Why did Nick Denton truncate Gawker’s RSS feeds?

By Felix Salmon
March 11, 2010
truncated its RSS feeds, and former Gawker editorial honcho Lockhart Steele immediately tweeted that "the only thing that excited me about Gawker's RSS truncation was picturing @felixsalmon's head explode when he heard the news". I'm well known as a vocal defender of full RSS feeds, largely because of a 1,500-word blog entry I wrote on the subject back in October 2007. And so I asked Gawker's owner, Nick Denton, what he was doing.

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Yesterday, Gawker Media truncated its RSS feeds, and former Gawker editorial honcho Lockhart Steele immediately tweeted that “the only thing that excited me about Gawker’s RSS truncation was picturing @felixsalmon’s head explode when he heard the news”. I’m well known as a vocal defender of full RSS feeds, largely because of a 1,500-word blog entry I wrote on the subject back in October 2007. And so I asked Gawker’s owner, Nick Denton, what he was doing.

Nick pointed me to a comment he left at Lifehacker saying that “this was a commercial decision”, and also this one:

Gawker Media is an ad-supported company. RSS ads have never realized their potential. At the same time we sell plenty of ads on our website. So, yes, it is in our interest for people to click through if enticed by an excerpt.

(He also published the address of Gawker’s full VIP feed, which was nice of him, and which put paid to any theories that the truncation was due to worries about people stealing his content.)

In theory, I understand where Nick is coming from here. If people click through from RSS to the website, that generates more revenue for the company, especially since no one ever got rich selling ads in RSS feeds. But in practice, there’s no evidence at all that truncating your RSS feeds results in higher traffic, and indeed there’s quite a strong case to be made that it works the other way around, and that switching from truncated feeds to full feeds is the thing which results in higher traffic.

Not all the arguments I made back in 2007 are quite as strong today: back then, RSS was used largely by people who had their own sites and could drive traffic, while now, in the age of Google Reader, it’s moved a tiny bit downmarket, even as the key people you want linking to you use RSS less and Twitter more.

But the fact is that pretty much the only time I read Gawker blog entries is when they turn up in a search of my RSS feeds, and they’re much more likely to do that if the full blog entry is there than if there’s only an excerpt.

At heart, my argument for full RSS feeds is similar to my argument against a NYT paywall, and neither argument has anything to do with a sense of entitlement on my part. Instead, both are simply bad business decisions. If you truncate your RSS feeds, you’ll get less traffic than you had with full feeds, and you’ll alienate an important minority of your audience. And if you implement a paywall, the increase in subscription revenues will fail to offset the decrease in ad revenues, even as you’ll alienate lots of your audience. So neither makes commercial sense.

I suspect that Nick’s move to truncate his RSS feeds was not in fact “a commercial decision” at all — even if traffic does increase a little, it won’t be by enough to move the needle. Instead, I think it’s connected to his recent reshuffle at the top of the Gawker masthead, when he replaced Gabriel Snyder with Remy Stern. That move was largely an attempt to move Gawker away from being a big blog and towards competing directly with the likes of nytimes.com for serious online traffic. And while it’s pretty standard for blogs of all sizes to have full RSS feeds, it’s also very uncommon for big news sites to have full RSS feeds.

There might be a reason for that fact, although if there is I don’t really understand it. But I do see this move as a signal that Denton is exiting the blogosphere and that he has his sights set on higher ambitions. Expect his next move to be to rejigger the home pages of Gawker and his other blogs so that the big featured stories at the top get bigger, and the amount of real estate devoted to a simple reverse-chronological listing of all blog entries gets ever smaller. The NYT has Times Wire, if you want a reverse-chronological bloggish content stream, but it’s buried within the site and is something of an afterthought. Gawker is likely to be moving in a similar direction: towards an edited home page and away from an automatically-generated blog page. It’s the beginning of the end of an era.

Update: Matt McAlister confirms that after the Guardian moved to full RSS feeds in late 2008, its web traffic grew dramatically, from 25 million to 37 million monthly uniques.

Update 2: Denton tweets that I’m right about the redesign, adding that “there’s no connection in my mind between our broader ambition and the RSS change”.

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