It’s time to wrap up the month-long trial of truncated RSS feeds on Above the Law. I had somewhat put the conclusion cart before the research horse, in that I marked the last day of this experiment in my calendar with the phrase “eat humble pie re. RSS.” And if you wait just a minute I will feed myself at least a small slice, but first let me share our findings.
One of my key concerns about the full RSS feed is that it is used by web scrapers to steal our content, which not only means they derive entirely unjustified benefit from our editors’ efforts but also leads to duplicate content that can hurt SEO efforts. On this front, the anecdotal evidence suggests that truncating the feed helped. In the earlier months of this year we had identified anywhere from 2-6 scrapers stealing all our content, but during May when we were truncating the feed we found no new examples. One of the perpetrators we’d already identified continued scraping the content, but was now getting just the abbreviated stories.
Of course the most common complaint from publishers about full RSS feeds is that subscribers get all the content in their readers, don’t click through to the site, and therefore aren’t monetized in any meaningful way. In the case of ATL, truncating the feed definitely increased the number of people clicking through to the site. Visits from our full feed were about 4% of our total traffic before we truncated it, but jumped to about 7% of total traffic in the month of the truncation trial. In our case this translated to something in the region of an additional 100,000 impressions, which isn’t going to make us rich, but would be worth more dollars and cents than we could make running ads in the RSS feed.
So those are the positives from our point of view — less scraping and an uptick in traffic to the site from the feed.
There were negatives too, however. Importantly just over 100 people took the time to complain to us about the truncated feed. While publishing isn’t a business where you can please all of the people all of the time, or let a few nasty notes get to you, a hundred complaints for a b2b site is not to be taken lightly, especially when you consider that some of those people are likely among our most loyal and influential consumers. We lost RSS followers too, with about 4% unsubscribing in the month following truncation. There was also a reduction in referral traffic from other sites and social media last month. This could be a coincidence — perhaps there was simply less link- or share-worthy content in May — but it could also be a result of not getting all our content in the hands of some of the most loyal followers.
In the end, however, the chief reason we’ll now restore the full feed for ATL, is that the whole idea of trying to force people into certain media consumption habits seems futile in an era when technology has enabled people to consume whatever they want, however they want it. If pushing a few thousand more visits to ATL every week with a truncated feed is the best idea we’ve got for monetizing our content then we’re probably pretty screwed anyway, so we’ll likely be better served focusing our energies on coming up with more compelling content and platforms (newsletters, mobile apps) and so on, than in further aggravating RSS subscribers.
Now for that humble pie. I don’t regret testing the truncated feed. The ability to test and quickly change digital content platforms is one of the key things that make them so much better than the distribution methods that came before. But I really should have given more advanced notice to the ATL community that we planned to make this change. It’s not that it would’ve changed the outcome since the biggest fans of the full feed would still have told me I was an idiot. But it would’ve been the polite thing to do, rather than foisting it on them and putting up a post explaining the move a couple of hours later. For that, I sincerely apologize — you deserved more consideration. I appreciate the patience of the 96% of you who stuck with the feed for the month, and I hope you are pleased to see the full feed return.