An addendum few people will care about

Sort of related to the previous post, I realized recently that I’ve been using a seriously flawed metric for this blog’s RSS traffic. In a post a few months ago about the selfish benefits of using Twitter I wrote:

I no longer count on a blog post to get traffic on its own. My number of subscribers on Google Reader has languished around 160 for months while in a little over a year I’ve picked up more than 550 followers on Twitter. Today if I want a post to get attention I link to it on Twitter and Facebook.

The morning links feature and the prominent placement of the RSS icon at the upper right of the page are both intended to encourage RSS subscriptions, so the total failure to increase the number of subscribers in Google Reader was disappointing.

It turns out I just wasn’t looking in the right place. When I redesigned the site last year, I kept the RSS feed at the same URL so that it would keep working. However I did change the name of it from this blog’s old title, “Eternal Recurrence,” to simply my name. This apparently caused Google Reader to treat it as a new RSS feed and so none of the new subscribers showed up in the version of the feed I check in Reader. I thought I had lost 10 or so subscribers over the past year; in fact, I’ve gained about 120. That’s not a huge number, but taken as a percentage of where this blog started before the redesign it’s a major increase. Twitter still showed faster growth, however RSS for this site was not as dead as I’d led myself to believe.

If you’re a blogger keeping track of your RSS subscribers, make sure you’re accounting for all of your feeds. (I now have three, including one from my MovableType days that has only seven subscribers in Google Reader.)

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To link or not to link your feeds?

A few weeks ago I linked to an open letter by Tim Maly politely asking that we all unlink our feeds, i.e. stop automatically syncing our blog/Facebook/Twitter/Foursquare/etc. accounts. Here’s an excerpt, but read the whole thing:

I noticed that you’ve started automatically importing your feed from that other service. I can certainly understand why you’d want to do that. Heaven forbid that anyone miss any of your incredibly insightful commentary and linking, just because they don’t use that other service. But it creates a problem for me.

You see, I already follow you on that other service. This means that I see everything you post twice/thrice/quarce.

This puts me in something of a bind. I don’t want to stop following you on this service or that service. For one thing, sometimes you post things to this service that don’t appear in that service. For another, I’d miss out on the unique constellation of contacts and conversation that each service provides. But neither do I want to keep filtering redundant updates in each service.

There’s a lot I agree with in that letter and in the past few weeks I’ve had several conversations with friends about when and when not to link one’s feeds. Despite my general agreement with what’s written above, I actually do link some of my feeds. This blog’s RSS and my Twitter feed both export into Facebook. However I don’t link my blog to Twitter and I don’t link Foursquare to anything. Perhaps I’m just rationalizing my own behavior but I think this is a defensible setup. And if I’m wrong, I hope you’ll tell me; I’d like to not be annoying on the internet.

Reasons to link your feeds to Facebook: The main reason I link my feeds to Facebook is that Facebook is really, really huge. Facebook has made the leap from niche social networking site to essential fabric of the web. According to its statistics for the press the site has more than 400 million active users; by at least one metric, it receives roughly as much traffic as Google. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but RSS readers and Twitter have a much more specialized user base (see “RSS reader market in disarray, continues to decline” and “18 million Twitter users by end of 2009;” I wish I had better numbers for RSS). Therefore if content is not exported into Facebook, many users who would presumably be happy to read it will miss it simply because they don’t use RSS or Twitter.

One complaint about exporting one’s Twitter updates into Facebook is that the formatting is so different. Fortunately @replies are now automatically filtered from Facebook so this is less of a problem than it used to be. Hashtags still get through which are less useful on Facebook than on Twitter where they can be searched, but their meaning can be deciphered. And hashtags are often used more as humorous commentary than as actual tags to be searched, and that meaning translates to either service.

