The RSS dilemma

People subscribing to the RSS feeds of VentureBeat or other blogs are no more likely to click back to the original site if they are reading “partial” feeds than if they are reading “full” feeds.

This is the latest finding by Feedburner, a distributor of ads within RSS feeds (see the blog post by Rick Klau, Feedburner’s VP of Publishing Services). And it has sparked quite a debate, over at John Battelle’s blog.

The finding is significant because it contradicts the widely held assumption held by publishers. If publishers offer a partial feed — that is, a feed carrying only one paragraph or so of every article, with links at the bottom of each article pointing back to the site — the assumption has been this will drive readers to click back to the site in to read the rest of the article. And if readers click back to the site, they’ll see more advertising, and the site will be able to make money.

Until now, publishers offering full feeds, or the full text of every post with no link back to the site, have been assumed to be leaving ad revenue on the table: Readers never go to the site.

Feedburner tells us, however, that many other readers actually prefer going to the site, because they see Flash and other video or image content that they don’t get through RSS.

However, for the RSS readers, or the readers that we can’t force back to the site, we’ll have to rely on advertising within RSS feeds, which remains frustratingly backward. Because of the standards used for RSS when it was created — specifically designed as a stripped down form — RSS does not allow for the insertion of Flash or Javascript-based ads.

However, the finding doesn’t really change anything for VentureBeat because we’ve always offered full feeds (except, of course, if you’re RSS reader only takes partial feeds, in which case the full feed is converted to partial). We’d often wondered how much money we were giving up by doing by offering full feed, and this finding suggests we aren’t giving up anything at all. For more on this, check out Battelle’s blog post. He’s threatening to offer a partial feed, to test the finding — and several readers have retaliated by unsubscribing..

RSS feeds are a conundrum for other reasons. This morning, I had a meeting with Flurry, one of dozens of companies that offer mobile-phone users a way to subscribe to RSS feeds like VentureBeat’s. Turns out, Flurry’s service isn’t yet able to distribute the few ads that we do carry in our feeds (i.e., served up via an arrangement with Feedburner). Flurry is working on a way to carry ads in feeds.