The independent RSS reader NewsBlur, popular with power users, is getting a major facelift two months after the announcement of the Google Reader shutdown. While NewsBlur is one of the most powerful RSS readers available, it’s not known for being the prettiest — and its hefty feature set made for some tradeoff in usability.
The redesign has been available for beta testers to try out, but today it will roll out to all users. The new NewsBlur is faster and includes a number of user interface tweaks such as a unified notifications popover and a new list view for brisk scanning. The iOS and Android apps also got a refresh.
While the redesign looks slightly better, the reasons for using NewsBlur are the same. It fetches feeds quickly, provides multiple options for how to view a story, and offers the chance to train the algorithm to stop showing you stories from outlets you don't like while surfacing more stories about things you’re interested in.
While the redesign looks slightly better, the reasons for using NewsBlur are the same
Sam Clay knew there would come a day when Google would shut down Google Reader. He just expected, or rather hoped, that day would be far enough off that he would have time to prepare. But in March, the search giant pulled the trigger and declared that Reader will disappear on July 1. NewsBlur, a four-year-old service with paid and free tiers, was flooded with Reader refugees.
"The first day, I was up for about 95 percent of the day," Clay recalled proudly. "After that, it all smoothed out. I never had more than 30 minutes of downtime."
He’d been "battening down the hatches" ever since Google deprecated the sharing features in Reader and rolled them into Google+. "When I noticed that they took out one of the coolest and well loved parts, I realized Reader was not long for this world," Clay said.
NewsBlur was chugging along with 1,500 daily users when Google made the big announcement. Clay immediately saw a spike of new visitors. His hosting provider was unable to keep up with the demand, so he had to switch. Then he maxed out his 10,000 email quota and was blacklisted by Amazon Simple Email Service. Next came the call from PayPal’s fraud department.
Clay was pulling 16-hour days in order to accommodate 5,000 new premium subscribers and 60,000 new users in the first week after the announcement. He even tweaked the sign-up page to make it look like NewsBlur was only accepting paid new users in order to slow the onslaught (Clay left the paywall purposefully leaky; you could get a free account by simply clicking through).
Now that the Google Reader panic has calmed down, NewsBlur is back to growing at a manageable few percentage points a week. Once he finished scaling to accommodate 10,000 daily active users and four million site updates a day, Clay turned his attention to the redesign.
NewsBlur's traffic increased 20 times over
NewsBlur is the second-most popular option after Feedly on the site replacereader.com. Hardcore users (like Verge editors) like it for its speed, ability to organize feeds into folders, and keyboard shortcuts. NewsBlur's traffic increased 20 times over after Google’s announcement, Clay said. What’s more, many users seem to be sick of the uncertainty that comes with relying on a free service like Google Reader. About half NewsBlur’s users pay $24 a year.
Four years ago, Clay was working on DocumentCloud, the Knight Foundation-funded nonprofit that provides a tool for document storage and annotation for journalists, researchers, and activists. He used NetNewsWire for his RSS needs, but became frustrated with the app and other options. "I built [NewsBlur] because I wanted something better," he said. "I was dissatisfied with all the RSS feeds out there."
One of Clay’s innovations was to add a discovery algorithm that let users "train" their readers to surface stories of interest and bury the boring ones. NewsBlur also knows which stories you’ve read, and it won’t show you the same story twice. Clay also built a sharing feature, called Blurblogs, which allows users to share stories and subscribe to each other’s stream. Blurblogs are similar to the sharing functionality of Google Reader, and later, Google Buzz.
Users with abandonment issues after the Reader boondoggle will be reassured to know that they’re paying for some security. And if all else fails, NewsBlur is open source, so if Clay decides to move on to other things, anyone else can relaunch it.