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Chrome experiment lets you Follow news and website updates

Google is experimenting with a new way to undercut the value of its fiercest “attention competitors” (Twitter and Facebook.) It’s also helping web publishers and the open web ecosystem at the same time. Here’s a brief history of the technology behind Chrome’s new Follow feature, and how it’s better than earlier attempts at building feeds into web browsers.

Google has announced it’s experimenting with integrating syndication feeds ("RSS") into its Chrome web browser. The experiments are currently restricted to early-preview releases of Chrome on Android devices configured for U.S. English. The technology media jumped on the news and many called it a Google Reader reboot. Google Reader was a powerful news aggregation tool beloved by power-users; who’ll never forgive Google for discontinuing it in 2013. Chrome’s latest experiment is nothing like Reader; it’s something else entirely. —and it’s much more likely to succeed!

A decade ago, both Apple and Microsoft built syndication feed subsystems into their operating systems. These subsystems were responsible for managing and updating feed subscriptions in the background. Apple has since removed its feed system, but Microsoft’s is still maintained and is even supported in Universal Windows Apps (UWA). Most web browsers — even the boring ones like Microsoft Internet Explorer and Apple Safari — also had some support for syndication feeds. The browser could act as a news aggregator that pulled in news from the user’s subscription list.

Everyone expected feeds to be the next big thing for the web, but then it wasn’t and it has faded into obscurity. The user experiences were underwhelming and the features were relegated to seldom-visited corners of the browser. Sure, there were plenty of better feed readers out there — but no one knew about them. Syndication feeds also aren’t bandwidth efficient (it’s a whole thing) and was a poor fit for mobile devices.

The real problem was that no one found a way to get average users to adopt syndication feeds. Every website worth its salt would prominently feature one or more huge orange feed buttons (the orange universal feed icon) and calls to “subscribe” to [it]. The buttons linked to confusing machine-readable feed documents that didn’t do anything by themselves. Feed files are confusing and the word “subscribe” often implies payments. The average user quickly learned to ignore the weird orange buttons and calls to “subscribe to updates!”

Skip forward a few years and web browsers embraced a new standard for push notifications. Half the website you visited would immediately prompt to send you a constant stream of pop-up notifications. It got so pervasive that all modern web browsers have stopped asking if you want push notifications; no one wants in-your-face notifications for news. This brings us back to today and what Chrome is experimenting with now.

Contrary to what’s been reported in the tech media, Chrome isn’t embracing syndication feeds. You can’t click on an orange button or open a feed file in the browser to follow a feed. That part of the experience is left for dead. Many websites also publish feeds for specific topics or events, but you can’t use these in Chrome. You’re instead restricted to following the website’s main/everything feed.

Chrome will automatically prompt users if they want to follow a particular website. The current implementation (subject to change) prompts you to follow a website after five visits over three days. The prompt is shown as a snackbar (a temporary toolbar at the bottom of the screen) when visiting the website. Chrome won’t prompt you more than once every 15 minutes. You can also actively choose to follow the current website from the Chrome menu (a.k.a. the “Hamburger menu.”)

This isn’t far removed from what the Sleipnir browser shipped more than half a decade ago. Sleipnir just skips the part about prompting you and automatically follows your most frequently visited websites. I’d be very surprised if Chrome doesn’t also move in this direction after an initial run of manual curation.

The Follow button in the Chrome menu also shows up when viewing Twitter profiles, Twitch streams, YouTube channels, and other places where you might already be familiar with the concept of following creators. Chrome’s feature will follow the website — whatever that means — and not the individual creators, though. This will probably be a source of confusion for users of many services who’ll struggle to make sense of the different follow buttons and prompts.

Hopefully, Google will add some better APIs for websites to help control the experience. Not that the existing feed auto-discovery mechanism doesn’t get the job done, however. Maybe Chrome should just work on improving how it handles the feeds it discovers instead.

News published by followed websites appears in a mostly chronological list on the New Tab Page (NTP). News updates from followed websites are presented the same way as the existing Google Discover feed. The big difference is that the Following feed — as Google calls it — is curated by you and not a Google algorithm. You chose which websites to follow and you get to make the editorial decisions for your own Following feed. Google is undoubtedly collecting data from how you interact with feeds and the news items they publish to improve its Discovery feed.

Assuming Google ships this in a future version of Chrome, this can seriously upset the online news media landscape in many ways. Google Discover is already a news destination that competes directly with newspaper front pages. Chrome’s WebFeed feature, as it’s called internally, might be the final nail in the coffin for regular visits to the front page of your favorite websites.

Google is helping the open web, while also helping creators and publishers be less reliant on pushing their audiences to follow them on social media platforms and via email newsletters. Chrome’s Follow feature gets the latest updates from your website directly to your readers when they’ve got the time to look at it. Why pester visitors with ineffective newsletter sign-up pop-over pests when the browser can do a better job? Why bother with maintaining a presence on Twitter and Facebook when it’s easier to get into your readers’ Chrome feeds?

Google isn’t adding this feature out of the goodness of its cold corporate heart, though. The user-curated feed can help Google avoid unwanted scrutiny from regulators. It can insulate it somewhat from complaints about “unfair algorithms” and claims of borrowing news from news outlets with certain political views or a different grasp on reality.

It’ll also make the Chrome browser a “stickier” product. You can’t follow websites in Firefox or migrate your subscription lists to a competing service, so why make the switch? This last point may cause Google problems with EU regulators, however. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires data to be portable. This isn’t the first time Google launches a new service built on syndication feeds without a way to export your data.

I can already tell from my analytics that there has been renewed interest in syndication feeds. That might be an early indication that web authors are shoring up their feeds in eager anticipating of more readers from the Chrome WebFeed. I’m cautiously optimistic and believe that WebFeed has a strong chance of catching on among users. Syndication feeds have always been a powerful tool, but no one has yet managed to make it work for the masses. The follow-any-website scheme in Chrome might just do the trick, though.