With FeedBurner on the Fritz and Fewer People Using RSS, is it Time for an Alternative?

  • June 29, 2010 by Corbett Barr
  • 36 Comments

Feedburner is on the fritz. Fewer people are using RSS. Is it time for an alternative?

If you use FeedBurner to measure RSS subscribers for your blog, you might have noticed it’s been on the fritz lately.

I’ve seen swings of 50% or more in the number of subscribers FeedBurner reports for this site from day-to-day. The problem has affected plenty of other sites around the web as well. Sites that use the FeedBurner subscriber count chiclet have been reporting wildly erratic subscriber numbers lately.

If you’re a blogger, this can be frustrating to say the least. At worst, it might cost you some repeat visitors when those visitors don’t think a blog with an incorrectly reported low number of subscribers is worth following.

Will FeedBurner fix the problem? It’s hard to say. Google seems to be aware of the problem, but they have notoriously not really cared about FeedBurner as a product. FeedBurner has been a flaky service at best for as long as I’ve used it.

A bigger question

Sure, there are alternatives out there (people seem to like FeedBlitz), but there is a bigger question to ask about RSS in general.

No, I’m not suggesting RSS is dead entirely. RSS subscribers are still a top source of traffic for this site, and probably for your blogs as well.

But the fact is, RSS does have competition. Many readers prefer to keep up with their favorite blogs over email, Twitter or Facebook. When you add up all the readers who follow your site through those other means, RSS might not even represent the majority.

What are the alternatives?

Again, I’m not suggesting RSS needs a replacement. RSS is a fine format, and some people really like to keep up with sites that way. RSS is also useful as a data feed. It serves its specific purposes well.

But by “alternative,” I mean is there something else we all could be using as a measure of social proof? Is there some way we can show prospective new readers that we’re worth following, besides using RSS feed counts?

Some sites have already chosen a different measure of social proof. I decided to follow Naomi Dunford‘s lead over at IttyBiz by using “monthly readers” (by my definition, it’s just the number of unique visitors here over the past month). I just noticed that Freelance Switch has done the same thing.

Beyond monthly readers, I’ve seen everything from Twitter followers to Facebook fans to email newsletter subscribers used. Some sites even use a few different counts or the sum of various counts.

In any case, the question is, which methods are most effective?

Maybe the answer for your site is whichever metric is most flattering. However, you have to wonder, which metrics carry the most weight in a reader’s mind?

The FeedBurner chiclet is nice because it is common enough to carry some authority. It also removes the trust issue of leaving readers wondering if a site might be padding a number.

I’ve made my decision for Think Traffic for now. FeedBurner is too unreliable for me, and monthly readers seems to make the most sense given the nature of this site.

Now I’ll throw it over to you. Is it time for a social proof alternative to the FeedBurner chiclet? If so, what do you think the best solution is?

Speaking of RSS, have you subscribed to Think Traffic yet? Take your pick. Whether over RSS, email, Twitter or Facebook, you’ll get the same quality audience-building advice for your website or blog.

Written by . Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.


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Dan June 29, 2010 at 11:17 pm

I really like this idea…. I think its a great move and seems to me to be way more legit than other metrics.

Corbett Barr June 30, 2010 at 10:29 am

Cool, Dan. Thanks for the vote.

David Krug June 29, 2010 at 11:50 pm

I run a few different sites, and some of them are aimed at the non-tech crowd and one of them doesnt even have a single RSS subscriber. All email. And you know what I will take an email subscriber over an RSS subscriber any day of the week.

Corbett Barr June 30, 2010 at 10:30 am

Yeah, email subscribers are much more engaged than RSS subscribers. Also, you’re right about certain crowds not being into RSS. I think some groups of people still have no idea what it is for.

Thom June 30, 2010 at 12:14 am

Got to agree with David above. I actively avoid having an RSS button on the site and instead encourage people to subscribe to the email list – email subscribers tend to be more engaged and interested in my experience thus far.

Running a web-based magazine is slightly different to a blog, though, so maybe I’m not a typical case study in that respect!

- Thom

Corbett Barr June 30, 2010 at 10:31 am

It really depends on who your site caters to. Some types of visitors really appreciate RSS (designers, techies, marketers, etc.). Email subscribers are definitely more valuable though.

Mars Dorian June 30, 2010 at 2:45 am

Honestly, you are still too soft with this one.

RSS is soo useless, it’s just good for your ego and for impressing new potential readers. People always say: Yeah, look at me, I have 2000 subscribers. But when I check their traffic, it’s super-low, because their reach is almost zero. Many people subscribe but don’t use it afterwards.

