How Google helped destroy adoption of RSS feeds

Although RSS feeds are alive and still heavily used today, their level of adoption has suffered because of how difficult a handful of popular technology companies have made it to use them. Google, especially, has relied on the open web RSS protocol to gain so much market share and influence, but continues to engage in behavior that exploits the open web at the expense of its users. As a result, Google has single-handedly contributed to the reason many users who once relied on RSS feeds have stopped using them.

Below, we dive deeper into Google's track record of what appears to be an Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish model. The company has continuously built and extended their products around the free and open RSS protocol to gain user trust, only to then remove RSS support once they've locked users in, and ignore any complaints or requests to restore it. Not only is it a blatant disregard for RSS and a huge disappointment to those who use it, it poses one of the biggest threats to the freedom and openness of the internet.

Google removes RSS button from Chrome browser

Early versions of Chromium (on which the Google Chrome browser is based) once came with RSS integration baked in. The browser had a built-in RSS button that would display in the browser location bar when any website you're on had an RSS feed available. Clicking the button would then take you to the RSS feed for that web page, allowing a user to easily subscribe.

A screenshot of the toolbar in Google Chromium showing an orange RSS icon to subscribe to a website's RSS feed
RSS subscribe icon in the toolbar of Google Chromium

Then, the RSS button disappeared without notice, and no reason was given for its removal.

Google acquires FeedBurner and limits RSS

In 2007, Google acquired FeedBurner, an RSS feed service that allows website owners to monetize their RSS feeds. FeedBurner works by replacing ordinary RSS feeds with private ones that only Google owns. The feeds are modified to include advertisements, affiliate links, and other tracking mechanisms like read counts, click-through rates and subscriber counts. The feeds are then used by FeedBurner users to track their readers and monetize from their behavior.

A screenshot of Google's FeedBurner dashboard
Google FeedBurner dashboard

After acquiring FeedBurner, Google shut down FeedBurner APIs in October 2012, which prevented developers from creating third-party RSS integrations to the service. Then, in July 2022, Google drastically changed FeedBurner's infrastructure and operation model by removing most of the FeedBurner services that its RSS users depended on, which included email subscriptions. This left many people with non-working RSS feed URLs in their subscription emails with no way to fix them.

Google shuts down Google Reader

Back in 2005, Google created Google Reader, a web-based RSS Reader application. It allowed you to add RSS feeds anywhere on the internet, organize them into folders in a clean, minimalistic interface. Then in 2013, after years of users relying on it for their RSS feeds, Google killed it.

A screenshot of Google Reader dashboard showing a modal that says Google Reader will not be available after July 1, 2013
Google Reader dashboard after the shutdown announcement

The reason Google gave for axing Google Reader was in an announcement where they claimed that "while the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined". But an engineer, who worked for Google at the time, said "it felt like the entire time I was on the project, various people were trying to kill it."

Nevertheless, Google's allegation of low usage didn't instill a lot of user confidence in the viability of RSS feeds. Users were left with no RSS reader application, no comparable alternative, and no education from Google on how to continue using their RSS feeds without Google Reader. This led users to not only discontinue using Google Reader, but abandon RSS feeds altogether.

Google removes RSS from Google Alerts

Google Alerts is a service offered by Google that will notify you with an alert when there is new content on the web that matches a search term you specify. In October 2008, Google added the ability to receive Google Alerts in an RSS feed. But, in July 2013, Google decided to remove it, making email the only option to receive Google Alerts. A reason for the removal wasn't clear, but the big, yellow banner on the top of every users' Google Alert dashboard was.

A screenshot of Google Reader dashboard showing a modal that says Google Reader will not be available after July 1, 2013
A screenshot of the Google Alerts dashboard with a banner communicating that Google Reader RSS feeds can no longer be used and must be changed to email delivery

Eventually, after receiving backlash, Google reinstated the RSS feeds for Google Alerts. But by this time, many users already abandoned RSS feeds due to Google's shut down of Google Reader (mentioned above), so the damage was already done.

Google kills its RSS browser extension

Google provided a Google Chrome extension that places a small RSS icon next to a website's URL in the browser bar if you're on a web page that has an RSS feed.

Chrome Web Store showing Google's RSS browser extension
Google's RSS browser extension in Chrome Web Store

Despite this extension being used, Google removed it. But then, after backlash, reinstated it within a week afterward, claiming it was removed by mistake. And while reinstating it was better than not, removing it was still a blow to user confidence in RSS feed usage overall. And if it's true that it was done unintentionally, it still shows how little of a priority RSS has become to Google, despite how much RSS has contributed to the company's growth.

Google removes RSS integration from Google News

In 2002, Google announced Google News, the company's first media aggregation site, with the ability to add RSS feed URLs from all over the web.

A screenshot of Google News dashboard
The dashboard of Google News mobile app

Then, after many RSS users were locked in and relying on the Google News app for their RSS feeds, Google deprecated RSS support, causing users' RSS feeds to stop working. Then, Google shut down its RSS feed support entirely in December 2017. The company gave no reason for killing off support for RSS feeds in its Google News app. As a result, users had no choice but to find alternative RSS links for each feed they added to the Google News app, while proprietary Google News links continued to work fine.

Google's still at it...

The most recent incident was in May 2021, where Google announced they're working on an update to Google Chrome that brings back RSS support. But there has been no word on an official launch since it was announced years ago. It's unclear of what the implications of this feature will be. But it's clear that Google has a history of building products with RSS and killing the RSS support once it's established a user base. So there's no guarantee that, even if the feature launches, it'll continue to be available and reliable to RSS users over time.

Because Google undoubtedly has a tremendous amount of influence, we hope that it understands incorporating RSS features into their products and then removing them negatively impacts user perception and confidence around RSS overall. RSS feeds are a vital part of the open web. So, If Google should decide to continue integrating RSS features in its products, it's critical that Google will support them, maintain them over time, and ensure they always remain a priority.

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