(Yes, every post I write about RSS must contain the hilarious “‘RSS’ sounds a little bit like ‘arse’” pun.)
I have a request for those people who publish RSS feeds. Make them full feeds!
I know there is a supposedly a debate about whether partial or full feeds work best. Well, that is not really the right way to put it. Everybody knows that full feeds work better than partial feeds. I mean, it is like saying that a sandwich is better than the crumbs. It’s just obvious.
But some website owners are, for some reason, sniffy about full feeds. Some people publish partial feeds for relatively superficial reasons, for instance because they can’t bear for any readers to be reading it in an environment other than their lovingly handcrafted web page design. Others have more serious suspicions: that full feeds rob them of page views and rob them of advertising revenue.
Earlier this year, the rather good Freakonomics blog moved to The New York Times website. At the same time, the full feeds were snatched away from the blog’s many readers. Apparently, it is NYTimes policy.
Immediately there was an angry reaction from readers. It (mostly) wasn’t from readers concerned about NYTimes itself or even due to the fact that the URLs had changed, that there was an entirely new navigation system to accustomise to, or anything like that. They were almost all from people who were angry that the full feed had overnight turned into a partial feed. Many readers even said they were unsubscribing.
The comments to the initial post were just the start of it. Several subsequent threads descended into similar “outraged of Bloglinesville” mobs, and it has become a recurring topic on the blog ever since. This is one plus side — at least the authors are open about the problems and the reasons why they can no longer offer a full feed.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to get angry, I would guess that I have read a lot less of the Freakonomics blog since the move. This is entirely down to the fact that it no longer offers a full feed.
I am aware that a lot of people simply cannot believe that (or understand why) full feeds generate as many clickthroughs as (or sometimes even more clickthroughs than) partial feeds do. It doesn’t seem to make sense, right? If people can read the entire content without leaving their RSS reader, why on earth would they visit the website?
But it doesn’t work like that. FeedBurner say so — and they would know. To me, it is just common sense. I have been reading RSS feeds for a few years now, so I think I have a pretty good idea of the reasons why partial feeds just do not work.
Think about why people use RSS feeds as opposed to visiting the different web sites all the time. It’s obvious: people who use RSS feeds do so because it makes it easier and quicker to read everything they want to read.
So immediately we have run into the problem with partial feeds — they do the precise opposite of what the reader wants. They make it more difficult and slower to read what you want to read. If you have begun reading and want to read the rest of the content, it involves clicking through and waiting for the (probably bloated) web page to load. It is a needless, unwanted, time wasting, inefficient hassle.
That explains why readers generally don’t like partial feeds. But what about the clickthrough rate? First of all, it is worth pointing out that page views are falling out of favour as a meaningful web metric thanks to the increasing use of Ajax and other kinds of magic. In a funny way, more page views usually means it’s a worse website. (Ask users of MySpace and Facebook about the navigation of those sites, and see which site has the happiest users.)
But let us say that page views (and certainly visits) are a good thing. So why should you use full feeds? Once again, for me it is down to convenience. I use RSS feeds because it allows me to squeeze more reading into a shorter space of time. Imagine sitting there in front Google Reader. You have a list of items waiting to be read. So you get on with it and start scrolling through, scanning for anything interesting.
By now, you may have realised why partial feeds do not automatically generate clickthroughs. It is because there is less of the content for me to scan-read and evaluate. Typically, a partial feed will contain the headline and the first couple of dozen words. This simply is not enough to give me as a reader an idea of how good the rest of the article is. Neither is it long enough for the author to sell the article.
There is one site that falls victim to this more than any other if you ask me. Tim Worstall, one of the most widely-respected British bloggers. His RSS feeds simply do not do his blog justice.
I will sit there with Google Reader and scroll through the many posts he has written that day, and all too often I find myself not being enticed by a single one of them. That is not because they are not interesting. It’s because his partial feeds simply do not give me any confidence that clicking through to read the rest of the post will be worth my time.
If Tim Worstall writes ten posts in a day (which is my conservative estimate of what he averages), he is asking me to read ten summaries, click ten times, wait for ten web pages to slowly load, then read ten full posts. What a waste of time!
This is especially annoying if the partial feed stops in the middle of a sentence, which is almost every time. When the partial feed stops at the end of a sentence, then there is the confusion over whether I had read the full post (just a really short one), or if it was just a fluke that the feed finished in a neat position.