I believe it used to matter a few years ago, but the power of social media is slowly blowing it into pieces.

Corbett Barr June 30, 2010 at 10:34 am

It’s true, some blogs have thousands of subscribers, but virtually no visitors. That’s because RSS subscriptions can easily get buried among a sea of other blogs in your feed reader.

Murlu June 30, 2010 at 4:38 am

Yeah, I think in terms of the geek aspect, RSS is great to keep up to date on everything but from the blogger side of things – it’s useless.

There’s really two main problems with RSS:

1. Some people don’t understand it nor care for it
2. Social media keeps us up to date + web aggregation

I really like the idea about showing the monthly readers. Pull the data from Analytics or whichever you use and then just make sure you keep it up to date. If you publish a monthly traffic report, you could include a small link that would show people the numbers just as “social proof”.

Corbett Barr June 30, 2010 at 10:36 am

There are even ways to pull data from Google Analytics automatically and keep your “monthly visitors” count up-to-date. Maybe I’ll write a post about that shortly.

Gary Arndt June 30, 2010 at 5:18 am

1) The fix to Feedburner is pretty simple. Just put the highest number from the previous 7 days on the counter. That will moderate the extreme swings in numbers.

2) The replacement for RSS is Facebook. Everyone is on it and if they follow your fan page, they can get links to your blog posts just like RSS.

Andrew June 30, 2010 at 7:52 am

Hey Gary,

For number 1, are you saying that is a fix we can make, or a fix Feedburner can make?

Srinivas Rao June 30, 2010 at 6:13 am

I feel ya on this, but I think we have also tend to have an emotional attachment to the RSS subscriber number. It drives me nuts to see fluctuations of over 50%, but to Mars point there are people with massive RSS subs and that doesn’t really mean much if there’s no engagement. I do like the idea however of monthly readers. I think that count would definitely add more social proof than the RSS number.

Corbett Barr June 30, 2010 at 10:38 am

Yeah, RSS subscribers were the gold standard for so long. It’s kind of sad to leave it behind.

David Damron June 30, 2010 at 6:14 am

Feedburner is an option at The Minimalist Path but I don’t track it one bit anymore for the exact reason you note.

My suggestion…stick with the newsletter. There is more confidence, control and contact with it.

David Damron
the minimalist path

Karen June 30, 2010 at 6:46 am

I really haven’t noticed any major swings in my Feedburner stats. Maybe they are too low ;-)

I kept waiting for you to provide an alternative app to Feedburner for RSS but you didn’t mention any. There are a ton of other social media that we can be utiliziing, too, which you did mention though.

What do you think is your great conversion tool for new subscribers for your social proof?

Corbett Barr June 30, 2010 at 10:39 am

Hey Karen, I did mention FeedBlitz as an alternative RSS aggregation provider. People seem to really like that service and find it more reliable.

Andrew June 30, 2010 at 7:52 am

Corbett,

I like the idea of unique readers as well. Is there a way to pull that information automatically, or are you updating it every month?

Corbett Barr July 1, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Hey Andrew, I have set up a way to automatically update the monthly visitors number. It requires a bit of PHP code and configuration of your Google Analytics account. I may write a post here about how to do it shortly.

Betsy Talbot June 30, 2010 at 9:31 am

Corbett, I’m glad to know we’re not the only ones with Feedburner issues. Ours varies so wildly that we don’t even have it displayed. I love your suggestion for listing unique monthly visitors as “social proof” and think we’re going to use it. Thanks for another great suggestion on building traffic.

Corbett Barr June 30, 2010 at 10:40 am

Oh cool, cheers. Let me know how that goes for you.

Rob June 30, 2010 at 11:07 am

Corbett, am I missing something, or does the monthly readers just matchup with your unique visitors over the last month, and that’s the only factor? If so, I see this having just as much potential to be skewed as anything else.

If you write a post that becomes wildly popular because you threw in some iPhone 4 hype or something, it would detract from the validity. I suppose the same is true of subscribers, but it’s a bit harder to get someone to interact with your site (hit subscribe, then just land on it). I think if someones made the effort to “subscribe” to something, it still holds a good bit of weight, even if the technologies behind it aren’t rock solid at reporting. I have to think that’s going to be improved in the future. I’d concede that unique visitors is a solid measurement tool though.

Having said that, I’m beginning to take notice of people’s “twitter grade” or “klout grade” and facebook follower number as it tells me they have a certain level of interaction that someone genuinely interested in the topic might have and they have authority in it. The trade off is, maybe your niche just doesn’t use that service very often…then what?

