Truncated RSS Is A Bad Business Decision

from the respect-your-audience dept

A few years back, I wrote about why we had found full text RSS feeds to be much more powerful and useful than truncated RSS feeds. The reason that many sites push truncated feeds is the belief that it will force people to click through, and the ads on the webpage are worth a lot more than the ads found in RSS feeds. But it’s a short-sighted view. Because what it’s really doing is trying to push readers to do something that they don’t want to do. Many of them use RSS readers because it’s a more convenient way to organize and read the news they want. And, we found that by making life easier for our readers, we were able to get a lot more readers, and then that allowed us to put in place a better business model that didn’t rely on trying to trick or force them to click through. This is the same debate as the debate over ad blockers. It’s a question of whether or not you respect your community and want to add value for them, or if you just view them as dollar signs and feel you need to force or guilt them into doing stuff they don’t want.

The full text vs. partial text debate is flaring up again as Gawker Media has just shifted all its blogs to partial feed blogs. From my standpoint, this makes it significantly less likely that I’ll link to them, because I’m less likely to actually read through their posts to see if they’re worthwhile. I’ll stay subscribed, but whereas in the past I might read through an entire post before deciding it was worth writing about, now I’ll only have a snippet to make that decision — and that makes it that much less likely that I’ll find their posts worth linking to. And that seems like a mistake.

Matt McAllister from The Guardian responded to Felix Salmon’s blog post (the one linked above), and noted that when The Guardian moved to full text RSS feeds they saw their web traffic go up significantly. Admittedly, there may be other factors involved here, but it’s yet another data point in favor of being open and making it easier for your audience and your community to engage.

What I think both this and the whole ad blocking discussion come down to is a question of how different sites look at and treat their audiences. If they feel they need to take a short-term view and “monetize” every interaction with them, or if they realize that there’s a long-term value in building up a strong and loyal relationship. It’s also quite similar to the constant debates over the music industry — where the music industry feels that it wants to get paid pennies every time you hear a song. That’s the short-term “we have to monetize every use” view, compared to the longer term view, which recognizes that free songs and building up a relationship between the fans and the musicians can lead to something much more lucrative that benefits everyone.

But the key point is made by Salmon in his blog post about this. Others like to accuse Salmon and myself of supporting things like full text RSS feeds, letting people use ad blockers and being against paywalls as “a sense of entitlement.” Of course, since I’m on the publishing side of things, I don’t see how that actually applies to me since I’m defending the rights of the community of readers over short-sited publisher decisions. But the real reason why we think these (well, for RSS and paywalls — I don’t know Salmon’s view on ad blocking) things are important to understand is that taking the simplistic view of trying to maximize short-term monetization is a bad business decision in the long term:

At heart, my argument for full RSS feeds is similar to my argument against a NYT paywall, and neither argument has anything to do with a sense of entitlement on my part. Instead, both are simply bad business decisions. If you truncate your RSS feeds, you’ll get less traffic than you had with full feeds, and you’ll alienate an important minority of your audience. And if you implement a paywall, the increase in subscription revenues will fail to offset the decrease in ad revenues, even as you’ll alienate lots of your audience. So neither makes commercial sense.

Exactly. All of these are decisions that don’t take into account the bigger picture or understand the overall dynamic of a community. They assume that each transaction is a single impact: if this user doesn’t “pay” a site now, it’s “lost revenue.” But it doesn’t take into account that that user might “pay” in other means — via a comment or by passing it along to others. And what if that individual is influential and passes it on to a lot of people? It blocking off that possibility because that individual doesn’t “pay” by ad or paywall seems incredibly short sighted and quite disrespectful of a community.

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Comments on “Truncated RSS Is A Bad Business Decision”

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EdB (profile) says:

Depending on the length of the article, I often *like* truncated feeds. Basically just let me know something is there and give me enough to see if I want to click through. I don’t like my page filling up with all the content when guess what: I’m going to go read it in it’s native environment anyway.

Feed ads suck, canned text as the feed content sucks (except for web comics), but a worthy bit of teaser is fine with me for most everything I have in my aggregator. ESPECIALLY the ones that tend to write long stuff.

irotsoma (profile) says:

No More Gizmodo

I had been reading Gizmodo for ages, but I just unsubscribed yesterday because of this change. I use google reader to aggregate all of the different blogs I read. There’s no way I’d want to have to go back to going to every website every day to read the articles. I don’t mind ads. I’ve learned to ignore them for the most part, but I don’t want to have to click through. Especially when I’m reading on my Nexus One with a bad signal.

