As we’ve noted for some time, Google Reader’s social features leave a lot to be desired. The search giant is slowly moving in the right direction towards making shared items more accessible between friends, but it’s still rather clunky. Today, the functionality receives yet another upgrade, including one that may finally spur social usage — “liking” items.
Beginning today, you can search for people who are sharing items via Google Reader. Previously, people either had to be in your contact list or you had to share your ridiculous Shared Items URL. For example, mine is http://www.google.com/reader/shared/14881661495900338150. But now, someone can just go and search for “MG Siegler” and my name will pop up with an option to subscribe to my items with one click. In addition, there is also a way to add a link to your Google Reader Shared Items from your Google Profile page now.
But at the same time that Google is opening up its social features a bit more on Google Reader, it is also allowing you to lock them down more as well. Another new feature is that you can protect your Shared Items to allow only those you want to be able to see to view them. This has long been an issue among users who wanted to share items, but didn’t want to share them with the whole world. For example, now if you just want to share items with coworkers (such as work-related feed items), you can do that. This is all based around your contact filters in Google Contacts.
But the biggest change to the sharing of items in Google Reader is that you can now “Like” items. Yes, this is the same functionality that FriendFeed has long had, and that Facebook implemented as well a few months ago. “Liking” an item is as easy as clicking one mouse button (or hitting the “L” key if you have keyboard shortcuts turned on). And since all “likes” are public, everyone who uses Google Reader can see them. I think this may be the first new feature that I’ve seen in a long time from the Reader team that may actually spur social usage of the product, as “liking” something is much easier than leaving a comment.
It’s worth noting that while you can now more easily open up your Shared Items for anyone to see, only your contacts will be able to comment on them. For now, these new features are only in the English version of Google Reader, Google notes.
The question is, are these features enough to reverse, or at least slow, the trend we’re seeing of people consuming more and more of their content through places like Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed? Probably not, but it’s a good attempt in the right direction, at least. More interesting to us is the possibility of speeding up RSS, which the new push protocol called pubsubhubbub, which was shown off at our Real-Time Stream CrunchUp event, promises. This is something Google Reader badly needs if it’s to compete.