Opinion

Felix Salmon

Why did Nick Denton truncate Gawker’s RSS feeds?

By Felix Salmon
March 11, 2010

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”.

Comments
23 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Lord Denton is positioning Gawker for acquisition by NewsCorp (or maybe The Atlantic?)

What evidence is there that full feeds result in more traffic?

Posted by Uncle_Billy | Report as abusive
 

Little-known: almost all of the RSS feeds for Wall Street Journal blogs are full-content.

Posted by zseward | Report as abusive
 

I agree with you on full feeds. I wonder what your view is on offering email digests to readers. We’re doing that on http://www.berkeleyside.com and it’s proving popular — the number of email subscribers is about 10% of the number of daily web visitors. But those email subscribers certainly don’t see our ads.

I can’t imagine relying on a daily email, but it seems to be something people like. Good thing or bad, in your view?

Posted by lknobel | Report as abusive
 

Emails are by far the best way of building a loyal audience. They’re wonderful, you want as many email subscribers as possible. Of course they see your ads, eventually, and their friends do too. Plus text ads in emails can be extremely effective and lucrative.

 

When I add a blog to my reader and I see that the feeds are truncated I immediately remove that blog from my reader, it defeats the purpose of the use of the RSS, besides it’s really annoying to come out of the reader to read whatever that blog has to say. I agree with you Felix when you say that it penalizes the loyal and few readers that prefer to use a feed reader instead of going to the site.

Posted by Engels | Report as abusive
 

Take a look at John Gruber’s comments about his monetization of full RSS feeds. He gets 2 million page views a month (not sure about RSS traffic), and thus isn’t in Gawker’s scale, but isn’t a tiny, unknown site, either.

Posted by GlennFleishman | Report as abusive
 

Felix, what would be the best rss feed reader you’d recommend? I am currently using MS Outlook but it’s not pulling out most of the feeds I have subscribed to, including yours!

Posted by Isaac_Hollandus | Report as abusive
 

i had to truncate my feed because my posts were too long for RSS

Posted by rjs0 | Report as abusive
 

We moved The Guardian in the UK to full content RSS feeds in 2008: http://www.guardian.co.uk/help/insidegua rdian/2008/oct/22/full-fat-rss-feed-upgr ade

While it’s not easy to measure the direct impact of full content RSS feeds on traffic (which, in fact, has grown dramatically the last 18 months from 25M to 37M monthly uniques), we are very clear about how important it is strategically to be a relevant part of people’s digital experiences wherever that may be.

It was a step toward being able to offer the Open Platform http://www.guardian.co.uk/open-platform.   The larger intent is about weaving the Guardian into the fabric of the Internet, growing with the market as it grows, and finding new business through the innovations of others.

The Guardian’s Editor Alan Rusbridger presented a vision for journalism at the Cudlipp Lecture recently that demonstrates the value of being more open than closed: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/jan  /25/cudlipp-lecture-alan-rusbridger

Posted by mattmcalister | Report as abusive
 

Oddly enough, I took the Guardian out of my news RSS feed precisely because it offered full content. For news feeds i like headlines, and the guardian feed made that difficult. Is there a truncated guardian feed for those of us who just want headline news feeds?

Posted by Zdneal | Report as abusive
 

That’s why I give full RSS feeds as well. Besides, like the Golden Rule, I do as I would like others to do with me.

Posted by DavidMerkel | Report as abusive
 

The key question is what evidence there is as to which type of feed – full or truncated – is more effective at driving traffic, which is the ultimate driver of revenue for ad-supported websites.

Posted by malicnyc | Report as abusive
 

Correlation/causation.

What evidence does Guardian have that the full feeds cause the bump? Was this the only variable that changed in that time period?

Posted by Uncle_Billy | Report as abusive
 

I hate truncated RSS feed, only one i have is I guess FT AlphaVille. And I totally hate it.

