October 19, 2014
Thanks!

I’m feeling grateful this morning for the thousands of users that have chosen to purchase premium subscriptions to The Old Reader.  We know you have other options and that many of you are paying for premium accounts even though you don’t necessarily need all of the premium features.  It means a lot to us and will ensure the continued growth of this valuable resource.

The Old Reader to us is about having a neutral and ad free tool for keeping on top of the information that is important to you.  It’s also about connecting with other people to share meaningful information.

So in honor of you… we will once again show a picture of a cat.  It’s the least we could do.  Thanks!

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October 7, 2014
The Big Opportunity

A while back, Talking Points Memo had this small post:

If you read TPM through our RSS feed, you should know that one of the many benefits of Prime membership is full text RSS feeds. No ‘read mores’ or ‘click throughs’. And of course, zero ads. Click here to sign up.

Now that is not the kind of thing that’s going to blow any minds. Nice, but still just a small thing. But TMP knows its core audience of wonky, lefty political junkies wants their fix fast. They know that RSS is the best tool to deliver that fix, and they’re making it a little easier for members to get it.

Lately I’ve been doing some old-fashioned market research, trying to figure out what the growth opportunity is for a reader. Ten years ago, there were dozens of industry analysts tracking the “RSS market.” 

Back then, some estimates pegged RSS usage around 10 or 11 percent of Internet users. Today, there are still millions of users, but probably in the single digits percentage-wise.

But while there aren’t analysts writing annual RSS reports any more, I think the opportunity is more clear than ever. I’m old enough to remember when Apple’s market share was around 3 percent of all computers sold. Nobody needs to hear the Apple story again, but it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t too long ago that the Mac was destined to die. But the company had a better, cleaner UI and it focused on doing the little things well.

Right now, we’re focused on doing the little things that make users happy. (As always, please leave comments about what you want to see.) I don’t think we’re talking about anything radical. 

We’re not in a hurry. We don’t have VC money or investors pushing for a quick return. There is no timetable to cash out. We’re just trying to make an insanely good reader. I don’t know what the “market opportunity” is for RSS and frankly, we don’t concern ourselves with that stuff. It’s just a matter of of doing the small things right. 

September 8, 2014
Relevance

Last week there were a bunch of great posts expounding on the staying power of blogs and RSS. It seems we’re not the only people comparing social media platforms to the open web and we gained a lot of valuable new insight.

All weekend I’ve been thinking about relevance. When Twitter first took off, it delivered. So much of my Twitter feed was filled with timely, interesting material that it became addictive.

But over time Twitter became more of a platform for self-promotion, corporate advertisement, and random, passive-aggressive posts from college roommates. It went from “check out this amazing article I read” to “look at me because I said so.” That’s just not relevant to me.

Facebook never really delivered on relevance, but it was at least new and fresh for a while. Now it feels like an obligation. Happy Birthday. Yes, I like your new hat. Congratulations on your anniversary. Oooh, she’s so cute. And, of course, buy this stuff from Nordstrom.

But blogs and RSS, like email and websites, remain. They are solely focused on delivering relevant information. Could they be better? Heck yes. Check out my queue after I spent several hours reading yesterday:

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Yikes, that’s a lot of reading left to do. But that’s 2,619 posts with the highest signal to noise ratio I’m going to see all day. We’re hard at work with ideas to make that even better. And we believe that social is going to be the key in improving that ratio.

We’ll have more on that in the future. But for now, let’s all get back to blogging and reading. May your screen be filled with relevance.

August 21, 2014
That Time of Year: TOR’s Year in Review

Hey! It’s kinda, sorta the one year anniversary for The Old Reader. I know, some of you have been using The Old Reader since 2012. But the current team took over just a year ago. And now we’re going to celebrate, have some cake, and reminisce.

When we first got involved, there was a lot of mystery about who we were. This blog initially only said that a “a new corporate entity in the United States” was going to take over and improve the service.

We didn’t mean to be so mysterious. We were a new company ourselves. Levee Labs is our web application company. It’s the kind of work we’ve been doing since the late 90’s before starting our own shop a few years ago.

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Like most people who used TOR, we were sad when we heard that the founders, Elena and Dmitry, planned to shut it down because the volume of users was overwhelming. However, they were willing to sell the application as long as the new owners had the same values and attitudes along with the technical ability to improve the application’s availability. I like to think we’ve delivered on both.

