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Why I don't trust RSS subscriber figures

© September 2009 Anthony Lawrence

I've said before that I'm skeptical about the value of RSS subscribers. Don't misunderstand: I think it is very important to provide RSS feeds; I just don't think counting subscribers means much.

I've given reasons for that:

Just because an RSS reader is fetching a feed doesn't mean that any human being is still actively reading the posts in that feed - they might be scanning the headlines only or might have just forgotten about it entirely - yet that person who is actually not reading anything gets counted as a subscriber. Subscriber yes, reader, who knows?

I realized today that putting Adsense ads on your RSS feeds can help give you a better idea of how many of those supposed subscriptions are really being read. Google's Adsense reports will tell you how many ad impressions are actually seen. Unless someone actually reads the feed, there won't be any Adsense impression.

Unfortunately, what you don't know is whether a reader saw one ad or many. Google puts a variable number of ads into your feeds, and that number is only partially under your control. You also can't control how often people are reading: you might post once per day, but a subscriber might read only once or twice per week. These variables make it impossible to directly correlate Adsense impressions to feed subscribers. However, we can get some clues.

For example, consider that according to Feedburner, we have something around 2,000 RSS subscribers here. As noted, we have no idea how many of those are really reading regularly or at all: all we know is that their RSS reader has been fetching the feed. According to Adsense, there are approximately 2,000 weekly ad impressions from those same feeds .

If all of those 2,000 subscribers were really reading every day, there should be more like 14,000 impressions weekly, right? Therefore, it's obvious that a good number of those supposed readers either do not read, or at least don't read with anything that can display an Adsense ad and thus trigger an impression. I'd guess that the number of actual readers is something closer to 1,000 people or less - possibly quite a bit less!

Again, RSS feeds are an indication of popularity. Obviously a site with 200,000 subscribers is much more valuable than a site with 2,000, no matter what the percentage of actual readers is at either site. At the same time, it is also apparent that in reality, the RSS subscriber figures are probably always overstated.

See also A little help with an RSS experiment?

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Wed Oct 7 13:18:10 2009: 7087   TonyLawrence

I came across this today:


That's a post where the blog author asks his readers to introduce themselves. So far, less than 200 have done so. This is a blog showing almost 32,000 RSS subscribers - and less than 200 have responded?

Now sure, some people will read a post like that and just not respond. But less than 1% of supposed readers? That seems very, very low.

I would bet the same thing would happen here - 1% would be about 20 posts and my bet is that is just about right. I do NOT think that it is primarily reticence and shyness - I think it's forgotten and unread subscriptions, machine fetches and the like that represent the bulk of supposed RSS "subscribers" for APLawrence.com, CopyBlogger, and everyone else.


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Computers have been taught to distrust each other and will reject attempted connections most of the time. Nowadays, most computers and firewalls are utterly rude about it: it would be like asking someone to dance and having them ignore you as though you were invisible and inaudible. (Tony Lawrence)

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