RSS datapoint of the day

By Felix Salmon
June 4, 2009

Jim Ledbetter switched the RSS feeds at The Big Money from truncated to full. What happened?

Earlier this year, TBM moved from a headline RSS to a full-feed. Jing Gu, our tireless director of technology, tells me that satisfying the needs of active bloggers was a crucial consideration in that decision. And, certainly, TBM traffic is up dramatically since the beginning of the year-not to say that’s because of the full-feed RSS, but no one here holds the opinion that it has hurt us.

This is obviously consistent with my view that switching to full RSS increases, rather than decreases, web traffic. There have been other publishers who have made the switch; I’d love them to weigh in with their own experiences, because the one thing which is sorely lacking here is empirical data.

Within TBM’s own organization, WPNI, there seems to be confusion on the issue: some feeds (TBM’s, Ezra Klein’s) are full, while most of the rest (Slate, the other WaPo bloggers) are truncated. Over at the Economist, the Free Exchange blog went from truncated, to full, to truncated again — I’d love to see what that did to its traffic. (I, for one, have pretty much stopped reading it since it retruncated itself.)

I’m hoping that the ad recession will help push publishers towards full feeds: with excess inventory rampant, we’re move away from the Holy Pageview as the only thing that publishers care about. Instead, there is — or should be — much more emphasis on building a strong relationship with a large and loyal readership. Full RSS is a great way of doing that, even if it doesn’t increase pageviews (and, to reiterate, I’m still pretty sure that it does increase pageviews).

That said, RSS has always been a pretty marginal technology, and I’ve never said that it will make an enormous difference one way or the other. “I suspect that before RSS truly revolutionizes the use of the Web,” says Ledbetter, “something else will come along to surpass it.”

The truth is that RSS won’t revolutionize the use of the Web, and anybody who thinks it will is doomed to disappointment. Already Twitter is replacing it to no little degree. That’s fine. The point is that publishers should maximize the value of RSS to their site, even if that maximal value is not as large as they might hope. And the way to do that is to serve up full feeds.

Update: Remy discovers a useful hack:

What wpni doesn’t get is that in letting Ezra have a full text feed they gave away their secret. The same address that gives the full text feed for Ezra’s blog ( st.xml) gives it for any other Post blogger. Just append /fast.xml to the end of any Post blog’s homepage and you get the full text rss feed.

So The Hearing, for instance, the WaPo blog from Simon Johnson and James Kwak, has a full RSS feed here. Good to know!


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I’d note two thinks about RSS. The first is that it’s totally possible to embed ads in RSS feeds, though the intrusive ones would probably be counterproductive. I’ve also noticed that Gothamist, for instance, is running ads as RSS items, which is not massively friendly.

The other point is that RSS, along with APIs, is poised to become useful as soon as news consumers start to become more comfortable with being proactive in assembling their own news content. Or alternatively someone stumbles upon a business model (maybe embedding ads) that pushes content based on other people’s RSS feeds to consumers in a huge variety of combinations.

Push technology such as email is already overwhelming some users, particularly in the business world. RSS might be part of the way such users cut down on inbox clutter, although that depends on widespread and relatively uniform RSS adoption.

What wpni doesn’t get is that in letting Ezra have a full text feed they gave away their secret. The same address that gives the full text feed for Ezra’s blog ( st.xml) gives it for any other Post blogger. Just append /fast.xml to the end of any Post blog’s homepage and you get the full text rss feed.

Posted by Remy | Report as abusive

I love RSS feeds (though I suppose eventually I will have to embrace Twitter)…….but if a RSS feed is truncated, it had better be the best, most unique post on the planet or I will go elsewhere.

Posted by scott | Report as abusive

Hooray for Felix!

Most of us bloggers just take the medium for granted. Felix thinks about the medium and how it can be better.

That said, I just read the “Twitter is replacing [RSS]” article and I am very unconvinced. That could be a sign of age, but I’m skeptical because Twitter is just worse than RSS because of the 140-character limit and the need to click on links (the very problem with truncated feeds) – and because I can’t see where those links are going, I’m less likely to click on them. The clear advantage of Twitter is the ability to travel via SMS, but I have to imagine that will cease to be an advantage as people switch from dumb phones to smart phones.

I also don’t see a role for Facebook, because while I do republish there, it has the problem that not everyone is on Facebook (just like not everyone is on Twitter), and there is the enrollment barrier. You could say that barrier exists for RSS readers, but I think the barrier to adoption is much lower – and for browser-based readers, there’s no enrollment at all.

really useful stuff. thanks.

I certainly greatly appreciate full-text RSS and will often click through to read the comments or to see any related links. I’ve never been sure if it’s commercially the best idea, but it definitely makes for greater user satisfaction. Any non-profits out there must go in this direction.

Replacing RSS with Twitter is complete nonsense however. That article linked to in the post is beyond silly. Twitter has many flaws in comparison with RSS, but the main one is that it is a company, not a standard. What happens when (or should I say if) Twitter goes under? Or is so infested by spam and nonsense it becomes unusable?

I’d agree with James Kwak’s comments on Twitter too. As for Facebook, I have (twice!) deleted myself from there due to their user policies – I don’t trust them with any of my data. You cannot rely on everyone being there. Maybe this will happen with Twitter one day as well. RSS is open.

Posted by Steve B | Report as abusive

That WPNI tip (fast.xml) just changed my life!

Posted by Levi | Report as abusive

Full RSS is extremely useful, I am not entirely familiar with the specification, but the whole point of the “mighty page view” as a metric was to determine for advertisers the size of the audience viewing a site, correct? If this is so, is there not some way to measure an RSS audience? I don’t really see RSS as necessarily near obsolete though.

Twitter first and foremost is a website like Facebook which is no different than any other blog or web publication. In the same manner, Twitter’s best feature is that you don’t have to go to the actual site to consume and generate content. Facebook, blogs and other properties are faced with the same issue. The web audience increasingly expects to experience content on their own terms. We’re moving away from proprietary and walled off ponds to technologies and content that can be shared regardless what was used to create it or where it was created. The Music Industry has been forced to deal with this with iTunes and the death of the album. The TV industry is fighting time shifting, winning for the moment. This is a societal shift in behavior and the answer appears to be the same, people want to research, communicate and share and they don’t want boundaries created by folks trying to sell complete albums, IIS servers, and content that works in only one browser. RSS may need to be updated. That’s about it.