Posted by RapidFire | Report as abusive
 

As soon as I realized feeds from the various Gawker sites I followed had been truncated, I unsubscribed. What Gawker doesn’t seem to understand here is that they don’t have a monopoly on content. Gizmodo is no longer in my reader, but Engadget remains. Who won here? I think that’s obvious.

Posted by mwittenstein | Report as abusive
 

What does Engadget gain from you having them in your reader?

Posted by Uncle_Billy | Report as abusive
 

Oh I see the logic now: The VIP feed is for the influencers who will actually spread the word and increase pageviews. When the atomized read the full feed, the site gains little to nothing.

Posted by Uncle_Billy | Report as abusive
 

I’ve heard people (mostly, actually, it’s been you Felix) say that untruncating feeds tends to increase traffic. But my experience has been quite the opposite.

We stopped truncating feeds on the blog of one site that I run last November. (The blog is one of the most popular sections of the site.) Since then we’ve seen overall site visits and pageviews drop by about 20%. For us and the brand, it was the right decision to make. But if our business model relied on advertising revenue, I would definitely go back to truncated feeds–as much as I hate, hate, hate them when other people use them.

Posted by ToddG | Report as abusive
 

Yahoo Pipes can be used to turn any truncated feed into a full one. Here’s one I built when Deadspin went truncated:

http://pipes.yahoo.com/pipes/pipe.run?_i d=4e78ba4f8744c93f029d156cbbd1820d&_rend er=rss

Posted by tbotcotw | Report as abusive
 

Putting out a full feed is a huge pain considering it is taken as an open invitation by some to simply reprint your content without permission.

I’ve grappled with the issue myself over the years. I’ve yet to see one solid case study that shows going to full feed dramatically increased someone’s traffic AND bottom line. The Guardian example above isn’t proof of anything. Any number of things could have sparked their rise, and they say as much.

I’ve read any number of people who will tell you this is the case but never backing anything up. And yes, I’ve read any number of people who are vocal that because such-and-such site doesn’t have full feeds, or moved away from them, they are no longer reading.

I suspect these people are well in the minority.

What I think is most notable is the growth of Twitter as a feed reading alternative. You rarely hear someone say that Twitter isn’t useful because you can only “feed” 140 characters of your stories. No, Twitter actually seems to have shown that you can get substantial amounts of traffic with just a summary. THAT I can document. I have seen Twitter first hand rise as a referring source over time. Plenty of other sites have reported the same.

So how is it that summaries in RSS are evil that are costing you traffic but summaries in Twitter are not. They don’t add up.

Similarly, with Facebook, often it is only a link that is shared. But just sharing those links more and more is being reported as a big traffic driver.

To me, if you want your content read as widely as possible, full feeds make that happen, because you ensure more people are likely to read in case they don’t click. But I really don’t see summaries as having some type of crippling impact on a site.

Side note: it’s really confusing to be told you can login and comment using your Twitter or some other account here and then still have to make a username and password. That doesn’t same any time. It just makes registration an even worse hassle.

Posted by dannysullivan | Report as abusive
 

I noticed that the ads are now bigger then the truncated RSS feeds. I use my RSS Feed’s to get the gist and move on. If I like the story I click to read the full article and some of the comments. For sites the truncated RSS feed too much they over time go from barely being read to being removed and that blog/news site is never heard or visited again. In my case they become not important since for every Gizmodo I can go to Engadget and many more others.

Posted by wehojoel | Report as abusive
 

While there are many websites shying away from the use of full RSS feeds, that is definitely not stopping people from still accessing the full feeds. Since the release of WizardRSS.com I have seen over a quarter million pages that have been created on Google that are powered by WizardRSS and their autoposters. Just Google “Powered by WizardRSS”.

They currently have autoposters for WordPress and Joomla. They will be releasing posters for phpBB, MyBB, and SMF by the end of the week as well.

Posted by ChaseW | Report as abusive
 

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.
thompson44

Colorado Business Immigration

Posted by thompson44 | Report as abusive
 

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