Our first priority was to handle traffic spikes better. We’ve been building high volume, highly scalable web apps for a long time, so we knew a lot about that particular problem. In the first few months, a lot of what we did was backend stuff to improve the architecture and performance.

Thanks to all of you who hung with us while we moved all of the data 5,000 miles to our new infrastructure.

Next came the new features. We’ve added a number of new social sharing features as well as usability features. Social sharing features like Starred items and Send To allow you you to highlight and share posts from The Old Reader for friends or social media. We also added the bookmarklet feature to send a copy of any web page to your TOR account.

A lot of these are features you’ve all been asking for, while other are just things we think are cool. More recently, we added Spritz to help you read faster. And of course, we have grown the list of apps to make your Old Reader feed available everywhere, as with the most recent, Reeder for iOS and Mac.

Of course, the biggest change was in February when we rolled out Premium accounts for The Old Reader. This was the biggest risk of all, but I am happy to say it has worked out. TOR now has well over a half million users and thousands of Premium users.

Premium isn’t just way to make sure the service is viable for the foreseeable future. It’s what lets us keep the service available without resorting to the ads, feed manipulation, data mining, sponsored content, and all of the crap that pollutes social media and other online services. We’ll also keep rolling out new Premium features to make the service even more valuable. 

Reading this, I am immensely proud of what we’ve accomplished. But know that we’re not even close to done. We’ve got a lot of stuff in the works, big and small. It should be a fun year. 

Now, back to cake.

July 24, 2014
Reeder for The Old Reader

We’re excited to announce that Reeder for iOS and Mac now have support for The Old Reader.  We’ve been anxiously awaiting this new release as we’re big fans of the Reeder app.  If you’re on the iOS or Mac platforms and want a great way to keep up with your feeds in The Old Reader please give this app a look and let us know what you think.  Big thanks to Silvio for adding support and congrats on another great release.

And for users on other platforms, here’s a list of all the other great applications that work with The Old Reader.

June 19, 2014
What Does it Mean to Be Social?

It seems like whenever someone is looking for an easy or obvious way to inject RSS with mass market appeal, the answer is always to be more like social media. 

But that answer is neither obvious or easy. RSS is not social media. RSS will never be a best way to publish your birthday pictures on your wall. It will never pull from your Facebook profile, get you a better Klout score, or get your photos onto Instagram.

But we do believe that the community building and information sharing that happens in social media ought be even more powerful in RSS. The question is how to translate social sharing into the RSS reader world without compromising our core values. 

Last week I talked about why I believe RSS is the best tool for getting the content you want. Of course, there is a catch to that premise. For RSS to work, you already need to know that you want stuff from a particular site. And that obviously doesn’t work if there’s interesting stuff you don’t know exists. 

I also understand that RSS can sometimes deliver too much stuff, and users can drown in information. You can get also create your own echo chamber, never discovering new content or having your horizon broadened. 

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Instead of mocking the more inane aspects of social media, let’s take the best parts and run with it. Our goal is to deliver stuff that’s been read, vetted, and recommended by people whose opinions you respect. Or at least people who have good taste.

We’re going to grapple with that issue of how to do that without compromising our core principles. I know there are some strong feelings out there around this issue. Let’s hear it. 

June 17, 2014
Add and share any web page with The Old Reader!

We’ve received a large number of requests to add a bookmarklet feature to The Old Reader.  Today we are excited to be launching this functionality for our premium users.  We will likely roll this functionality out to all users at some point in the future, but do not currently have a timeline in place.

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The bookmarklet is quickly and easily added to your browser bookmarks and allows you to send a copy of any web page to your TOR account.  Those pages are saved in the new bookmarklets section and are also searchable and sharable.

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We know a lot of our users will be excited to see this new functionality and we look forward to your feedback.  Thanks for using The Old Reader!

June 3, 2014
One Weird Trick to Get Everything You Want

You probably heard about the Facebook executive who complained about the proliferation of “stupid stories about how you should wash your jeans instead of freezing them.” It’s almost too easy to be snarky about a Facebook guy who worries the Internet is awash in silly sponsored content. 

