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Seven RSS myths

© January 2009 Anthony Lawrence

You want a big RSS reader count

Did you ever ask why? Oh, yeah it's a common mantra in the blogging advice field: encourage readers to subscribe, offer free content in exchange for subscribing, beg, plead, do whatever you need to do to get that RSS count higher and higher.

Why should you care how people read your blog? Does it matter at all to you? Are the people who read by RSS more faithful visitors - no, not necessarily. Are they more apt to buy from you or click your ads? No. So why should you care?

RSS readership is a measurement. Specifically and obviously it's a measurement of how many instances of RSS reader software have polled your feed recently. That's all it measures. It doesn't measure how many people actually read your posts, it just measures that their software still downloads your feed. That's not much, is it?

Sure, it's another way to measure success. If your RSS readership is increasing and actual site visitors are also increasing, you are doing well. If most of your readers use RSS (perhaps you don't get any visitors from search), it could be most of what you want to measure. But it's not the only measurement. For example, at this site RSS readers represent less than 15% of total visitors. That's certainly worth paying attention to, but it isn't as important as the other 85%, is it?

Here's another thing: some sites recommend bumping up RSS stats by offering something free for a subscription. Maybe a free ebook or a tool download. Sudden increases from such promotions may not mean much at all . I may want your ebook but have little interest in your blog. I'll click the link to get the book and I don't necessarily unsubscribe - what the heck, it's down there in my "I'll read this stuff if and when I have nothing better to do" so it isn't hurting anything. You may think you gained a loyal reader, but you haven't.

I would say that if your numbers jump WITHOUT a come-on like a free download, that is meaningful. That means you are writing content that interested people enough to subscribe. Bribes like ebooks may falsely inflate subscriptions.

RSS readers are loyal readers

As noted above, that's not necessarily true. You could have a monstrous RSS count and no actual readers at all. Of course that's unlikely, but we all know that it can be true. I have many websites in my Google Reader, but I don't necessarily get around to reading each of them every day. I read my favorites for sure and I may or may not get to the rest. Still, I'm part of the "RSS readers" for those sites - even though I may not have read a single thing they wrote for months!

RSS readers are buyers

Maybe. They aren't ad clickers, though. Part of that comes from the already noted fact that the count doesn't necessarily indicate real readers. Part of it is that advertising in RSS feeds is still looked upon with some disdain. Most of it is that RSS readers - the ones that really ARE reading - are savvy and frequent web users. Whatever ads you are running, they have probably seen a hundred times over at the other sites they visit. Your chances of selling to these people are diminished by that exposure.

There's another factor at play. RSS readers aren't searchers. If they are actual reading, it's usually recreational - they aren't looking to solve a problem, they aren't looking to buy anything. Searchers usually are looking for information or a specific product - they buy, RSS readers usually do not.

However, regular readers (RSS or otherwise) probably are more likely to buy things like your services or e-books. But that's "regular readers" - which may or may not be your RSS readers. Even that may vary widely depending upon what sort of services or products you offer - they may be more attractive to casual visitors than regulars. That is certainly the case for my consulting services; those are more often found because of search.

Full feeds lose ad money

Sure. The reader doesn't come to your site so they miss the ads. But as I said above, they'd miss the ads anyway. Not only have they seen those ads elsewhere but if they are a regular visitor, they are used to where your ads are positioned so they won't notice them - they are "ad blind".

Although unrelated to RSS, I might note in passing that those of you who slavishly copy popular site designs and layouts run the same risk: if your ads are where everybody else positions them in a layout that looks just like every other blogger on the Web, you've also set yourself up for ad blindness.

Full is better than partial

A "full" feed contains all the content as written. A "partial" feed contains just a paragraph or two - enough to give the sense of the post but the reader must click a link to read the entire content.

No. Full text feeds may be preferred by more people, but that's not absolute fact. Please read my Full or Partial RSS feeds post for the details, but the "common knowledge" that partial feeds just anger people is wrong. Some people WANT partial feeds. You need to offer both if you want to make everyone happy (and why would you NOT want to make everyone happy?).

If your blogging software only offers one or the other, my first reaction is that you have lousy software. However, all is not lost: let it publish a full feed and edit that to republish as a partial feed. You can do that with simple scripts or by hand with a text editor if you must.

One feed is all you need

Well, two : the full and a partial. If your blogging is very focused, that may be fine. But if you are scatter brained like me, you'll want to offer feeds broken down by category so that people only interested in some of the categories you write about do not have to suffer through the rest.

If you are running Firefox or some other browser that puts an RSS indicator up in the Location field, you'll notice that I offer at least seven feeds. I actually offer more; you can see them all at https://aplawrence.com/rss/index.html. It's true that most subscribers take the "All Site News" feeds, but the number who request specific sections isn't insignificant. Again, it's about making all your readers happy.

How do you get Firefox et al. to show those? It's easy; you just add multiple lines to your "header" section. Look at the source for this page and you'll see lots of "link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" entries. Those are what lets that happen.

How do you produce the feeds if your blogging software cannot? Same answer: write your own RSS code (it's really not hard, see my Simple RSS News Feed Generator as a starting point), or take a full feed and hand edit variants.

RSS is complicated

Yeah, it can be. The various formats can be confusing, but as I noted just above here, code to produce a simple feed isn't hard. You can give that feed to someone like Feedburner, turn on "SmartFeed" and they'll automagically convert it to every style that exists. You give them simple, they do all the hard work.

I really cannot imagine why you would NOT make the effort to give your readers choices and options.

Got something to add? Send me email.

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