// Internet Duct Tape

The Secret Behind Why Blog Readers Unsubscribe

Posted in Building a Community, Google Calendar and Gmail, Technology by engtech on March 16, 2007

paperboy rss readerRSS is a way of subscribing to news/blog feeds that keeps track of new updates and what you have already read. It’s like having your very own little paperboy trapped inside the computer scouring the Internet for the things you like to read (except not nearly as creepy and possibly illegal). RSS is the best way to keep track of several sites with the minimal amount of hassle. It’s also one of the few reliable ways to find out how many people are regularly read your blog.

//engtech RSS feed

Darren at ProBlogger leveraged his 20,000 RSS readers and polled them to find out why people unsubscribe from blog RSS feeds. They came up with a list of 34 reasons. The top three reasons people unsubscribe from RSS feeds is because there are too many posts, there are too few posts or because the blog uses partial feeds. Partial feeds are when the RSS feed only shows a snippet of post and you have to click through to the blog to read the entire thing.

Why do readers unsubscribe from rss feed subscriptions like feedburner?

That’s an interesting contradiction! Obviously, the solution is to have a consistent posting rhythm, but why is there such a schism between people unsubscribing because of too few or too many posts?

The answer is in which RSS application they use.

Which RSS reader people use greatly affects how they interact with and view RSS feeds. Different RSS readers will have different features and limitations that will change the user’s behaviour. I’ve tried out Firefox Sage, Netvibes, Google Personal Homepage, Bloglines and Google Reader (in that order) and these are the conclusions I’ve drawn.

RSS Readers I’ve Known and Loved

  • Sage is an extension that comes shipped with the Firefox web-browser. It is a very light weight feed reader.
  • Netvibes is a web-based personal homepage with widgets. You can use widgets for reading RSS feeds. A 1280×1024 screen resolution can display around 9 RSS feeds per screen.
  • Google Personalized Homepage is a web-based personal homepage with widgets. You can use widgets for reading RSS feeds (and even use a widget for Google Reader).
  • Bloglines is a web-based RSS that can organize feeds by categories (one category per feed). Feeds can be read one site at a time, or by category.
  • Google Reader is a web-based RSS reader that can organize feeds by tags (one feed can have many tags). Feeds can be read one site at a time, by tag, or all at once.

There are lots of other great RSS feed readers out there, but those are the ones I’ve tried.

RSS Reader Features

The features and limitations of an RSS reader will greatly shape the decisions a user makes about how many feeds they subscribe to and and how many posts those feeds have.

There are four major ways of categorizing RSS reader features: Type of Application, How Feeds are Downloaded, How Feeds are Displayed and Interacting with RSS Feeds.

Legend

  • No picture means the feature is neutral.
  • Feature leads to subscribing to less feeds.
    (One feed can contain many posts)
    rss reader features that lead to reading less feeds
  • Feature leads to subscribing to more feeds.
    (One feed can contain many posts)
    rss reader features that lead to reading more feeds
  • Feature leads to reading more posts.
    (One feed can contain many blog posts)
    rss reader features that lead to reading more posts
  • Feature leads to reading less posts.
    (One feed can contain many blog posts)
    rss reader features that lead to reading less posts

Type of Application

RSS feed readers come in two basic flavours: web-based application or desktop application.

Web-based

(Google Reader, Bloglines, Netvibes, Google Homepage)

Your list of read feeds is stored on the Internet so you can read from any computer.

Desktop

(Sage)

Your list of read feeds is stored on your computer, so it is the only computer you can read feeds from.

Dedicated to Reading RSS

rss reader features that lead to reading more feeds

(Google Reader, Bloglines)

The application has one purpose only and that is reading RSS feeds.

RSS Reading is a Feature in a bigger Application

rss reader features that lead to reading less feeds

(Sage, Google Homepage, Netvibes)

Reading RSS feeds is just a small part of a bigger picture.

