I love RSS and I hate RSS. It's both one of the most useful tools I've ever used; it allows me to catch up with my favourite blogs, keep up with seldom-blogging friends and find inspiration for my own posts.
It's also the bane of my life; I turn away for a day or two and Google Reader sits there, laughing at me with its smug "1000+" in the toolbar, reminding me just how far behind I've fallen on my reading.
Either way, it's a way of consuming media that seems to have become routine so this morning, when I came to the realisation that I had just unsubscribed from my last summary-only RSS feed, I wondered if I was the only one to take such drastic action against those frustrating feeds, and wanted to understand why anyone would choose to publish them.
I wrote about this topic 2 years ago with little conclusion so I thought I'd investigate informally whether things have changed by asking my Twitter followers.
So what are their issues with the short summaries?
The results were enlightening but roughly reflected what I expected; Out of 15 responses, 12 people expressed a strong preference for full feeds, to the extent where summary feeds were either not subscribed to or unsubscribed from.
- Don't want to click
- Don't want to be forced through to a site to read something
- Full feeds get more readers and engagement
- When using Google Reader on iPhone, RSS summaries are annoying. Clicking through is a waste of time
- I never subscribe to anyone with summary-only feeds, why encourage them?
- "Publications" opt for summaries to drive traffic and ad revenue
- Summary on mobile sucks, don't subscribe and probably forget to visit again
- Would rather see a full feed with ads, than a summary feed
One person seemed to stand up for the summary feed, saying that short post feeds are fine when reading basic news story while travelling. So that's one for the summary feeds, but with the caveat that the summary must really summarise the story rather than simply be the first run-on sentence of a post where the author might not get to the point immediately.
The publishers' point of view
Two publishers were kind enough to explain their side of the story; in both cases, it was a question of protecting their content against sploggers who previously stole their feeds on a regular basis. While summaries don't fully solve the problem, it makes it more difficult for a spammer to copy their content.
No one piped up with regards to summary feeds as a method to gain more traffic to the site, and more ad impressions as a result. Either that isn't the motivation of most summary-feed publishers, or they're aware that it isn't a popular view and avoided responding to my question.
Finding a solution
Finding a solution to these publishers' problem is tricky; it's difficult to identify who is subscribed to your RSS feed and what they're using it for. Feedburner makes a good effort of reporting "uncommon uses" of your feed, but in my experience it has picked up the legitimate uses of my feed (where I've used it on another site I own) but missed most instances of splogs "borrowing" my content.
So if the flow can't be stemmed, we need to make the flow smarter:
- Add an automatic footer to a post in the RSS feed linking back to your site: Joost de Valk created a WordPress RSS footer plugin which takes care of the hard work for you.
- Cross-link generously when writing your posts: Don't go overboard and write purely for the purpose of linking back to your older content, as it'll show in the quality of your posts. But when you do post, think of the relevant and useful content you could refer to, so that if your post is on someone else's blog, there is still a reference to yours. This can be done within the content or as "related items" at the end of your post. Yes, some services or plugins can create related items automatically, but I don't endorse those as I find the relevance to often be too poor. Take 5 minutes and do it manually!
These benefit you from an SEO point of view as well, so why not put them into action? Remember, however, that creating value on your site and building your personal brand so that people recognise you as YOU rather than a generic blog-post churner is the best way to create a loyal readership and make the sploggers' efforts (almost) pointless.