The fallacies of summary-only RSS feeds

I’m still frustrated and to a degree baffled by all those otherwise-wonderful sites that are serving up RSS feeds with just headlines and summaries. Where are the rest of the articles?

Sometimes this happens through laziness, sometimes with careful thought and intent but mostly through ignorance and fallacy.

So why isn’t everyone serving up full-text feeds? The argument tends to go like this:

We’ve got a great website and we want people that are interested in what we do to visit it. Letting people subscribe to our RSS feed is a good way of generating more traffic as readers will click through to read the full text of articles that interest them.

There are two main problems with this line of thinking:

The assumption that a summary-only feed will generate a lot of click-through traffic is a poor one. Most people are only subscribing to RSS in the first place because it gives them a quicker and easier way to follow lots of sites. Force those people to click through to read the full articles and those people will either rarely bother clicking through or they’ll even just unsubscribe. Sadly, the people that decide website policy are often not heavy RSS users themselves and can’t see things from the perspective of those that are.

The bigger and more fundamental mistake here is to put the requirement that people visit your website above all other considerations. If you’ve got a message to get out there, put as few barriers in the way of potential readers as you can. Getting read is the only thing that matters — how and where shouldn’t be issues.

People visiting your website has its benefits for you. They will get a better “branding” experience. They may be able to find other interesting things your organisation is doing. You will be able to track these visits in your web stats.

But all these considerations are of limited interest and value to the user. They want to read your article right now. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s a good thing, right? So don’t get in their way and let them read it the way they want to. By subscribing to your RSS feed, the user has said, “I don’t want to read this on your website. I want to read it in my RSS reader.” Frustrate that good intention at your peril.

Don’t think of RSS as a teaser for the main event that happens on your website. If what you’re saying has value and importance to your readers, they’ll come back to you in other ways anyway. They’ll recommend you to others. They’ll buy your products and services. They’ll join your organisation. They’ll write about you. Most of all, they’ll feel good that you’ve chosen to put their convenience first. A little thought and generosity goes a long way.

It’s more important that your material gets read than it gets read in the way that you dictate. It’s more important that your material gets read than your ability to track that reading in your web stats — though using sites like FeedBurner you can keep stats on your feed subscribers too. If your logo and palette are more important to your branding than your words and your message, you’ve got a problem that no amount of web visits can solve.

We’re moving towards a world where information is read in a multitude of ways, many of which haven’t been provided by, designed by or even sanctioned by the original publisher. The ability of third parties to find your information, share it, combine it with others’ in mashups, convert it to different formats, translate it and redistribute it hinges on them being able to find useful, comprehensive feeds in the first place.

Other people now have a massive ability to add value to the information you produce by transforming and recontextualising it, either just for themselves or for a wider audience. Serving full-text feeds from your website is one way your organisation can be a part of that. If you choose to ignore this, you’ll be at a disadvantage to those that don’t.

In other news, the new release of WordPress (2.5) now generates a full-text feed by default, even for posts that are split using the “more” tag. Pre-2.5 users should use the Full Text Feed plugin.

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One comment

  1. As a librarian, I respond strongly to the “give readers easier access to your resources” argument. My colleagues and I talk all the time about how to get users to quality materials without making them jump through hoops.

    At the same time, I rub elbows with archivists, one of whose primary principles is preserving the integrity of a collection: that is, you don’t redact individual photos or documents merely because you find them offensive or irrelevant; rather, you house collections relevant to your institution and let them speak for themselves.

    Come to think of it, the rest of librarianship shares the principle of resource integrity. We will usually not exclude one volume of a set because it seems less valuable or relevant than the other volumes. Nor do we provide our patrons with multiple options to take the content of a book out of its context. Surely, they are at liberty to photocopy or scan portions, but that happens only once they have the whole book in their hands and it’s out of our control. We recognize that authors (including publishers) have intent in presenting their materials in the way they do. They seek a certain experience for their readers.

    I also seek an experience for my readers. Perhaps it is not the most graphically exciting experience; perhaps the links to further resources are not the best to be found on the Internet; perhaps the comments left by other readers are not the most insightful. But the layout and the content are selected all the same, and the comments are solicited — and they are all part of what I would like to share with my readers. Granted, some may be using a cell phone or a personal digital assistant incapable of rendering content as well as a graphical browser; that is one reason I’ve chosen WordPress, which publishes in XHTML readable by a number of non-graphical devices.

    When you say, “It’s more important that your material gets read than it gets read in the way that you dictate”, I wonder if you employ a needless distinction between content and presentation. To some degree, the presentation is content, and anybody who strips it out by means of an aggregator is cheated of that content. (One of my archivist colleagues, who reads my blog, actually refuses to use a feed aggregator, exactly because it strips the text of its intended context.)

    All that said… I’m really not dogmatic about the integrity of my blog — or anybody else’s; I use Bloglines myself — and could be persuaded in time.