Digg Reader Is A Promising, But Still Incomplete, Google Reader Alternative (Hands On)

For a subset of the Internet’s population, Google’s March announcement of its intention to shutter its dated, rusting RSS feed-reading service Google Reader was met with a large outcry. Though never having grown to a size that made the service worth sustaining in Google’s eyes, its niche user base was devoted and heavily engaged. They were the Internet’s most active readers, the power users capable of handling more advanced tools for digging up all the interesting things you can find on the web.

And now, they were homeless.

Immediately following Google’s announcement, the team at Digg.com grieved, too, saying:

“Like many of you, we were dismayed to learn that Google will be shutting down its much-loved, if under-appreciated, Google Reader on July 1st. Through its many incarnations, Google Reader has remained a solid and reliable tool for those who want to ensure they are getting the best from their favorite sections of the Internet.

But even better, they decided to do something about it.

Digg announced it would build a Google Reader replacement, one that would not only replicate what Google Reader once offered, including its API platform, but that would also better reflect the way we find content in 2013, where networks like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit and others also serve as sources for discovery.

Why Digg Digs RSS

Digg, which was acquired by betaworks last year, is no longer the Internet powerhouse of years past, where landing on the site’s front page regularly crashed everything from small blogs to larger publishers’ websites, as its massive influx of traffic quickly overwhelmed the sites’ servers. Under betaworks, the team has been rebuilding Digg from the ground-up, keeping the brand, domain name, the ubiquitous “thumbs up” symbol, and not much more.

In the months since, the new Digg.com has begun to see some success. BuzzFeed, a news site dependent on making its largely list-based content go viral in order to support a smaller handful of more serious news stories (including, incidentally, a must-read on Google Reader’s demise), reported this April that referral traffic from Digg to online publishers has grown by 93 percent over the past 12 months.

To feed Digg.com’s ever-present need for the best of the web, a Digg-branded RSS reader fits right in.

The reader product, says Digg GM Jake Levine, is for the “hyper power users who want to do a lot of work to customize their reading experience.” He says the Digg team is a part of that group, too. (Levine subscribes to over 100 RSS feeds himself, he tells us.)

These are the kinds of people who continually scour a massive amount of web content on a regular basis, and seed networks — like Digg, Reddit or Twitter — with content. They’re often the first to spot interesting stories poised to go viral, and they’re also often the first to share them.

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For those behind the new Digg.com and now Digg Reader, content discovery is an area which they’ve been inspired to work on for years. News.me, an earlier betaworks project built in conjunction with The New York Times R&D lab, was trying to solve a similar problem as Digg, explains Levine, who had started News.me with Digg CTO Michael Young.

“There’s a problem with reading on the Internet,” he says. “As more and more people shift their reading time over to digital, there is such an enormous supply of amazing content, and so few tools that help you get through that, and identify what’s most important to you, and the networks and people that you care about.”

Digg.com today is helping to solve that problem, by surfacing the content a large number of people agree is the best, but it doesn’t offer any sort of personalization features, nor does it understand your own interests.

Digg Reader, however, does.


Sign Up, Import Your Feeds

When users first visit the new Digg Reader, they’re able to sign up using Twitter, Facebook or Google. Since many of these new arrivals will be Google Reader refugees, the option to import your Google Reader subscription list is available, and if you have a lot of feeds, Digg offers to email you when the import is complete.


After signing in, you’ll notice that your folders may not be in the same order they were in Google Reader, but that’s a function of how Google’s Takeout service exports them to its archive and not an error on Digg Reader’s part. At this point, you’ll probably need to do a little work to get the folders back the way you had them, so it’s best if you complete the reader setup before Google Reader shuts down.

At first glance, Digg Reader looks a lot like any other Google Reader alternative. Folders and feeds on the left, unread item counts, a “favorites” section (here, called “Saved”) and then scannable headlines and timestamps on the right.

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You can navigate with Google Reader keyboard shortcuts (j/k to move through feeds, Shift + j/Shift + k to move through folders), click a bookmark button to save items or an arrow to share with Twitter and Facebook, or click the “Add” (+) button at the bottom to subscribe to a new feed. From the Settings, you can also configure a button for your preferred “read later” service – Pocket, Readability, or now betaworks-operated Instapaper.

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You can mark all items as read and switch a list and expanded view, the former, however, not being quite as tight as Google’s “compact” view. You can edit folder titles, drag and drop feeds to organize them, and unsubscribe to get rid of those you no longer want to track.

