Google Reader vs. Twitter for Discovery and Sharing

I started using Google Reader and Twitter for discovering and sharing content at roughly the same time in April last year. I share and tweet almost exactly the same content. After about 8 months, I have over 1100 followers on Twitter vs. 133 on Google Reader.

How do these two stack against each other from a discovery and sharing perspective? As a newcomer to the social web, my experience can be illustrative of any new user of these services.

A Glace At Follower Stats

In less than a year, I have 1100+ followers and am on 130+ Twitter Lists. Neither did the #FollowFriday or @MrTweet recommendations I received lead to any increase in followers, nor did being a Techmeme Editor lead to any surge in followers. My Twitter following has increased organically, steadily, without any positive disruptive event, like a recommendation by an influencer in any blog post or tweet.

TwitterCounter ScepticGeek Followers

On the other hand, I have promoted my Google Reader shares on my blog in a sidebar widget, tweeted and written about Google Reader often, commented on other blog posts discussing Google Reader, and shared my Reader feed on FriendFeed earlier. The only positive disruptive event that increased my Google Reader following was when I was recommended by Holden on TechGeist (the blog is no longer active).

Google Reader Sharing Stats

Geographical Perspective

The people I follow on both networks are in US/EU. Even if I live in India, most of the people following me on both networks are also from US/EU. I overcome the local limits of real-time by using Google Reader for discovery. One may expect my Twitter following to be more local and my Google Reader following to be global, but interestingly, this is not the case.

Twitter Follower Geography

I can tell from my engagement and Retweets on Twitter that my audience is largely global and not local.

The Discovery Angle

There are two aspects of discovery: content and people. It is clear that Google Reader remains a great tool for discovery of content, especially for a non-US/EU person like me. However, Google Reader sucks at discovering great people to follow.

It is easier to find the Twitter profile of a person with a search on Google, than finding his or her Google Profile. FriendFeed remains the best bet for finding Google Reader profiles.

You can easily crawl an influencer’s network on Twitter and use Twitter Lists for discovering great people to follow. Ever tried finding out who an influencer is following on Google Reader?

The Sharing Angle

My shares on Twitter get retweeted and often lead to conversation. Some kind folks practice thanksgiving via attribution when they tweet content they discovered via my Google Reader shares. Both these lead to psychological payback on Twitter in terms of increased followers, mentions, and list memberships.

On Google Reader, my shares disappear into a black hole. I never know when my share was re-shared by others. These re-shares also appear on other user’s FriendFeed and Twitter accounts without any attribution to the curator. Sharing on Google Reader has virtually zero psychological payback, unless you are an established tech celebrity.

Closing Thoughts

Google Reader was designed as a personal RSS feed reader and social features have been added as an after-thought. I was always a skeptic of claims that Google Reader will replace FriendFeed. Google lacks a social network of people, and prefers taking an algorithmic approach to social relevancy. There is no psychological payback for sharing on Google Reader because fundamentally, Google perceives you not as a person, but as a data element whose shares can be indexed and ranked. Is this a reflection of Google’s engineers lacking emotional intelligence or simply a technical limitation? That said, it still remains a great tool for discovery of content, because of RSS.

As a result of all this, I see the influencer-ordinary user pyramid on Google Reader remaining more or less the same in the years to come. There will be a few tech influencers who will get engagement and drive traffic via Google Reader, but its opaque approach to social networking will remain its Achilles’ Heel for ordinary users. This weakness has even given rise to parallel feed-based social networks like Toluu and PostRank. The fundamental problem of monetization of Google Reader also persists.

What this also means is apps and services that use RSS and relevancy algorithms for discovery and ease sharing of content to other social networks (Twitter & Facebook) are well-positioned to diminish Google Reader’s dominance of the feed reader market. Apps like LazyFeed, my6sense, and RSSOwl are some examples. In my opinion, it would be a good strategy for apps like Feedly to disassociate themselves from the Google Reader platform.

Twitter is a great tool for discovery of content, and its transparency makes it a unique tool for discovery of people. This means that the influencer pyramid on Twitter is constantly evolving, unlike Google Reader. Lastly, Twitter rules over Google Reader when it comes to payback for sharing.

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  • “Google Reader was designed as a personal RSS feed reader and social features have been added as an after-thought.” <– You nailed it.
    “Twitter rules over Google Reader when it comes to payback for sharing.” <– spot on.

