Why Not to Switch to Partial Feeds

Filed as Features on March 24, 2008 8:44 am

When people first discover that their content is being scraped, they often overreact. When they do, their first action is usually to alter their feed to change it from “full” to “partial”, thus turning off the flow of content to the spammers.

However, in doing so they also turn off access to their site’s content to their legitimate subscribers and, generally, wind up doing more harm than good to their site. Worse still, though they do limit the impact some scrapers have, they don’t stop the problem itself and fail to mitigate against a whole slew of others that are repurposing their content.

In short, truncated feeds are not just a great way to turn off readers to your site, but an largely ineffective way to solve the issue of content scraping and spam blogging.


The Big Idea

Supporters of short feeds point to two very simple reasons why they have taken to only publishing part of their content in the feed itself.

The first is that, by requiring readers to visit the site to see the full article, they hope to drive more traffic to the site itself and increase interaction. However, this ignores the fact that many refuse to subscribe to partial feeds and that most click-throughs happen due an interesting headline or a desire to leave a comment, not a need to read content below the lead.

The second, and more difficult to argue, reason is that, by publishing only part of the content, when a scraper comes along and tries to grab the content from the feed itself, they will only get the few paragraphs provided and not the work in its entirety. By limiting the amount of content available, the spammer is discouraged from taking the content in the first place and, if they do, they do less damage and receive less reward.

However, the the flaw in this logic is that it ignores how scrapers find the content and how they use it. Spammers do not locate articles and feeds to pull content from based upon length, but through an automated process that detects keywords and phrases. They also obtain RSS feeds through large RSS lists, much like email lists, that are passed around and sold among the black hat crowd.

Either way, little evaluation is given to the length of the feed when choosing where to scrape from.

Finally, truncating the feed may not limit the benefit many spammers get from the content. For one, since spammers are typically targeting keywords, truncating the feed might increase the keyword density and actually help them. Second, many spammers are voluntarily truncating the feeds they scrape to avoid duplicate content penalties and reduce their copyright liability.

If spammers are truncating feeds on their own accord, clearly it does not hurt them too seriously.

Shooting Yourself in the Foot

Despite these limitations to truncated feeds, there is still a case that they may provide some limited protection of your content. However, that protection comes at an extremely high price.

Survey after survey has shown that users overwhelmingly prefer full feeds. Some have even said that they refuse to subscribe to a short feed and, according to FeedBurner, who manages over 800,000 feeds, there is virtually no difference in the click-through rate for partial vs. full feeds.

In short, truncating your feed will likely cost you a decent percentage of your feed readers and those who remain are no more likely to click through to your site than they were when the feed was full. Your site and your readers will most likely suffer due to your decision.

The bottom line is that any benefit that may be derived from truncating your feed, especially if you currently offer a full one, is vastly outweighed by the drawbacks. Content theft is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with, but it is not one that is worth crippling your site over.

Exceptions to the Rule

This is not to say that there are absolutely no situations where a short feed is acceptable, just that it is not worthwhile in the vast majority of cases.

The first exception is sites that do not depend upon the RSS feed as a means to attract new readers or maintain contact with existing ones. For those sites, a truncated feed might not a serious loss. Most mainstream media outlets, for example, do not offer truncated feeds and seem to not suffer heavily for it.

However, these sites have a great deal of name recognition and a large portion of their audience is comprised of people who do not use RSS. The vast majority of blogs have no such instant recognition and, since most blog readers are savvy with RSS, a proper feed is something that is expected and strongly preferred.

The second exception would be sites, such as the Blog Herald itself, that have used partial feeds for a very long time. In those cases, the audience has been built using partial feeds and the readers have shown that they don’t mind. For those sites, a drastic change, even one seen largely as positive, could cause problems with the readers if the main feed is switched and creating a second feed set to full may not draw enough attention to be worthwhile.

Either way, if you are considering switching your site to partial RSS feed, take an honest look at how big or small of a role your RSS feed plays in the promotion of your site and how significant of a loss it would be should a large number of those readers disappear.

If the idea makes you uneasy, then most likely a shortened RSS feed is a bad fit for your site.

Conclusions

Of course, the biggest problem with shortening your RSS feed is that it doesn’t make sense to punish the 99.9% of legitimate users of your feed to hinder the efforts of a few bad guys. It also doesn’t make sense to turn many of your RSS readers away in the false hope that you’ll get others to click through more regularly. Besides, you can monetize the feed itself and turn feed-only readers into a potential revenue stream.

