editor on the verge

Online musings from the newsroom and beyond . . . by Yoni Greenbaum

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What type of RSS newsfeeds do you serve?

January 9th, 2008 · 10 Comments

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?

Tags: Analytics · Best Practices · Blogging · Branding · Industry · RSS · Traffic

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Etan // Jan 9, 2008 at 11:35 am

    It’s important to keep in mind that this is often more complicated than “the guy upstairs likes page views.” See the following from Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics:
    The switch from full feed to partial feed. Way back when we first started talking to the Times, they said that they, like most content providers of their sort, favor partial feeds. Why? As much as people like to say that “information wants to be free,” content does not like to be created for free. In order to pay all the writers, editors, photographers, graphic artists, technologists, and the few dozen other kinds of folks who create and curate the Times’s content, most of which is free on the web (and perhaps all of which soon will be), the Times sells ads on its site. But can’t they sell ads on a full feed, so that feed readers can still get all the content they want delivered to their computers for free without having to visit a single web site? The short answer is yes, they can, and our friends at FeedBurner, who have been distributing our feed, created a great business by doing so. But the Times and its advertisers aren’t crazy about this option. (Nor are they alone, apparently.) Why? This is the fundamental point: many advertisers do not value feed readers as much as they value site readers, since they believe that feed readers are far harder to measure and track. (The folks at FeedBurner have a different view, of course.) In a perfect world, would we prefer to be sending out a full feed, with advertising? Yes. But is that preference overridden by a preference to have a partnership with the Times, and all the opportunity that entails? The answer here is also yes. Is it possible that the full feed will eventually be offered again? Once again: yes. Are there strong and sane opposing views on this issue? Absolutely. You can read, for instance, what TechDirt wrote about full feeds potentially creating more site traffic, not less. There’s another interesting view at Online Spin and another at Poynter.org.

  • 2 Zac Echola // Jan 9, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    The flip side to that, Etan, is that people like me just stop reading partial feeds. And then we eventually stop going to the site unless someone we trust sends us a link.

    That quote from the Freakonomics blog was the last I read.

    It’s nothing personal against the content, but I have a harder time judging whether or not a post has relevance to me. Also, it’s just not as valuable to share via my link blog.

    And then there’s the internal sharing between properties. Networks of newspapers can find huge gains in sharing content with each other via RSS, rather than emailing and calling each other for content.

  • 3 Chris Welle // Jan 9, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Why cant they [NYT] sell ads on their feeds? Push hard for feed marketing. Saying advertisers “don’t get it yet” is not an excuse. Get in front of this change now. You can continue to sell whatever it is you need — but move ahead. Full feed or not feeds WILL contain advertising and your advertisers will get it.

  • 4 Etan // Jan 9, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    Zac, I appreciate that, and I tend to feel the same way. However, what I was pointing out was that at larger media organizations this tends to be a decision that is tightly coupled with the advertising business model, and therefore not simply something the Editors and Tech guys can play with. I think all RSS feeds should be full content, but the market needs to change for that to happen.

  • 5 Zac Echola // Jan 9, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    The market has already changed. Newspapers stuck on making money via their sites haven’t changed.

    They’re missing out not only on RSS market share, but potential new revenue streams. And they complain about online revenue not making up for losses in print revenues? Maybe they should stop protecting their sites the way they’re protecting their papers.

    The whole design of the Web is meant to share information. It seems silly to force a business model that fights the fundamentals of the Internet’s architecture.

    Page views and impressions are a dying model. There needs to be transition.

  • 6 The RSS model | Zac Echola // Jan 9, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    [...] some great discussion at editor on the verge regarding the full vs. partial feed [...]

  • 7 Pat Thornton // Jan 9, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    I’ll respond by explaining why I offer full feeds on my blog: I want maximum exposure.

    Full feeds give me that. A full feed allows me to reach more readers. The more readers I have, the bigger the impact I have. Newspapers should always strive to have maximum impact.

    The more people I reach, the more people who link to me via their blogs Twitter, Facebook and Digg accounts. When people link to me, the more traffic I ultimately get.

    Here is the thing: even with my full feeds, you don’t get it all. You can’t see comments in the RSS feed for posts, (there is a separate comments feed) and you certainly can’t comment from an RSS reader. The people who want to be apart of my community (and the people I want to target most) have to navigate to my site anyway so they can comment.

    People only comment when the content is compelling. My job then is to make sure I have compelling content and that I reach as many people as possible. That’s what full RSS feeds brings to my blog.

    This means that every newspaper story should allow people to comment on the stories. That’s a big incentive for people to navigate from their RSS reader to your site. We need to offer people real reasons to navigate from an RSS reader to a Web site. Truncating stories and sentences is not only a bad reason, it’s also a good way to lose readers.

  • 8 Los feeds de los medios - Blog de Pablo Mancini // Jan 12, 2008 at 7:33 am

    [...] visitas. El licuado generacional de la próxima década acabará con el asunto. El problema es el mientras tanto En: Periodismo digital, Nuevos medios, Asides — Enero 12, [...]

  • 9 Más interacción y usabilidad para My 2 k-cents // Jan 31, 2008 at 6:02 pm

    [...] 2. Artículos parciales / feeds completos: Continuando en el orden de los feeds, la navegación que realiza un usuario que visita una página y la que realiza una persona que lee contenidos a través de RSS o feeds, es muy distinta. Cuando alguien visita un sitio web por lo general explora diversas partes del sitio web para formarse una opinión o encontrar la información que busca, por lo tanto mostrar toda la información en portada puede hacer que la navegación sea un poco más densa. Sin embargo las personas que realizan sus lecturas de contenidos a través de feeds, ya conocen la temática del mismo, son lectores recurrentes y agradecen el contenido completo y no parcial. [...]

  • 10 ¿Fin de los medios de comunicación o momento de reinventar una industria? // Mar 18, 2009 at 6:11 am

    [...] y luego se repite el ciclo), o que no se esfuerza en enlazar otros medios ni ofrece sus feeds RSS completos por temor a perder visitas y caer en la trampa de una venta de publicidad hueca que nada aporta a los [...]

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