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The State of Online Feed Readers

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Syndication is undoubtedly the heartbeat of the web 2.0 movement. A feed reader, the most common solution to consuming synidcated content, saves the user time by monitoring countless sites and sources and providing near real-time updates to one location.

There are a number of different types of readers: web-based, desktop, Outlook based, etc… This post is focused solely on web-based feed readers. I’ve included the big guys plus some up and coming readers with outstanding features and/or performance like News Alloy, Gritwire, Attensa and FeedLounge.

All the web-based feed readers reviewed are free except for FeedLounge, which charges $5 per month.

The Web-based Feed Readers

I examined nine web-based feed readers (for previous reviews of each of these, see the TechCrunch Index):

I did not evaluate MyYahoo, the most widely used web-based reader, or similar products like Live.com, Google IG and Netvibes because these are more virtual desktop applications or portals with RSS reading built in. Heavy RSS users need a more industrial strength application like the ones I have listed above. I believe MyYahoo is a great option for a quick read of your feeds or for on the go feed readers viewing the Internet via cell phone or handheld device, but this service does not have the feature set for a heavy information consumer.

Researching these nine readers further underscores the extremely competitive atmosphere surrounding this industry’s development. On a feature-set basis only, two companies stood out: Rojo and Bloglines.

Google Reader and FeedLounge won my subjective feed-load test, which determines how well the application pulls up a particular feed. The test consisted of loading five feeds and taking the average of the load times and rating the reader on a five-point scale. Interestingly, FeedLounge is the only premium service of the group at $5 a month. Aside from the exceptional performance rating, I wonder what else sets FeedLounge apart from its free competitors. However, many users are religious about readers with a three pane display that FeedLounge, Attensa and Gritwire all offer.

Web 2.0 Features

Rojo, a San Francisco-based company which was reviewed previously on TechCrunch, has the most prominent web 2.0 swagger. News Alloy offers a close second though with itís tagging, rating and other content repositioning (i.e. add to Digg, add to del.icio.us).

User Ratings: Several of the readers offer rating systems, but I think Rojo’s “Mojo” is the most appealing. Mojo, a term reflecting user-generated reviews, mirrors a feature on the popular social news aggregator digg. After entering an item in the feed you can Mojo it to boost its relevance. NewsGator Online also offers a user generated content feature called “Latest Buzz,” which determines and displays the number of people linking to items in NewsGator. News Alloy employs a rating system similar to Rojo that tallies the number of times someone rates an item.

Tagging: Rojo generates a tag cloud from user-generated tags. Google Reader offers the same feature under a different name, “labels.” It seems FeedLounge uses tagging as the sole search and discovery mechanism. News Alloy also allows tagging of posts.

Social Aspects: Rojo and Gritwire feature “contacts,” which adds a social aspect to the reader, allowing a user to share information within a network of contacts.

Feed Discovery & Recommendations: Pluck, a Texas-based social media company, built a feature called FeedFinder into its Web Edition, which improves feed discovery. Rojo recommendations feeds in the top right corner of the layout while you browse.

Up and Coming Readers

Attensa, a Portland-based company, offers a reader that has a very professional and clean interface. While lacking many features the rest of the pack has, it pulls feeds up very quickly. In talking with Matthew Bookspan, Attensa’s Director of Product, I learned Attensa will be launching a new and improved version of the web-based reader that should fare better on the comparison chart. Additionally, Attensa will soon offer a mobile-enabled view of its reader, rendering nicely in handheld devices or cell phones.

Gritwire, a company based just north of Chicago, boasts a Flash-based feed reader that performs very well and offers integrated social networking features similar to Rojo. Gritwire uses a contact-list approach that allows you to share feeds among friends. I spoke with Ian Carswell, Gritwire’s co-founder and COO, who said Gritwire has more web 2.0 features in store, and I am curious to see them in action.

News Alloy, offers an Ajax driven reader with lots of power user bells and whistles. Though it underperformed in the subjective feed-load test Mike reviewed it previously on TechCrunch and found it to be extremely fast in other operations.

Feature Comparison Chart

The chart summarizes the research conducted in comparing these readers. I was not able to speak with every company directly so I may have missed some details. Consider this chart a living document to be updated if additional information becomes available. Also, I have left a number of competitors off this chart – there are so many web-based readers and I had to limit research to what I consider the main players in the field.

Summary

If you are looking purely for performance, Google Reader and FeedLounge are the fastest in our tests. Bloglines and Rojo are the best choice if you are looking for a feature rich application (and Rojo blows Bloglines away on “web 2.0″ type features).

None, however, yet approach the speed and agility of the best desktop based readers like NetNewsWire and FeedDemon.

Editor’s Note: Frank Gruber, who writes the excellent blog Somewhat Frank, accepted our offer to write this research piece on TechCrunch. Thank you, Frank.

Update: March 31, 2006 (updates to chart)

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