How Feeds are Downloaded

Another major factor is how RSS feeds are collected. Does the program have to collect the feeds by itself or is it part of a larger server that is able to share the feed amongst all users?

Server Collects Feeds in Background

rss reader features that lead to reading more feeds

(Google Reader, Bloglines, Google Homepage)

Feeds are download in the background so you never have to wait to check your feeds (although there may be a lag before the post shows up in your reader).

Have to Download Feed when you want to Read It

rss reader features that lead to reading less feeds

(Netvibes, Sage)

This is quite possibly the most annoying limitation ever. You’re guaranteed the latest feeds but at the cost of your own time waiting for them to download. It also wastes a lot of bandwidth on the site you’re trying to read.

Offline Reading

(Sage)

The feed reader has to connect to the Internet to download feeds, but feeds can be read offline without an Internet connection.

How Posts are Displayed

Another major feature that affects the users is how the posts from the feed are displayed.

Read Full Post

rss reader features that lead to reading more posts

(Google Reader, Bloglines, Sage, Google Homepage)

The full post can be read without having to leave the feed reader and visit the website (unless they are using partial feeds).

Show Short Summary of Post (no option for full post)

rss reader features that lead to reading less posts

(Netvibes, Google Reader)

Only a short summary of the post is displayed. You have to click to visit the website to read more.

All Posts at Once / River of News

rss reader features that lead to reading more feeds(Google Reader)

The RSS reader can show many posts with just a small summary of just the title.

rss reader features that lead to reading more posts

Organized by Tags

rss reader features that lead to reading more feeds(Google Reader)

You can create arbitrary grouping of tags based on your mood. Reading a feed with multiple tags clears it from all tags it belongs to.

rss reader features that lead to reading more posts

Organized by Categories

rss reader features that lead to reading more feeds

(Bloglines)

You can group common feeds together, but it isn’t as flexible as tags.

One Feed at a Time

rss reader features that lead to reading less feeds(Netvibes, Google Homepage, Sage)

It requires many clicks to move from one story to another.

rss reader features that lead to reading less posts

Empty Feeds are Hidden

rss reader features that lead to reading more feeds

(Google Reader, Bloglines)

Only the subscribed feeds with new posts are shown.

Empty Feeds are Shown

rss reader features that lead to reading less feeds(Sage, Netvibes, Google Homepage)

All subscribed feeds are shown all of the time.

Interacting with RSS Feeds

The last major factor in how the RSS feed will affect users is the features it offers for interacting with feeds.

Keyboard Hot Keys

rss reader features that lead to reading more feeds(Google Reader)

It is easy to skip rapidly through feeds using keyboard commands instead of having to click on each article with the mouse. This is a killer feature.

rss reader features that lead to reading more posts

Search

rss reader features that lead to reading more posts

(Bloglines)

Feeds can be searched for specific information instead of having to manually browse through them.

Clipping, Sharing or Saving Posts for Later

rss reader features that lead to reading more posts

(Google Reader, Bloglines)

Some features come bundled with extra features like the ability to save feeds for later reading or to republish feeds or sections of feeds like a blog. Feed reading becomes a supplement to blogging.

Can Store Unlimited Unread Posts

rss reader features that lead to reading more posts

(Google Reader, not tested on others)

Some feed readers aren’t able to store more than a certain number of unread posts.

View All Previously Read Items

rss reader features that lead to reading more posts

(Google Reader, not tested on others)

Some feed readers delete the information from read feeds while others keep it forever.

Which RSS Application Do You Use?

(actually, I just asked that question :) )

As you may have guessed, out of my limited sampling size of 5 applications, Google Reader has won me over. I currently subscribe to 160 blogs in Google Reader. I got up to around 70 in Bloglines before I switched to Reader. My Sage usage maxed out at around 15 and I found Netvibes and Google Homepage became unmanageable after adding around 10 feeds.

Why do readers unsubscribe from rss feed subscriptions like feedburner?

