For the past week, we’ve been conducting a little experiment with Cognitive Daily. In the past, we’ve had several readers complain that we don’t include the full post in the RSS feed for CogDaily, so last week we published every post in its entirety on RSS (if you don’t know what RSS is, I explain it below). Today I’m going to share the results of that experiment.
There are two primary philosophies about RSS feeds. The first one says that the point of RSS is just to alert users to new content. Users don’t want to read content using their RSS reader; they’ll visit the original web site to do that. They just use RSS to get updated on what’s new.
The second philosophy says that site owners shouldn’t limit how users access their content. If users prefer to use RSS readers, then site owners should provide full content in RSS feeds so that users can view content using the method they prefer.
For years, CogDaily has been operating under the first philosophy for three major reasons. First, we only make money when readers visit our site, so by just providing a “teaser” in the RSS feed, we encourage readers to visit and see our ads. Second, some of the features of our site aren’t available via RSS: polls, comments, videos, and other content don’t work on RSS, so there’s no point in putting entire posts there anyway. Third, we feel that offering part of each post really does offer a service to readers: we provide enough information in RSS for them to decide whether it’s worthwhile to visit the site each day and read the entire post, thus saving them time if an article isn’t interesting to them.
But the second philosophy has a lot to offer as well. Some users like to download RSS feeds in advance and then read them offline. If all the content is in the feed, this gives them more freedom. Some users have slow dialup connections, so they can download a bunch of content at once while they’re doing something else, then read at their own pace. Some users simply prefer the convenience of having all their reading in the same virtual space. It’s even possible that offering these appealing features might attract more visitors to our site than partial feeds do. By attracting more RSS subscribers with full feeds, we might end up with more overall visitors to our site. And offering full feeds could attract “power users” who link to our site from their blogs, thus generating even more interest in our site.
Since both philosophies offer potential benefits, we decided to experiment with full feeds for a week and see how our traffic compared to the previous weeks. Here are the results:
It looks like traffic’s gone down and RSS subscriptions have gone up. So perhaps this new plan is just good for subscribers but bad for us, since fewer people are viewing our pages and looking at our ads. But it’s also possible that our content simply wasn’t as interesting during the week of the study. Also, we’ve noticed in the past that subscriptions tend to just go up and up. People apparently are more likely to subscribe to a new RSS feed than unsubscribe to an old one. So perhaps rather than look at whether RSS subscribers are increase, we should look at the rate of increase. And let’s take a look at some other measures as well — for example, how many people are commenting and linking to our site.
Unfortunately, all these measures have very different scales — comments and links might be in the tens or hundreds, while page views can be in the hundreds of thousands. So the following graph converts several different stats into z-scores, allowing us to compare very different measures:
As you can see, we had a very good week April 23-29. Links to CogDaily seem to correspond quite closely to page views, as do comments. But RSS subscriber growth was largest during our full RSS week. So perhaps simply including the full RSS feed was responsible for the larger-than-average increase in RSS subscribers. But traffic on CogDaily can vary so much from week to week that it’s really difficult to say.
It’s also possible that since our change in RSS policy was unannounced, it didn’t actually affect readership much one way or another. So let’s take another look at the numbers in a week, now that we’ve publicly announced the full RSS feeds.
[I'm including an explanation of RSS feeds below the fold]
What is RSS?
RSS, which stands for “Really Simple Syndication,” is a way for readers to view the content of a blog or web site without visiting the actual site. Instead, they can use a reader such as Bloglines or Google Reader to view selected content from that site.
The site owner determines what to put in the RSS feed — it could be anything from headlines to complete articles.
The most powerful feature of RSS is this: When you “subscribe” to several different RSS feeds through an RSS reader, you can see all those feeds in one place, without visiting each site individually. In this way you can be updated on literally hundreds of posts in a matter of minutes.
Some RSS readers allow you to download RSS feeds in advance and then read them later, when you may not have access to the Internet. Some readers allow you to mark articles you’ve read, or keep notes on articles.
To subscribe to CogDaily or any of the blogs from ScienceBlogs.com, click on the “RSS” tab above (or just click here).
After a week of full RSS feeds, are you finding Cognitive Daily more convenient / easier to use? Or did you prefer things the old way? Let us know in the comments.