Apparently, Google is back in love with RSS. I wonder why?

Google Chrome product manager Janice Wong:

In the coming weeks, some Android users in the US on Chrome Canary may see an experimental Follow feature designed to help people get the latest content from sites they follow. Our goal for this feature is to allow people to follow the websites they care about, from the large publishers to the small neighborhood blogs, by tapping a Follow button in Chrome. When websites publish content, users can see updates from sites they have followed in a new Following section on the New Tab page.

Keeping a site’s RSS up-to-date will ensure Chrome can provide the latest content to users with this experiment. We will provide more guidance to web publishers as we learn and evaluate whether this feature will graduate from an experiment to a broader rollout in Chrome.

To say that this is a surprise would be an understatement. Google Reader both popularised and hampered RSS from its inception to its demise in 2013. Popularised by giving it the Google halo, hampered by overshadowing competition and inserting themselves into the protocols with their own alternative, Atom.

Thankfully, competition did appear again after Google left the stage, but of course the spotlight left with them, and Facebook and Twitter had already sucked up most of the potential users.

I spotted this news via a link to TechCrunch’s reporting on it. Titled “Google revives RSS“, it makes it sound like Google is doing us a favour by making it easier to follow site updates, albeit only as an experiment in Chrome for Android for now.

This paragraph from Frederic Lardinois’s piece made me raise an eyebrow:

A Google spokesperson told me that the way the company has implemented this is to have Google crawl RSS feeds “more frequently to ensure Chrome will be able to deliver the latest and greatest content to users in the Following section on the New Tab page.”

Huh, so you’re not actually following the RSS feed directly, if I’m reading this right. Instead, Google scans it for you and delivers the results to you through Chrome. Not unlike any of the other RSS aggregator services out there, but this is Google, who loves to track and gather data about people. Colour me suspicious.

It seems I’m in good company. Here’s Nick Heer:

It is, however, utterly hilarious to me that this is being billed as an “experiment”, as though following websites through RSS feeds is somehow novel. TechCrunch went a step further in its coverage […] saying only “diehard news junkies kept holding on to their Feedly accounts and old copies of NetNewsWire” after Google killed Reader in 2013. That link points to the Wikipedia article for NetNewsWire, as though it is some forgotten relic of a medieval Slavic population and not perfectly modern software. What else can we do but worship Google for its undying commitment to the latest and greatest open web standards?

And Gabe Weatherhead gets right to the point:

It does make me wonder what advertising scheme they are planning to shoehorn into their version of RSS that wasn’t possible 8 years ago.

Google has form when it comes to ‘improving’ the web. They introduced AMP a few years ago, a means for publishers to deliver information more ‘efficiently’ to users that just so happened to funnel everything through Google. Oh, and it was made known that publishers using AMP would rank higher in Google search. That was roundly condemned, and Google have now backed down. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’re going to take another, this time by persuading publishers to switch from RSS to whatever Google suggests, which I’ve no doubt will benefit publishers (and Google, obviously) but not necessarily users or the open web.