    Regardless if RSS is dead or not, I think we can all agree that it never crossed over to the general public. Google Reader will not have as many users as Twitter and it should accept this fact. What it should do is concentrate on what it's great at: a personal RSS reader. There is still place for an old fashion RSS reader in the world of Twitter (not everybody prefers the river-of-news style of Twitter).

    Does it need to be social? I ask: Is “social” the only business plan that makes money?

  • The problem with Google Reader just as a personal RSS reader is monetization. Having said that, adding social features hasn't helped that in any way, at least so far.

    In the last year, “social” and “real-time” were simply features that you needed to have check marks against, whether they were really useful from a product strategy viewpoint. Case in point: real-time search in Google, which doesn't seem to have hit off well with users. In short, I join you in asking that question. 🙂

  • marcopolis

    Great article, thanks for the discussion.

    For me, these are 2 very different technologies and I approach them quite differently. I agree that Twitter lets me discover much via what people share. But, Google Reader provides me with a sense of controlled depth. I agree with Andre, not everyone wants the torrent-0f-news approach.

    Google Reader is where I ultimately subscribe to things I want to read in more depth. I'm following specific writers and what they post and I can read them right within Google Reader – no need to click, deal with anything but the content and stop me from potentially tangential clicking! 🙂 I do also follow a few folks' Reader share feeds, those that are human curating things I want/need to know about, but don't have expertise with.

    For me, these tools are different and I consume/use them differently. I don't think that a good tool needs to try to be exactly like any other good tool, if they can talk to each other effectively.

    Thanks to the various ways my Google Reader shares can be automagically shared to my Twitter account (I use Reader2Twitter, very nice, and there are many other options I can see), people who follow me via Twitter get my shared reads and I don't have to worry about trying to hit many places at once.

    Heck, I've got 0 Google Reader followers along with 342 Twitter followers. Unless you consider the fact that my Twitter followers get everything I share with Google Reader (which, I would). In that case, I have 342 followers. Period.

    Google Reader, for me, provides an essential tool, in a very user friendly and efficient package. Isn't it social enough that I'm reading someone's thoughts and able to quickly and easily share them if I want?

  • Thanks, Mahendra. That is very good information and analysis. I'm working on this myself; what I've come up with so far is to use Twitter for discovery and Google Reader for scanning and reading. I'm experimenting with a combination of Delicious and Evernote for my shared and personal archive of tagged and annotated posts.

  • Hi Marcopolis, thank you for your detailed feedback! Yes, I absolutely agree – two different tools which when used appropriately, fulfill different needs. The underlying message, or where I am getting at, is that it's actually RSS that's making Google Reader indispensable, and not the social sharing added to it. Ultimately, as other tools utilizing better social sharing evolve, Google Reader becomes not so indispensable.

    I perfectly understand the convenience of automated Reader-to-Twitter shares, but personally don't opt for it, as I've discussed in an earlier post on “Thanksgiving via Attribution” (linked from this post as well). It's also in that post that I discuss the role of attribution, which imo, becomes more “social” by rewarding the curator, along with the author. But that is a matter of personal goals, and I perfectly appreciate your thoughts on how Google Reader, as is, can be considered “social enough”.

  • Thanks, Daniel. We are all devising our own “best way” for discovery, archiving, and sharing. Diigo is another favorite of many people I know, for archiving.

    After writing this post, my thoughts are going towards an imaginary tool that combines RSS and Twitter! 😉

  • Just this weekend I removed many subscriptions that I wasn't keeping up with regularly. Now my RSS input stream is more manageable on a very part time basis (once per week). Most of the content I read is through the collection of folks I follow on Twitter now, and a few posts from Hacker News.

    There are many times where I wished I had more time to read the background of an article. This morning I came across a post based on using Lambda Calculus (Scheme programming) to simulate Quantum computing. Even with a background on physics (quantum mechanics & advanced quantum physics), and many years programming I didn't feel comfortable with the content. Now I have two more PDF papers describing the work that I may never have time to get to.

  • I just scanned this post and believe it or not, the two excerpts you quoted were exactly the ones which I noticed in my brief scan. They certainly do “jump out” don't they?

    I was attracted to the post by a tweet from a tweep who I am considering to follow (I have to be careful because although I prefer Twitter over Google Reader, Twitter has become “too much of a good thing” for me)!

  • I have 1067 twitter folloers and only 290 Google Reader followers. I dont know why.