If Tim Worstall provided full feeds in the first place, I could have just read them all there instead of going through all of that hassle. Who knows, I might even have clicked through and left a comment. I might have bookmarked one of his posts in Delicious, letting other people know how good the post is. I might even have blogged about it. I might even have clicked on an advert!
As it is, I just scroll through the summaries and ignore them all. I have, in the past, unsubscribed from his blog because of the frustration over this. I recently subscribed again, but can’t say I read a good deal more of his blog as a result.
Some other blogs provide “summaries” instead of partial feeds. This is where, instead of the first few words of the post, the author has instead specially written a summary designed for the feed. The problem with this is that sometimes it is made up of a random paragraph taken from the middle of the article. Even worse, it might give away the conclusion before I have even read what it was the conclusion for!
If I am enticed by such a summary, I will click through and find myself reading the post and thinking, “This isn’t what I thought I was reading.” Then I will come across that paragraph in the middle. Ah, and that introduction in the summary? I have found out that it was actually a conclusion. It is like forcing somebody to read the last page of the novel before reading the rest of it!
There is another more fundamental reason why people should offer full feeds. It is just plain rude not to. RSS subscribers are your most dedicated readers. They are people who have decided that your content is good enough to have it effectively delivered straight to them on a regular basis.
Yet, how are these dedicated readers paid back? By getting a mangled fraction of the content that they asked for. It is like subscribing to your favourite magazine only to find the publisher sending out cuttings rather than the whole magazine. What a way to treat your regular readers!
I can hear the howls already: “What about all of the beautiful adverts that I have lovingly placed on my blog / newspaper / whatever? If I offer full feeds, nobody will look at the adverts and I won’t make any money!” Again, there are several responses.
I have already explained why full feeds do not lead to a reduction in clickthroughs. So people will see your adverts just as much as they always did.
There is an even more obvious answer: what is stopping you putting adverts on your feed? Plenty of big websites already do this. It is perfectly possible. People who are refusing to offer full feeds because “they don’t contain my adverts” are simply shoving their heads in the sand.
Even if there was a legitimate concern about adverts, it has to be remembered that your regular readers (the sort who would subscribe to your RSS feed) are the very people who are the least likely to click on the adverts anyway.
Let us not forget also that a lot of adverts are not even designed for human eyes as much as they are designed for SEO. These kinds of adverts would not even mind not being seen (just as long as Googlebot sees it).
Maybe you are concerned about stats. Let’s face it, as bloggers we all are. We want to know how many people are reading. What would be the point if you had no way of knowing if people were reading or not. Gordon McLean (whose recent post on RSS is an interesting read) falls into this group.
Admittedly, this is one downside to RSS as it becomes impossible to find out precisely how many people are reading. Mind you, web stats are not generally the most reliable things anyway. Run four different stats counters and you are bound to get four different — sometimes wildly varying — figures. RSS further muddies the waters.
As it happens, I recently moved over to having this blog’s feeds provided by Feedburner (combined with the absolutely vital FeedSmith WordPress plugin), partly because it would give me some fairly accurate (but not precise) statistics. I was pleasantly surprised to find that around 140–150 people are subscribed to this blog. (Hello to you good people. I hope you are enjoying the full feed!)
Beforehand I had vague ideas of who was reading this blog’s webpages and why. But I had no idea of how many people were actually subscribed to this blog’s RSS feed. But now I do have some fairly interesting and meaningful stats about my RSS feed. So even the stats issue with RSS feeds is resolved to an extent.
All of this is not to say that partial feeds do not have their place. For instance, they are perfect for news websites. This is because of the way they work. We are used to just scanning through a front page containing only a headline and a (very) brief summary of each story. From here we choose which stories we want to read. This is how news websites work, and partial feeds can reflect this.
Blogs, however, do not work in this way. Very few blogs offer just a summary of each post on the front page. The blog format does not usually lend itself well to this approach. Rather, the vast majority of blogs’ front pages contain either the full content of the most recent posts, or at least a huge chunk of them.
As far as I can see, there is no reason why the vast majority of web sites should be forcing their most dedicated users to put up with shoddy, sub-standard partial feeds. For me, the fears that website owners have surrounding full feeds are mostly unfounded.