Different applications will shape their users in different way because of the applications’ own features and limitations. If the user has to wait for the RSS feed to connect to the blog and it always displays empty feeds then they will unsubscribe because of too few posts. If the user subscribes to a lot of feeds and one prolific feed is overwhelming their attention from other feeds then they will unsubscribe because of too many posts. So worry more about the other 32 reasons that you can control like writing great content, avoiding the blogging echo-chamber of reporting other people’s news and not devoting too many posts to self-promotion.

Of course, reading more and more feeds isn’t necessarily a good thing as you start paying less attention to individual feeds and start ignoring quality information for quantity of information. But that’s a post for another day.

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12 Responses

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  1. Maki said, on March 16, 2007 at 9:21 am

    The pictures of the feed/WP icons and arrows were a tad confusing :) .. great tech angle though, on the topic of feed un-subscription.

    I totally agree that we should stop harping on why users unsubscribe from one’s blog feed. As I’ve mentioned on Matt Coddington’s blog, users that unsubscribe are real extraneous factors that one cannot entire control by manipulating post frequency.

    As you’ve mentioned, even the basic choice of a feed reader can determine one’s likelihood of subscribing or unsubscribing from a blog

    Perhaps it’ll be useful to remember that for every 5 users that unsubscribe because of post frequency, there’ll be another 5 that’ll subscribe BECAUSE they like the post frequency.

    BTW engtech.. I’ve actually tagged you for a FeedCount meme/survey yesterday. :)

    Not sure if you’ve noticed it:

    The Feed Count Meme: Studying the Impact of Feed Count on Blog Feed Subscriptions

  2. engtech said, on March 16, 2007 at 10:10 am

    Just finished my response to your meme, should be going up tomorrow morning. :)

  3. [...] The secret behind why blog readers unsubscribe by engtech [...]

  4. Andy C said, on March 16, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    Excellent post. I recently converted to Google Reader from Netvibes and now find that I tend to add feeds more readily (up to 150 now) as I can speed read very quickly in GR and simply star/share articles of interest.

  5. Dustin said, on March 16, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    Currently I use Google Reader although I do not really know how much I like it. It is ok. The semi-continuous bugs are annoying though. I am hoping they fix a few of those.

  6. Anonymous said, on March 16, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    The Secret Behind Why Blog Readers Unsubscribe

    Darren at ProBlogger leveraged his 20,000 RSS readers and polled them to find out why people unsubscribe from blog RSS feeds. They came up with a list of 34 reasons. The top three reasons people unsubscribe from RSS feeds is because there are too many …

  7. Neena said, on March 16, 2007 at 10:57 pm

    You are definitely on to something. I can’t remember what service I first used for RSS, but it was so difficult to deal with that I just gave up for awhile. Finally I am back on track with Google Reader – it is a joy to use! I completely agree with your theories on why people unsubscribe.

  8. Ashish Mohta said, on March 17, 2007 at 7:35 am

    A little confusing but ver well expressed.I had no problem in getting what those images were saying coz i knew how thw flow went.

    This is one of best way to educate your readers why and which feed readers you can choose.

    I am taking it for my spawners :D

  9. [...] The Secret Behind Why Blog Readers Unsubscribe (tags: blogging Unsubscribe Blog) [...]

  10. Reader Tips: 18 March 2007 said, on March 18, 2007 at 10:06 pm

    [...] Why RSS readers unsubscribe?: Engtech carried a detail analysis around this topic. [...]

  11. [...] Engtech takes this one step further and offers some insights and solutions. His take on the too many posts/infrequent posts dilemma points to the need for “a consistent posting rhythm”. He also explains that the type of RSS reader you choose impacts on the type of interaction the reader has with RSS feeds, and gives examples. It even has some easy to follow diagrams, so non tech people have a chance to follow it as well. Thanks Engtech. [...]

  12. Links #3 : FitForFreedom said, on April 15, 2007 at 9:49 pm

    [...] Why Blog Readers Unsubscribe [...]


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