Does your site offer complete meals or just a tasting menu? The debate over partial versus full RSS feeds is far from new, but is just as relevant today. And as more newspapers, thankfully, offer RSS feeds, the issue is worth reexamining.
This is another topic where, I believe, the online practices of newspapers are in contrast to those of their readers. According to a 2007 Bivings Report entitled “American Newspapers and the Internet; Threat or Opportunity?”, 96 of the top 100 newspaper websites they visited use RSS technology. Of those, 93 offer partial feeds and only three offer full feeds.
Conventional wisdom has been, and I don’t see why this wouldn’t be the case for newspapers, that a full feed would reduce the number of clickthroughs and negatively impact page views and therefore revenue. In theory, that makes sense. Offer a partial feed and people who want to read more of a story will click the link and wind up on your site (and possibly go on to click even more). Offer a full feed and people will read the story and move on without ever visiting your site.
But evidently in this case, theory does not meet practice. Last April, Rick Klau, VP of Publishing Services at FeedBurner wrote:
“As people subscribe to feeds, they subscribe to more feeds. And that means they’re consuming more content, which means that each click out of the feed reader is taking the reader away from more content. In other words, feed reading is consumption-oriented, not transactionally focused. We’ve seen no evidence that excerpts on their own drive higher clickthroughs.”
So according to Feedburner, “the leading provider of media distribution and audience engagement services for blogs and RSS feeds,” offering only a partial feed doesn’t bring more people to your website. And a look around the Internet found something else, partial feeds actually enrage readers.
In April 2007, Ed Kohler wrote an open letter to media sites on technologyevangelist.com:
“I am so tired of truncated RSS feeds. Why do you continue to work under the assumption that you’re better off forcing people to click through to read blog posts or news stories rather than allowing them to read content within their feed readers?”
And in August, Henry Blodget, Editor in Chief of the Silicon Alley Insider, wrote that when they started their site, full feeds were the “the single most popular ‘suggestion’ we got, too. In our case, it got so bad that frustrated readers started flaming us in discussion groups, vowing never to visit our site again.” I have no doubt that newspapers are hearing this as well, at least if they are giving people the opportunity to tell them.
What might makes matters worse for newspapers is the way they handle their feeds. I took a look at the RSS practices of the top 10 newspapers (based on FAS-FAX numbers ) and here’s what I found (links are to the pages of the RSS feed directories):
1. USA TODAY – Partial feed (first 106-206 characters)
2. WALL STREET JOURNAL – Partial feed (first 162-200 characters)
3. NEW YORK TIMES – Partial feed (first 170-217 characters)
4. LOS ANGELES TIMES – Partial feed (first 157 – 329 characters)
5. NEW YORK DAILY NEWS – Partial feed (first 98 – 180 characters)
6. NEW YORK POST – Partial feed (first 224 – 232 characters)
7. WASHINGTON POST – Partial feed (first 120 – 245 characters)
8. CHICAGO TRIBUNE – Partial feed (first 107 – 199 characters)
9. HOUSTON CHRONICLE – Partial feed (first 91 – 205 characters)
10. NEWSDAY – Partial feed (first 139 – 182 characters)
That they offer partial feeds isn’t surprising — the Bivings report has already covered that — but newspapers further aggravate subscribers to their partial feeds by at times not even offering complete entries. I saw sentences that were abruptly cut off or posts that were only headlines, is this really how you want to treat your online readers?
What makes matters worse, is that newspapers are actually hurting themselves by sticking with the partial feed strategy
“Active bloggers, the folks most likely to link to stories, overwhelmingly use RSS feeds–so by publishing full feeds you make it that much more likely that they’ll link to your stories,” Blodget wrote.
His point is echoed and expanded on by Mike Masnick on Techdirt:
“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.”
I honestly don’t believe that newspapers are thumbing their noses at what’s becoming conventional wisdom or even a web best practice. More likely the issue of partial feeds versus full feeds is on the “list” along with dozens of other issues — to be dealt with at another time. But, I think I can help. Take it off the list and make the switch to full feeds, your readers will thank you, heck I might even thank you. And in the long run, I think you might even be saying thank you as well.
So, those are my thoughts, where do you weigh-in on this issue?