:

    Screw them. Never trusted them, can’t trust them now. They have no idea which side of their bread is buttered.

  24. Jan Oldenburg says:

    I’m still morning the death of Google Desktop search; I haven’t found anything to replace it even though I knew Google was probably mining my data. I, too, fail to understand what they learned and why they killed it..

  25. [...] Gans on his blog, Digitopoly, describes how many Google applications seem to appear and disappear at will. Recently Google [...]

  26. [...] Digitopoly | With Google Reader gone, is Google Scholar next? [...]

  27. Paul says:

    Google scholar’s legal case indexing service is the ONLY free tool that attys have to economically do research for indigent clients. If it goes indigent services will be very badly hurt.

  28. […] With Google Reader gone, is Google Scholar next? […]

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