A “Browse” section available from the “Add” button enables content discovery, too, letting users find new feeds by categories like Politics, Books, Science, Internet, Music, Sports, Design and more.

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The Popular Section

Those are the basics of any RSS reader, of course.

What Digg Reader will offer to set itself apart is what’s planned for the backend, only some of which is functioning at the time of launch. The company is refining the algorithms that will connect the Reader to your network of social connections in order to discover and rank those items that are most popular with your friends. These will appear in the “Popular” section, explains Levine, which is based largely on sharing data.

Digg Reader dotsIndividual items are ranked here and throughout your “All” feed with one, two or three dots (which remind us in terms of looks of betaworks’ iOS game Dots, as it happens).

The idea to rate and rank RSS feeds by popularity is not a new one. Google Reader has always offered a “Sort by Magic” option, for example. And back in Google Reader’s heyday – if you’ll imagine that it ever had one – a service from Postrank offered a Google Reader add-on that added color to that option, showing the hottest (most discussed) items in your feed collection.

In Digg Reader, that concept returns with these dots, which Levine says offers a hint of a larger vision for the Reader product, which is to first “do all the utility things” one expects from an RSS reader, then experiment with new ways “to let the networks of people you care about inform the priority with which you identify and consume content.”

The sharing data that Digg Reader uses is not entirely based on volume, but is more personalized to you. In time, the plan is to introduce other signals as well, like anonymized data on views and feed click-throughs, for example.

Digg.com Integration

Diggs in readerMost importantly, perhaps, is that Digg Reader is not a standalone product like many of the alternative RSS readers are today. It’s a piece of the greater whole that is Digg.com. In Reader, users can tap “d” on their keyboard to “digg” the feed they’re reading — something that will help signal trending content.

Another section in Digg Reader keeps track of the items you digg — a feed that you can choose to make public or private.

What’s Missing

It’s impressive that Digg was able to produce a functional Google Reader alternative in such a short amount of time, but the service, as it stands today, is not a replacement for Google’s product. In order to get feed reader to the point of launch, other features had to be sacrificed.

Search, for starters, is not available yet. But Levine says the team knows of its importance and plans on adding it in time.

The company is also working to integrate other services like Evernote, Buffer and IFTTT, for example, and it plans to address the infrastructure challenge of tagging, too. (In our tests, only some of our saved tags in Google Reader made it into Digg, but even then some tag folders were empty. If you rely on an archived collection of tagged items, you’ll want to sync your data into another feed readers like Feedly before Google Reader shuts down.)

Notifications are another area which Digg Reader plans to focus in the weeks ahead. “I think Google Alerts is being systematically ignored as a product within Google and has gotten meaningfully worse in the last couple of years,” says Levine.

On Mobile

At launch, Digg Reader is being introduced into the company’s iOS (iPhone and iPad) apps, which will also sync with Digg Reader on the web, as well as offer a way to just view podcast RSS feeds and play them automatically. Another experimental feature will allow users to just view videos.


However, the Digg Android app is still a month or two away from completion.

To be clear, Digg Reader will not be offered as a separate app, but will be bundled into the company’s main Digg.com mobile application on both platforms.

Beyond Digg Reader: The Digg “Suite” Of Products

Though today’s focus is on Digg Reader, what it does and what it still lacks, the company has a bigger vision for Digg.com. For starters, it will eventually charge for some of the service’s more advanced features as a way to generate revenue. The basics, including both what’s launching today, as well as many features in the weeks ahead, will continue to be free, Digg has already said.

Digg doesn’t even know what those premium features may be yet, but Levine says Search is under consideration. The idea will be to target the power users among the power users for these paid additions, though, which means it’s a relatively small audience.

More broadly, Digg sees Reader and Digg.com’s collection of popular links as two ends of a spectrum that could ultimately include a wide range of products.

“Using a combination of editors, algorithms and networks, there should be products that use the tools at our disposal to narrow — in the positive sense of the word — the articles that you read and talk about,” says Levine. “Depending on how you find and consume information on the Internet, [Digg’s suite of products] are going to build experiences in different ways to accommodate all those use cases.”

Sign Up Details

Digg Reader sign-up is here, but it’s a staged rollout. Digg CEO Andrew McLaughlin says users who had already signed up on the waitlist are being added in batches starting today, as Digg scales up. Rollout to will complete by tomorrow, June 26. The company will make a more formal announcement on its blog later today, and will also post a link to allow users to add themselves to the end of the queue at that time.