Flakey says:

Truncated articles and viewing ads

I’ve got to say that often I have used RSS feeds because of their minimalistic nature. I prefer that if I am going to read an article. I want the whole banana or nothing at all.

(Speaking of which, I need to hook in here on the RSS feed and haven’t done so yet. Talk about a timely reminder.)

Often the tag or hit line is buried near the end of the post where the writer makes his point. On Truncated articles you miss that and the relevancy of what the article means to you. If the article is going to affect my life in some personal manner then I want to know about it. Not just the article mind you but the whole sheebang about what the readers of the article think too. I want to know not only about my life with how it affects me but I want to gather a consensus of what others think too. It levels my playing field and helps me maintain my feet on the ground rather than going ballistic over something that might just be minor. More often than not, it’s not the article that brings this out; it’s the readership and community that provide this very valuable service. The article is usually after sensationaliship and splash value not reality so much. It is here where I find the value.

Partial articles aren’t going to grab my attention as they provide too little info to entice me into looking farther. So chances are very good I will pick it up and another site with the full article in view and never visit the site that provided the teaser.

On the sense of entitlement, I would like to make a point very clear. One of the things that took me away from tv, was the constant bombardment of the commercial, coupled with programming reduced to the lowest common denominator. I found the only reason the tv was on, was to provide background noise as I wasn’t actually looking forward to much anything up and coming. It was no great leap of reason to figure out I would be better off without it.

At the changeover to digital, I did not buy a converter, nor did I buy a tv. After 6 years of going without a tv, I find I have a lot more time in my life to do things I want to do. I also find that the commercial really tees me off now because I notice just how intrusive they are.

Again I point out that it is the advertiser who is to blame for the use of a host file, adblockers, noscript, and request policy. If you do not control your privacy and the security of your computer, trust me when I say the advertiser will be delighted to take advantage of it.

Over at ARS Technica, they only mentioned that the flash ad paid the best. What they did not say, is that it pays best because the advertiser puts in an LSO to track your historical data. You know, where you go, what you look at, how long you stay.

Enough new computer users have learned to their dismay what clicking on those pretty little pictures will do to a computer over time when it takes 15 minutes to boot up beyond the usual time. It’s then they find out about spyware.

Steve says:

I’m just one person, so this is totally anecdotal, but I’ve made it a habit recently to stop subscribing to sites that only provide partial feeds. It’s just too much of a nuisance to want get half the story one way, and half the other.

Really, though, how many times do you ever see users saying “please give me less?” It’s always the management that is saying “this is better” and trying to explain how it is, with nobody buying it.

dragunkat says:

While i have to say, i agree that news articles shouldn’t be truncated, i don’t think this applies to every single site every single time.

Some sites i’d prefer truncated because either the articles are too long, or i’m going to click through anyway because i like the community. I think the best solution would be to make it optional.

Fenriq (profile) says:

I was initially very annoyed that Lifehacker did this but switched over to the full feed and everything is as it was. I prefer full feeds (perhaps Google Reader could add a Read more button on feed) and find myself annoyed with Wired and their truncated teaser feeds. I’ve been thinking about unsubscribing because life is annoying enough. In fact, I think I will. I already get the magazine so I’m not going to miss anything anyway.

ChrisB (profile) says:


Techdirt is usually such a sausage party, I thought I’d throw in a comment from my wife. She reads, and she just discovered her RSS feeds (in Bloglines) are truncated. She was very pissed off, and just unsubscribed (after searching the site for some explanation). I found this post, and we tried the vip.xml, but we get some message saying, “This is a private feed for friends and partners of Jezebel”. She’s a member of their site, so WTF.

A message to these idiots. First, not everyone is tech-literate. Second, 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing.

Cody Jackson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

This is exactly what I do. Techdirt is a prime example. Because I can read the whole article in RSS (via Google Reader), I am more likely to click the “Like” button, share it with others, or star it for later reference. I’m also more likely to read more articles via the RSS. When I find one I’m interested in, I often click through to read the comments and comment on it myself.

