What If The Google Reader Readers Just Don’t Come Back?

If judged by my Twitter stream last week, the shutdown of Google Reader is the biggest story ever in the history of news. Of course, the reality is that Google is likely shutting down the product for a good reason: relatively few people used it, with less using it over time. More wood, fewer arrows, and all that.

But that doesn’t mean this move isn’t a mistake for a couple reasons.

The first is that Reader’s users, while again, relatively small in number, are hugely influential in the spread of news around the web. In a sense, Reader is the flower that allows the news bees to pollinate the social web. You know all those links you click on and re-share on Twitter and Facebook? They have to first be found somewhere, by someone. And I’d guess a lot of that discovery happens by news junkies using Reader.

By killing the flower, Google could also kill the bees. That would be bad for all of us, even if we no longer use Reader or have any clue what RSS is.

But the second reason worries me even more because it’s more quantifiable. By killing Reader, Google is likely to harm a lot of publishers, large and small, by eliminating a larger source of traffic.

On my own site, I’ve always been surprised to see Reader constantly in the top five of traffic referrers day in and day out. If I tweet out a link or share one on Facebook, it leads to large spikes, but Reader is my rock. It’s steady traffic each and every day.

When I heard about the killing of Reader, I decided to dig a bit deeper to see just how much traffic Reader is responsible for. And I did this not only for my own site, but for TechCrunch as well. The results are both fascinating and terrifying. When Reader takes its dirt nap in July, a lot of us could be really screwed in the two places it hurts the most: our egos and our pocketbooks.

In the past 30 days, Google Reader has been the number four referrer of traffic to TechCrunch, behind just Google Search, Facebook, and Twitter — and it nearly beat Twitter. Google Reader accounted for a little over three percent of all visits.

If you go back to include the past year, Google Reader falls to number five on the list, with Aol.com, the parent of this site, sneaking in there as well. But the percentage of total referrals jumps a bit in that span, to just over four percent.

If I include a full three years worth of data, the first thing you’ll notice is that Google Reader has indeed dropped quite a bit in usage over time — at least as seen by TechCrunch. Referrals (on a monthly basis) are now about one-third of what they were at the peak of Reader referral power in August 2010.

But over that entire span, Reader is the number two referrer to TechCrunch, behind just Google Search. Yes, over the past three years, Reader has driven more traffic to the site than Facebook, Twitter, or Aol. In fact, it has driven more than Twitter and Aol combined over that span (though, to be fair, some of Twitter’s traffic was “dark social” at points before they wrapped every link in t.co). Reader has accounted for over seven percent of all TechCrunch visits in the past three years.

Looking at my own personal site, ParisLemon, the story is a little different. When my site was young and not really maintained with much frequency, Reader was routinely out of the top ten referrers. But over the past couple of years, as my site has grown, Reader has quickly risen to become a key driver of traffic — it’s now consistently in the top five.

To me, this shows Reader’s importance to smaller publishers. As my site has grown, Reader has become an increasingly important way for people to read my site. And it has clearly driven a lot of that growth. That all ends this coming July.

And all of that just speaks to the traffic that Reader sends to sites. The key element of Reader, of course, is that it allows readers to consume content without visiting a site if they choose to. To some, this has always been problematic, since those readers aren’t being served ads (unless they’re being injected into the feed, of course). To others, this was a vital distribution mechanism. For every person that got referred to a site via Reader, there were undoubtedly thousands more reading quietly on a daily basis that you would simply never see or hear from.

Again, while perhaps not directly monetizable, I’d imagine those readers are important in other ways. Maybe they’re other bloggers who read everything and choose to link to your site because they read a post of yours in Reader. Or maybe they’re one of those aforementioned “bees” that read your content in Reader and chose to then put it on Twitter, or Facebook, or Reddit, or Hacker News, or all of them.

I can’t help but get the feeling that the ramifications of Google killing off Reader are going to be far more wide-reaching than they may appear at first glance.

Given the quick rise of Feedly recently and others such as Digg promising to fill the void, maybe the direct referral traffic component is replaced. But given Reader’s importance to sites like TechCrunch, I’d say that’s a pretty big maybe. I think it’s just as likely that a large amount of those regular visitors go away and never come back.

And without links to sites being seeded via Reader, maybe non-regular visitors dip as well. All of this could seriously screw with the pageview-based advertising model of the blogosphere. What if five to ten percent of visits just vanish? What if it’s even more?

I’ve personally long-since moved on from Google Reader. But its impending death still concerns me. For the same reasons that the disappearance of bees concerns me.

[image: flickr/andreas]