The vast majority of my tweets that are automatically exported into Facebook are updates I would post separately there anyway, so exporting them is efficient, especially when I’m typing on a mobile device. The integration also prevents me from taking part in some Twitter memes, which is probably a good thing. The only significant downside is that people who use both services see updates twice. But are there many of these people? I use Twitter primarily and only check Facebook when I’m bored, and I assume that many of the people I’m friends with on each service also prefer one to the other. Empirically I know that people leave replies or click on links in each service, so I think the gains outweigh the costs here.

How about importing blog posts? To be honest, I’d rather not import my RSS feed into Facebook. I would much prefer that people subscribe via RSS to get notified of posts more reliably or read my site directly, generating ad revenue for me instead of Mark Zuckerberg. But as mentioned above, Facebook is huge, and many of its users aren’t using separate RSS readers. Nor is my site compelling enough that I expect them to make a point of visiting regularly. For these users blog posts are perfectly welcome as imported notes. And for users with RSS readers, these notes are fairly unobtrusive on Facebook. Since I’m more interested in being read than in maximizing ad revenue, I think the gains once again outweigh the costs.

(Incidentally, I’ve toyed with the idea of sending only a partial RSS feed to Facebook to encourage traffic to the site, but this would be inconsistent with my goal of not being annoying.)

Reasons not to link your blog into Twitter: Many bloggers link to every one of their posts on Twitter, either automatically or by hand. This lets users know that a blog has been updated without having to manually check the site. However this problem was solved more than a decade ago by RSS and RSS readers handle blogs far better than Twitter does. Twitter can present at best an excerpt of a little over 100 characters plus a link, so reading a post requires visiting a new page. This is less than ideal on a computer and potentially worthless on a mobile device.

It’s true that there may be some people who follow you on Twitter and don’t subscribe to your RSS feed. However this isn’t Facebook; Twitter is populated by more tech-savvy people who will use RSS if they want to. If they’re already subscribed to your blog, these automated Twitter links are needless duplication. If they aren’t subscribed, then there’s a good chance they just don’t find your blog that interesting. Either way you’re not doing them any favors by tweeting about every post.

I do link to individual posts occasionally, but only if I think they’re particularly worth highlighting. This can be an effective way to introduce followers to your blog and to drive traffic to specific posts. Hopefully some of these visitors will become regular readers. But if they don’t, one needn’t force the issue by trying to turn Twitter into an RSS aggregator. Let Twitter be its own thing.

In fairness, I’ll note that views on this topic are divided. According to Technorati’s 2009 State of the Blogosphere survey, 52% of responding bloggers who use Twitter syndicate their feeds to their accounts; Twitter has become a substitute for RSS readers for some users. Linking blog posts and Twitter is widely practiced and I may be hopelessly conservative in wishing it would stop. (As a producer of content I should like Twitter replacing RSS; please, click over to my site instead of viewing it in Google Reader! As a consumer of content I love full RSS feeds.)

Why not to link Foursquare with anything else: I enjoy Foursquare, but broadcasting one’s location on Foursquare is unlikely to be useful to anyone outside of one’s own city. Foursquare updates are essentially spam to friends on Facebook or Twitter who are in other locations.

Linking anything else to Twitter: There’s a growing tendency to transmit all of one’s online activity to Twitter. Before doing so, ask yourself if it would really create value for a significant number of your followers, or if it would be best left to friends on that specific service.

Disclaimer: This advice isn’t intended to be universal and you might have good reasons to adopt other practices. Maybe every one of your blog posts really is too insightful to miss, or perhaps you update your blog so rarely that every post is an event. Or maybe I’m totally failing at not being annoying online, in which case feel free to let me know in the comments.

As always, you can subscribe to this blog’s RSS feed here or follow me on Twitter here.

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Note to Google

Dear Google,

I’m sure your new Chrome browser’s great, but can we get some progress on your immensely popular feed reader too? Like, say, offering a direct way of alphabetizing subscriptions? I know putting things in alphabetical order is tricky, but if anyone has the computing resources, the brilliant programmers, and the billions of dollars needed to find a way, I’m sure it’s you guys.

kthxbye,

Jacob

(BTW, Google has been “working on fixing” this problem since April.)

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