Is Google Scholar next?

Yesterday, Google announced its “spring cleaning” whereby it, usually, discards products most people had long thought discarded. Usually the products are Blackberry ones that don’t really yield controversy. A few years back, Google retired Buzz which was generally regarded as a failure.

Some product retirements are a little more troubling. Consider Google Wave as I wrote about in 2011:

Consider the failure of Google Wave, Google’s collaboration tool, launched in 2009 and killed in the summer of 2010.

In some circles, Google was applauded for experimenting and not being afraid to admit failure. But Google, as a platform innovator, suffered reputational damage as a result of the failure. The company had opened that platform to developers to supply modules that allowed greater levels of interaction among users. Developers had invested in Google Wave, building on the back of Google’s seeming commitment only to find themselves at sea without a platform. The next time Google touts a new platform, it will find it harder to entice developers.

The product was a failure but there was an underlying issue of a failure to commit to the platform. Would this undermine any future platform strategy? It is hard to know.

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But yesterday, Google killed Google Reader causing anguish amongst many; myself included. By my reckoning most regular readers of this blog do so using Google Reader. It is convenient and it has a common login with other Google products. It had an initial shaky start but evolved into a streamlined reader. It was simple. It synced across devices. It allowed people to read and tag feeds. It had an API that enabled products like Reeder. Basically, it was the ultimate filter that spurred and enhanced blog reading. It must be my most used service and without it I could not monitor blogs and similar traffic and in so doing keep up-to-date to write blogs myself.

Google Reader is not a failed product. It is an extremely successful and beloved one. It, like Gmail and Search, is one of the reasons people love Google. Its Android product was often pointed out to me as a reason to get Android rather than an iPhone. So what were Google’s reasons for killing Reader?

We know Reader has a devoted following who will be very sad to see it go. We’re sad too. 

There are two simple reasons for this: usage of Google Reader has declined, and as a company we’re pouring all of our energy into fewer products. We think that kind of focus will make for a better user experience.
“Usage has declined.” Come on. That is very weak. It may have done so but that is like saying it is a cold Winter so global warming isn’t true. If the product is being killed, Google could actually provide more details so we could understand. How about those usage metrics? Show us how unpopular it really has become and why it isn’t worth the server and personnel costs. At the very least, that would signal to o
thers whether such services are viable at all and what they need to do to invest in them.

That’s really what this is all about. Investment and innovation. Some have pointed out that Google’s power squashed the incentives of others to invest and so led to a stagnant product. And it was stagnant because Google wasn’t innovating either. But we have to realise — much as I might love the product — that the market isn’t big enough to support it. That said, this experience has certainly set the scene for a possible paid alternative. Google could help out the market here by providing some of those usage metrics. It is hard to imagine a commercial cost here.

Nonetheless, there is a more disturbing aspect to this. Google claims they are data-driven and all big decisions are made using data. It isn’t a stretch to speculate that this applies to product continuations too. Google likely has studied these and set in place a set of metrics that would trigger a product closure. What worries me is that the data driven approach may miss opportunities such as, what would happen if more investment were made in the product? Or what would happen if the social sharing options that Google killed off in Reader a couple of years back to boost Google+ were put back? Instead a metrics approach may discard imagination.

I don’t know if Google operates that way although they seem to claim that they do. But if they do, then we have to worry. When Google integrated its services with a common toolbar, Reader was relegated to a sub-menu. It used to be very prominent. But we all know that other services have similarly been reduced in stature. The most significant of these is Google Scholar.

It is not a stretch to say that Google Scholar, to a frightening extent, powers academic reward systems and most critically discovery of scientific research. While Google Reader will get substitutes and the loss will not be felt for long, Scholar would be another matter. If Google killed off Scholar next year, there would be no easy substitute. Discovery of academic research would fall back into the hands of major publishers. I remember that regime and, put simply, it was costly and often not worthwhile to search. Scholar changed all of that.

Given the worrying loss of Google Reader, I want to suggest here that academics need to be more proactive in working out how to get a Google Scholar replacement out there and independent of commercial interests. How to do that? I don’t know. But let’s face it, we should waste no time in trying to figure this out.

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