The Value of Google Reader Subscribers

While bloggers almost universally publish RSS feeds that include the full content of their blog posts (text, images, audio, video, polls, etc.) most of the mainstream media sites (and new media sites run by people with mainstream backgrounds) continue to work under the mindset that it’s better to limit the content shared in their site’s RSS feeds.

Generally, the argument from people who enjoy consuming content via RSS programs like Google Reader goes something like this: The kind of people who read your stuff through an RSS reader may visit your site less often, but they’re also more likely to have a blog and link to you, thus sending traffic to your site to make up for their own lack of visits. Give them access to your content so they’ll read it and write about it.

The one shortcoming in this argument – if their is one – is what happens as more and more people consume content through RSS? Will a point be reached where everyone is getting their content through RSS? And if so, what happens then? That’s a fair argument, although it ignores the safe assumption that no matter how many people read content through RSS, it won’t come close to the traffic generated through search engines. That’s assuming the site’s content is accessible through SEO friendly site architecture and doesn’t do something idiotic like bury the archives.

Here’s one other thing to consider: If you’re a Google Analytics user, click on Traffic Sources, then “All Traffic Sources” then click “google.com / referral” among the list of traffic sources. This slice of your visitors is made up primarily of people who clicked over to visit your site from a link in Google Reader or a custom Google homepage (but not Google search, pay per click ads, or other Google ads). When I look at this traffic for The Deets, here’s what I see:

Avg Time on Site (vs a typical visitor): +101.18%
Bounce Rate: -41% (less is better)
Avg Pages per Visit: +27%
New Visits: -41% (regular visitors)

I also measure the sources of traffic that generate comments. People visiting The Deets from Google Reader comment 1000% more often than a typical visitor to the site. I see similar results when I run the same test for bloglines.com referrals.

Loyal readers through RSS click over to read stories in context, catch up on stories they missed, read back stories linked to from current stories, read comments, leave comments, and generally engage with the site. This seems like the kind of people you’d want to have reading your stuff. If you’re only offering them a truncated feed, you’re probably costing yourself a good chunk of would-be loyal, engaged readers.

There are some tricks to making this work well. Things that help get people out of their readers and onto your site. That’s a topic for another day.

2 thoughts on “The Value of Google Reader Subscribers”

  1. I doubt that everyone will get to sites via RSS at any point in the future. 90% of my ad revenue comes from 1st time visitors so it doesn’t impact me at all if the number of those subscribing via RSS increases. I also don’t show ads on posts that are less than 6 days old (thanks to your suggestion Ed). No sense in bothering my regular readers with stuff they aren’t likely to click anyway.

    Off-topic: I’m pissed off that Google is not updating subscriber counts in Google Reader. You can see how many are subscribed via your webserver logs but your trick (and Google Reader Subscriber Count via Greasemonkey) no longer work. They haven’t updated the counts in at least a month, if not more 🙁

  2. I have to agree with your entire post. I would much rather have a bunch of readers via RSS than any other source. Readers from your RSS feeds are much more likely to contribute to your site, and any fear of lost ad revenue can be made up by ads in the RSS feed.
    As a consumer of content I generally don’t subscribe to partial feeds. A site has to be very good if I am willing to put up with partial feeds. As a publisher I feel it does my readers a disservice to publish partial feeds, I want my content available to my readers in whatever format they want.

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