Overall, which is most effective? I’d ask, shouldn’t you be paying attention to your followers instead of counting them? Heh.

Corbett Barr June 30, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Yeah, nothing is perfect I suppose. StumbleUpon traffic, for example would definitely skew monthly visitors in an unreliable way. 95% of SU visitors don’t really stick around. But I still contend that RSS is declining in popularity vs. other social media outlets.

Maybe someone needs to come up with a blog grader feature that takes all kinds of variables into account and assigns a score or rating or something. There’s a startup idea for you.

John Bardos - IdeaEconomy June 30, 2010 at 11:45 am

I have a question regarding the feedburner chiclet.

Why is the chiclet count always many multiples more than the number of readers shown in the ‘show details’ part of the RSS reader for any given blog?

The chiclet seems to count readers differently than my (google) RSS reader does.

Corbett Barr June 30, 2010 at 12:31 pm

Sorry, not sure I get your meaning here. Do you mean that the Google Reader number is different from the chiclet number? In that case, Google Reader is just one possible reader. The chiclet counts those subscribers along with people who subscribe using dozens of other readers or methods as well.

Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot July 7, 2010 at 8:26 pm

Lol, I slaved my guts out building my subscribers up to 1000 when I felt they were big enough to display them for “social proof”. Very shortly after Feedburner started messing with my head by randomising the number of subscribers, knocking hundreds off when they felt like it. I’m sure they did it to mess me around!

But retweets and commments aren’t bad either as is the monthly readers thing:) Thanks for the idea, might give it a go!

Farnoosh August 6, 2010 at 7:27 am

Annabel, you are not alone! And Corbett, thank you for telling me my site is not the one that goes haywire day in and day out with subscriber numbers. I have decided the only true number is the highest :) ! And I remain happy! Thank you for a great post and please do keep convincing Google to optimize Feedburner. I really don’t want to go over to Feedblitz or just to email…>Do you think for ~500 subscribers, it is a good idea to go to a paid email service? Love to hear your thought on that!

Corbett Barr August 6, 2010 at 8:44 am

Hi Farnoosh, I’m glad to help make you feel better. Who knows what the real “true” number is, but I tend to look at the high-water mark also myself.

As for using a paid email service, it really depends on what you want to do with your email subscribers. If you’d like to send out updates to them (aside from blog posts), or send an autoresponder series or add extra stuff to your email template, then yeah, a paid email service is the way to go.

Gary Arndt June 30, 2010 at 7:55 am

Feedburner would have to do it. They could continue to have wild swings in the background, but no one would know it.

Corbett Barr June 30, 2010 at 10:37 am

If you don’t want to use the chiclet, you could also just pull the FeedBurner count using PHP, and use the 7-day high water mark as you suggest.

Beth June 30, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Hi Corbett,

This is what I was going to ask you about. Is there an easy way to display the monthly visitors on the home page of our sites?

Corbett Barr June 30, 2010 at 2:43 pm

Well, not “easy” per se. It requires some PHP code and some configuring of your Google Analytics account.

Let me know if you’re interested in the details. Otherwise, you could just look up the monthly uniques periodically and manually update your number.

Beth June 30, 2010 at 3:54 pm

I’d be interested. Others may as well — might make a good post as you indicated earlier, I think.

By the way, your posts here continue to be really helpful and therefore, valuable; thanks.

Jonathan Vellner May 1, 2011 at 5:46 pm

I would really be interested in a post like that!
Actually, I was just pondering this same question, RSS vs Email, and what stats to share as my reader count. I just started my blog, so the truth is that no matter which stat I go with, it won’t be very flattering. But, it would be good to decide on a reader stat now, and watch it grow.
Monthly readers sounds best, and if there is a way to have that update itself automatically then even better!
Thanks for the post.

Gary Arndt July 1, 2010 at 8:29 am

I think there is a market for a WP plugin there.

Farnoosh August 6, 2010 at 9:08 am

Thanks Corbett, I also watched your video on the survey partnership with top sites in your niche and I thought it was extremely good – i haven’t finished it yet but I like the authenticity so far! Thank you.

On the email service, I haven’t really put together my thoughts yet and that is why I hesitate but a few blogger friends have told me I MUST do this and I wanted to hear from you the benefits of being on the email service esp. before I invest on it. If I had it, I would touch my subscriber base with a bi-weekly or monthly update. I would think I need to ask their permission to join first, since being a subscriber to the posts is separate from being one to the newsletter. Do you have one? Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!!

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