Have I mentioned that I take requests? Today Sandy leaves
a comment for me, asking me to explain the economics of RSS
feeds; I’m happy to oblige.
The comment keys off my description of FT.com’s decision to truncate its RSS
feeds as "idiotic". Why so, asks Sandy – aren’t blogs an ad-driven
medium? Don’t you need to visit a web page to see its ads? And doesn’t truncating
an RSS feed force people to visit the web page in order to read the whole thing?
The answers to those questions are yes, yes, and yes. But.
First, it is possible to put ads in RSS feeds, and no one I know objects to
them. Indeed, the future of ads in RSS feeds helps to explain why Google thought
that it was worth spending $100 million to buy Feedburner. But it is true that
at the moment, these ads are neither particularly sought-after by advertisers,
nor are they particularly clicked-on by readers. It’s fair to say that ads served
and viewed on a web page are more valuable than ads served and viewed in a feedreader.
Second, there are lots of reasons beyond ad revenue why people might want to
write and publish blogs. Fred
Wilson, for instance, makes money from his blog despite having no advertising
on it: instead, it helps him find investment opportunities. Most of the top
econobloggers are tenured professors who use their blogs basically as a high-level
economics seminar. And so forth. But yes, if you’re talking about blogs on the
likes of FT.com or Portfolio.com, I’m quite sure that the publishers are going
to want to see as much ad revenue as possible from all those pageviews.
So if web pageviews are worth more than RSS pageviews, and if a truncated feed
sends readers from the RSS feed to the web page, isn’t a truncated feed a no-brainer?
Not at all. In fact, there’s very good reason to believe that a full RSS feed
will end up driving much more traffic to the web page than a truncated
RSS feed will. Mike Masnick of Techdirt puts his finger on one part of the
In our experience, full text feeds actually does lead to more page views.
Full text feeds makes the reading process much easier. It means it’s that
much more likely that someone reads the full piece and actually understands
what’s being said — which makes it much, much, much more likely that they’ll
then forward it on to someone else, or blog about it themselves, or post it
to Digg or Reddit or Slashdot or Fark or any other such thing — and that
generates more traffic and interest and page views from new readers, who we
hope subscribe to the RSS feed and become regular readers as well. The whole
idea is that by making it easier and easier for anyone to read and fully grasp
our content, the more likely they are to spread it via word of mouth, and
that tends to lead to much greater adoption than by limiting what we give
to our readers and begging them to come to our site if they want to read more
than a sentence or two.
Scoble says something similar:
RSS lets people read about 10 times the amount of content than if you just
use a Web browser. That’s why journalists, connectors, bloggers, geeks
who care about productivity, etc use RSS. It’s also why advertising
in RSS isn’t yet working. These people aren’t good targets for
So, how does anyone make any money?
Well, let’s stay in TODAY’S world. In today’s world you
get journalists, geeks, bloggers, connectors, to read your content and link
to it. That’ll bring a larger audience to visit your Web page. How do
you do that? Serve out full-text RSS. Why? Cause by doing that you treat the
connector with the most possible respect and give him/her the easiest way
to consume your content and link to it.
It’s undeniable that RSS users love full feeds and hate partial feeds –
to the point at which we will tend to skip over the partial feeds even if we
don’t unsubscribe from them entirely. When Megan McArdle started blogging at
the Economist, I subscribed to her feed. When she left, the feed remained –
but I think I’ve actually clicked through and read the blog exactly once since
then under its new author, because the feed is so truncated as to be all but
More generally, I’ll skim through all manner of stuff in a feed reader that
I’d never read on a web page. Entries are just easier to read when they’re cleanly
presented in a black font of my choosing on a white background with no annoying
colors and graphical elements. So if you want me to read your stuff, serve up
a full feed. And you do want me to read your stuff, because if I do
then there’s a good chance I’ll link to you, and that will drive traffic your
There are other reasons to serve full RSS, too. For one thing, most feedreaders
allow their users to browse content offline. I been known to catch up on quite
a lot of blogs while on a train or a plane. And you can’t do that with truncated
What’s more, nearly all feed readers have a search function, and people use
their RSS readers to search for stories they’re interested in. Their search
term is much more likely to come up if you serve a full feed rather than a truncated
one. The FT should certainly know this, because they do it themselves. Here’s
a little something they published
back in April:
Which led blogger Felix Salmon to note that investment
banks are now primarily valued for their ability to bring their own risk appetite
to the table. “And they’re not just taking on senior debt, they’re
taking on equity bridges and even outright equity risk,” Salmon writes.
The URL they used to link to me is very, very long. It’s not a direct link
to my blog; it’s not even a link to Feedburner which redirects to my blog. Instead,
it’s a link they pulled off a blog search they did in Bloglines.com, searching
on the terms KKR and "investment bank". If I hadn’t been serving the
full version of my blog, my blog entry would never have come up in their search
results, and they wouldn’t have linked to me. But they did, and my website got
extra traffic – even though the FT themselves never actually visited
So if you want to maximise your advertising revenues, you want to maximise
your traffic. And the way to do that is not to put up barriers which stop people
from reading you or finding your stuff. Rather, the best way to do that is to
get inbound links. And a full RSS feed will generate many more inbound links
than a truncated RSS feed will.
Partial feeds are popular with media organizations and others who measure
success primarily by counting pageviews on their sites. That is, they think
it’s more important to lure people to their site so they can count them and
increase their online ad rates, than it is to build loyalty by finding better
ways to serve online communities on their own terms.
Even if truncating RSS did increase pageviews, it would still be a
bad idea: as Jeff Jarvis says
ad nauseam, what publishers are really selling is their relationship
with their readers, more than easily-quantifiable eyeballs. And so they should
be trying to make that relationship as good as possible.
In any case, publishers should stop thinking of websites just as websites,
and start embracing all of the rest of the internet – not only HTML but
also XML and anything else that will bring their content to their readers.
But the real reason why truncating RSS feeds is idiotic is simply
that it’s stunningly self-defeating. I used to read Slate a lot; now, I don’t,
because I’ve moved from the web to RSS, and Slate hasn’t. Likewise, the FT’s
Alphaville blog. Hell, I’m even unlikely to notice Portfolio.com content, if
it doesn’t turn up in one of the RSS feeds, and one of the reasons why I’m sometimes
bad at responding to comments here is that I don’t have a comments feed to keep
me up to speed.
I’ll admit to being something of an outlier when it comes to RSS usage. But
we RSS outliers are precisely the people that the likes of FT.com want
to attract. They’ll work it out eventually, I’m sure.