Analysis: Should You Publish Full or Partial RSS Feeds?

"After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." -- Aldous Huxley

This is an argument that comes up frequently among those who author content of any kind and publish RSS feeds of same - which is better - to publish the full content in the description field, or just a summary with say, a "read more" link that forces interested readers to go directly to the site to read all of it?

I've done some research on the subject, as well as having some actual data of my own with which to make comparisons, and I am of the opinion that publishing the full content is the best way to go.

There are basically two concerns that webmasters have that target this subject:

1. Since with a full feed RSS Subscribers will get to read the full blog content inside their newsreader, they would not visit the actual site - meaning lower pageviews would impact advertising revenue negatively.

2. A more ominous threat is from blog plagiarists and "Made For Adsense" sites who would steal the content for their own sites, and put their own advertising around it.

Digital Inspiration is one of several sites that offers actual comparison data on this. They had both of the above concerns, but switched to full content feeds anyway as an experiment. Surprisingly, this added more than 1000 new feed subscribers in less than a month. Moreover, the revenue generated from full feeds in the month after switching was more than the combined revenue of previous months. More -- not fewer -- ad impressions were generated -- translating into an increase in revenue. Defies logic perhaps, but not human behavior.

Other benefits of switching to full content RSS feeds included the fact that more readers started participating in the discussion (comments, etc.). That means people are staying on site longer.

My own analysis of FeedBurner stats of two different blogs or sites over whose content I am in control indicates clearly that the one which publishes the full feed has a much higher subscriber - to - pageview ratio than the one that only publishes a partial RSS content feed. There is certainly the possibility that other factors are coming into play, but at this point the difference in the two numbers is so dramatic, I can only ascribe it to the fact that one publishes full RSS and the other only partial. Good metrics don't lie - no matter what you may think should be happening.

Some other things to think about on this subject:

  • When you publish your full feed you are making your content user friendly. When you don’t you are making me, the reader, work harder.
  • I know you want me to visit your website so you can get more ad impressions and ad clicks. If I find what you write compelling, I will visit your site to read the comments or forums or post a comment myself. People want to be enticed to your site by good content, not to be dragged there.
  • Certainly you may be worried about scrapers and people using your feed in an unscrupulous manner. But that does not mean that your readers should have to be the ones to pay the price via inconvenience. After all, they are the ones who want to read your content for the right reasons -- so don't make it harder for them.

Feedburner, in their official blog, states "We've seen no evidence that excerpts on their own drive higher clickthroughs" With over 866,000 feeds to draw statistics from, they certainly have the numbers to prove it.

One blogger summarized the whole scenario: "Truncated RSS feeds are like foreplay without sex. Damn frustrating."

There are also different kinds of protections you can employ to help prevent feed thievery: copyright notices linking back to the source, as well as some plugins for different kinds of blog authoring platforms. And Copyscape has some useful tools to help find and prevent blog plagiarism.

All in all, the "loss of revenue" concern has been proven invalid - actually the reverse -- more revenue -- is likely to occur. Regarding content thievery, plagiarists are going to steal content, period. Full - content RSS feeds may make it a bit easier for them to do so, but the benefits still outweigh the risks in most cases. That's my take on it so far.

Beautiful Code

Andy Oram, an editor at O'Reilly, sent me a review copy of "Beautiful Code" and I sent him a comment on it. Very interesting book. Basically what Andy and his co-editor did was to interview top programmers in a broad range of disciplines and platforms and get them to do a "chapter" on what they consider "beautiful code". The result is fascinating, and it provides some real insight into how top programmers think. You can read the comment quote and more about the book on his blog here. Incidentally, from an "SEO" perspective, this is the real definition of a "reciprocal link" in my book -- it's human edited, and meaningful - unlike mindless automated linking schemes that often do more harm than good!