Sites like, with truncated feeds, don’t get nearly as much of my time. If the teaser isn’t interesting enough, I’m not going to bother clicking through to the actual web site.

Simply put, sites that don’t offer full RSS text get less of my traffic. Sites that do offer full text will get more of my time on the actual site, and I am more likely to like and share an article with others.

Yeebok (profile) says:

Truncated feed is truncated

If I sign up to an RSS feed it’s for a site I am interested in. I already know about the site, otherwise I would not be there looking for an RSS feed. Often I’ll put a site on a feed and not visit the site unless I need to, eg a story’s interesting, or I want to comment.
If I put a site on RSS it could be because
a)I want to be advised of updates without having to look for them (eg a wallpapers site). Let’s call this “quite interested”
b)I’m becoming sick of it, and this way I can still see it if I want to but don’t have to actively look for it – let’s call this “disinterested”

The comparison makes more sense if you view the centre option (interested) as those who browse to the site -so those with a bit more or a bit less interest use RSS.

If it’s a) and it’s truncated, it annoys me as I still need to visit the site to see if the content is worth reading. That was kinda why I had the RSS feed .. In this instance, counter productive.
If it’s b) and it’s truncated, the site will be lucky to keep my interest for a week. Since I’m using the feed to see if the site’s worth visiting, forcing me to visit the site is likely to push me away. In this instance, counter productive too.

So there you have it, in simple terms, why an RSS feed that’s truncated can lose you visitors whether they’re quite, or losing interest in your site.

Anonymous Coward says:

Content links

I feel similarly about Slashdot’s RSS feed. For sites like Techdirt and Slashdot, links are hugely important. Slashdot would simply suck without them. But their RSS feed lacks them, significantly hindering the usefulness of the feed, while Techdirt keeps them. I would totally read their feed more if I didn’t have to go through that one step of opening a Slashdot article in a new tab.

Sure, all the text is in Slashdot’s feed, but not all the content is.

JezArnold (profile) says:

Perhaps there is a middle ground?

Like many who choose to comment on any article online, we probably all use an RSS reader to read our articles.. Also, we probably all have some websites we will still visit everyday.

Perhaps there is some middle ground?

If a website insists on Partial Feeds, rather than just a couple of sentences, why not force an author to create a 500 character summarization of the entire article? In fact, you could summize it twice:

#1 Less than 140 characters inc short URL for Twitter retweets
#2 Less than 500 characters, including the Twitter retweet and the ‘More’ link.

If an author managed to summize there article into 500 characters, then I could scan that within my partial feed and decide “Is this worth me clicking through?” … oh and if I do click through do NOT force me to watch some shit advert on the way in.

herodotus (profile) says:

I do ‘truncated’ feeds simply because my articles are so very long. I must admit, though, that this is something that I have never thought of. I mean, we’re talking about clicking on a link for chrissakes. Are people really put off by this? Have we become this lazy?

And if truncated feeds are so problematic, I wonder why Twitter is so popular. ‘Truncated’ describes pretty much every last tweet ever made.

Jerry Leichter (profile) says:

Many sites have been using truncated RSS feeds … forever. Frankly, I hardly noticed. In fact, *when well done*, I find the practice useful. It lets me quickly skim through a bunch of articles and pick the ones I want to read – a slightly enriched version of a headline list (which I’ve never found useful – there’s just to little information). There are sites – the BBC news site is one example – where I’ll skim the headlines first and quickly reject perhaps 20% as completely uninteresting (racing articles, for example); then the quick summary text (the actual RSS feed), typically a sentence or two, where I;ll reject 90% of the rest. I’ll only read the full text of the remain

TesserId (profile) says:

Whatever Happened To Choice? Executive Summaries?

I realize that this isn’t the point of this article, but I don’t like the feeds that provide full articles. I get the point that truncated feeds, particularly the severe ones, are not an effective tool. However, I actually do not like feeds that provide full articles; and when given a choice, I will select the feed with the executive summary, if well done (and thank you very much to those who do provide such a choice). But, that brings up a another pet peeve of mine: good summaries are rare. And, while I understand that it takes a fair amount of skill to provide useful summaries, I still find it surprising that those who are capable of producing lengthy, well-written articles rarely bother with a decent executive summary. Well, that’s one of my favorite gripes, not that this will change anytime soon. I would just be happier if I could choose a summary RSS feed over full articles.

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