Google Chrome’s New ‘Follow’ Feature Could Save the Web

RSS is back, baby

Key Takeaways

  • Chrome's new 'following' feature lets you subscribe to almost any website.
  • New stories from your sites show up on Chrome's new tabs page. 
  • The whole thing is powered by RSS, like Google Reader.
Screenshots show what the Chrome Follow feature looks like on Android.


Google has added a feature that lets you follow websites right inside Chrome, kind of like you would follow someone on Twitter (only it's for websites). 

Following websites!? That sounds super useful, right? And it's easy. You just click a button right there in the browser, and you're "subscribed" to any updates from that site. New news stories, articles, or other fresh posts then appear on Chrome's New Tabs page. Could this, finally, be a resurrection of Google Reader?

"I think an RSS reader that's built into Chrome (and not branded as an RSS reader) has a standing chance against Facebook and Twitter," Vinay Sahni, co-founder of customer-relationship software company Enchant, told Lifewire via email.

"The audience for Chrome's follow feature is likely going to be far bigger than those who ever used Google Reader. Being built into the browser means that Google can push content into mobile notification panels."

Google Reader

Google Reader, which retired in 2013, did exactly this. You'd add a site, and any time it published a new article, it would show up in your reader. You'd never miss a new story because, unlike Twitter's ever-flowing timeline, your articles came organized by website. It was like email, only with stuff you wanted to read. And now, it's back—kind of.

Someone using a tablet computer and a laptop computer at a table.

Taras Shypka / Unsplash

"Starting today, we're experimenting on Chrome stable with a Following feature. You can choose websites to follow, and their RSS updates will appear on Chrome's new tab page," Adrienne Porter Felt, Google's director of engineering for Chrome, wrote in a tweet.

Google Reader was the famous face of RSS, which is just an internet protocol that lets websites check each other for new and updated pages. It powers podcast subscriptions and services like Flipboard. 

There are plenty of apps that do what Google Reader did and more, but somehow RSS and Google Reader got conflated so that when one went, people thought the other had gone too. Kind of like believing that the entire web had ceased to exist if Google Search shut down.

But while RSS feeds and reader apps never went away, their popularity waned. Perhaps this new feature in Chrome will change that. But what's in it for Google?

Google vs Twitter and Facebook

It could be that Porter Felt and her team added the Following feature just because they thought it would be neat. And it is. But it also has the potential to upset the dominance of Twitter and Facebook when it comes to following the news. 

"The audience for Chrome's follow feature is likely going to be far bigger than those who ever used Google Reader."

Right now, many—perhaps most—people get their news via Twitter or Facebook. The problems here are legion. It's impractical because important stories can pass you by on the river of tweets and updates.

It's biased because the stories are picked by algorithm. And it's just generally problematic to have your view of the world shaped by one or two private companies with an agenda at odds with objective truth.

You do not choose the sources of the news you read. Instead, they're picked by either an algorithm or by the people you follow. Or rather, the stories that the algorithm recommended to the people you follow.

"We're not going to stop the algorithms," Brent Simmons, developer of RSS reader app NetNewsWire, told Lifewire when we talked about his app's goals. "But NetNewsWire's existence is proof, to anyone willing to notice, that people don't need the algorithms—and, in fact, we're better off without them."

Google may not care about these deeper issues, but it might prefer you to stay in Chrome, see Google's ads, and spend more time there than on closed platforms, which is good news for all of us. 

An older smartphone displaying an RSS feed.

pictafolio / Getty Images

If "following" takes off, then it could have a profound effect. Instead of following people on social networks, we could follow their blogs, leading to more considered discourse. Without the need to grab fleeting attention, discussions could have more context and, therefore, more depth.

And they need not exclude each other. Twitter is a good place to promote and share your blog posts and to discuss them.

Following is already available in Chrome for Android, and is "in progress" for iOS, says Porter Felt. You may need to enable it if it's not on already. Check it out because it could be the future of the web.

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