Besides, we know that silly sponsored content is not a benign issue. MetaFilter founder Matt Haughhey has written thoughtfully about how Google’s opaque and inscrutable ranking systems have been killing his business. He admits that, “we were doing nothing in terms of SEO, as I find the whole business kind of gross.” But because MetaFilter won’t play the ranking game, ad revenue has collapsed. Having thoughtful, high-quality content isn’t enough to get read.

The Internet is still full of great content. The problem is that the big Internet companies don’t do a good job of facilitating it. Well, that and advertisers and shameless self promoters are finding new and annoying ways to get in your face.

Last week, we wrote in defense of publishers’ right to get paid for advertising. But that’s just one part of the equation. The other half is providing a better way for quality content to be found. Or at least found without having to tart it up with stupid SEO tricks. 

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I know that content syndication can be used and abused by some people for link building. But RSS is not an algorithm that can be gamed by advertisers and content hucksters. I know that it is still the best mechanism to find the content you want. You’re not going to be tricked into clicking on a link and you’re not having your newsfeed polluted with promoted content. 

And I think it is time to start talking about this. Sometimes I get the feeling RSS developers think of themselves caretakers of an established and respected institution. You know, the kind of institution that can keep catering to a dwindling number of dedicated and sophisticated followers but doesn’t bother attracting new users. RSS is not new technology. But it is outside of the mainstream content delivery that’s increasingly compromised by someone’s desire to sell you something. 

And if a Facebook executive is recognizing the mindlessness, other people are too. It’s time to reintroduce RSS to the world. How about telling people that there is a way to actually ask for content you want to see and actually have it delivered to you. It’s not a miracle or weird trick. Although it will probably seem that way to a few people. 

May 19, 2014
In Defense of Publishers

If you’re making a list of the top three reasons to love RSS, one of them has to be that it exists largely outside of the Internet advertising machine. That is, it’s the only major browsing technology that isn’t trying to directly monetize every second of your online experience. 

But we are taking a stand for the right of one group of advertisers in the RSS universe- publishers. You know, the people who create the great content we all read via The Old Reader.

Publishers have been trying to figure out how to make a living off digital publishing since before there was an Internet. For the most part, they have settled on a free, ad supported model rather than a closed, subscription-based business plan. That’s a good thing.

But we’ve gotten more than a few requests from users that we include ad blocking or even screen scraping technology to deliver syndicated RSS content stripped of ads. Even though RSS is a great way to avoid much of the advertising industry, ads do creep in. Some sites fill feeds with advertising, or put very little content in them to force readers to visit the full, ad-loaded website. 

But it is their content, and it is the publishers right to advertise and drive traffic to their websites. It’s not always our favorite approach, but we won’t get in the way. I certainly understand that ads can be annoying. (I tend to drop the worst offenders from my feed.) But if one of my favorite sites is ad supported, they need to know that their ads are being served and seen by their RSS followers. It’s easy to imagine lots of sites would stop syndicating if RSS became just a hole in their business model. 

Besides, the publisher-driven ad model we’re supporting is much healthier than what is emerging on the social platforms. The reader/aggregator/social networks are taking most of the ad revenue and making it hard for the publisher to get their share. For example, in the Facebook model, publishers pay Facebook to promote their content, then Facebook surrounds that promoted content with their own ads. Only if someone clicks through on the post to the actual content does the publisher even have a chance to get their own ad impression.  

We talk a lot about keeping the web open, neutral, and as free as possible from the insidious influence of advertising. It’s part of our belief in the power of technology to connect our users, deliver them the content they want and with the best possible experience.

But advertising is part of the world we live in. There has to be an acceptable level, or there will be a lot less content worth reading. Our goal is to build a virtuous circle. We want users to want to read content on The Old Reader, where you will be subjected to the lowest level of advertising possible. Hopefully, the publishers will appreciate that courtesy, and keep syndicating that content for you as well.  

May 15, 2014
Spritz Integration

A couple months ago we came across a new technology called Spritz. It’s a tool that helps you read faster. Given how far behind I typically am in my Old Reader queue, we thought it would be a good thing to try out in the application. We were so happy with the results that we’ve decided to roll out the beta Spritz integration to our users today.

To enable Spritz, you’ll need to go into your settings and click the Spritz checkbox. You’ll then see the Spritz icon in your feeds which you can click on (or use the ‘i’ hotkey). The first time through you’ll need to create a Spritz account, but after that it should be clear sailing and fast reading.

Here’s an article about the new functionality on TNW.

Let us know what you think!