When it is all said and done, there are no good reasons for switching a site to a truncated feed, just a series of bad ones. Yet, every day, more and more bloggers seem to make this decision and remain convinced that it will help their site in one or more ways. It is depressing, especially when you read the comments posted by loyal readers.

However, the good news is that many also make the opposite decision. They open their feeds up and either resume publishing full feeds or offer them for the first time.

The bottom line though is that the Web is a medium about choice. Those that offer their readers the maximum amount of choice in when and how to consume their content will, invariably, come out stronger than those who don’t.

There are better ways of dealing with the bad guys or earning revenue from your viewers than cutting off the easiest means of following your site. If you value your readers, you owe it to them to try those options first, before slamming the door in their collective face.

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  1. By Jeremy Steele posted on March 24, 2008 at 9:13 am
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    Just toss a fingerprint at the bottom of full feed posts – works well enough.

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  2. By Jonathan Bailey posted on March 24, 2008 at 10:29 am
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    I agree. That and, perhaps, embedding your CC license or another copyright notice. There is little to be gained from switching to a partial feed.

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  3. By Ronald @ RA Project posted on March 24, 2008 at 10:34 am
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    Jonathan,

    You make excellent points, but I would still challenge Blog Herald to at least experiment with full feeds to see the reader reaction. Simply because the site was built on partial feeds doesn’t mean it has to continue.

    Reply

  4. By Sean O posted on March 24, 2008 at 11:04 am
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    Didn’t I find your article off of a partial feed?

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  5. By Sue @ TameBay posted on March 24, 2008 at 11:49 am
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    I’ve been looking at where our content has been scraped to recently, and it seems in many cases, they’re just taking the first sentence or three of several posts and mashing them into one splog post. You’re right: the original feeds don’t really have anything to do with what the splogs publish.

    sites, such as the Blog Herald itself, that have used partial feeds for a very long time. In those cases, the audience has been built using partial feeds and the readers have shown that they don’t mind.
    Hope I’m not being inappropriate, but, I DO mind. Every time I have to click on your partial feed to open the whole post, it annoys me. I see “Blog Herald (3)” in Google Reader, and find myself hoping it’s three headlines that don’t look interesting so I don’t have to bother clicking. Sorry :-( but I thought you should know.

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  6. By Sue posted on March 24, 2008 at 12:00 pm
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    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think using the “excerpt” function in WordPress cuts the feeds off like the more tag does. Either way, there are two plugins I use that show excerpts on the site but still send out full feeds. One is Post Teaser, which automatically displays an excerpt to a length you specify, but doesn’t use the more tag, so it tricks your WordPress feed into sending the whole thing, and the other (which I use in the sidebar with the more tag) is Full Feed. Which does exactly what it says, which is the way WP used to do it.

    @Ronald, that is so true. Several articles have been posted about sending full feeds on here, but I still get only partials from the Blog Herald. Should be practicing what their writers preach. :)

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  7. By Michael Clark posted on March 24, 2008 at 12:30 pm
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    I also second the notion that BH should offer Full Feeds. Practice what you preach. I know you’ don’t want your home page super long, so you use the more tag, but maybe Sue’s suggestion of the Full Feed plugin would be useful.

    Reply

  8. By deuts posted on March 24, 2008 at 12:39 pm
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    If that’s the case, why is it that The Blog Herald still doesn’t have the Full Feed plugin installed so that the whole posts can be read in my favorite feed reader. I always encounter the “more” tag in this blog.

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  9. By Jonathan Bailey posted on March 24, 2008 at 1:04 pm
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    Ronald: I agree. I don’t control the RSS decisions on this site but I too would like to see an experiment. SplashPress did so with Performancing and things seemed to go well enough there.

    Sean: Yes, you did. But let me reiterate that there are situations where it might be appropriate and that I don’t control the RSS policy at the BH. You’ll find, on my sites, that I do use full feeds.

    Sue: I understand and no, I don’t think you’re being in appropriate. At least I take no personal offense. I actually subscribe to a great deal of partial RSS feeds in the format of Technorati and Icerocket watchlists so my RSS workflow is a bit different. Still, I do understand.

    Sue: Those are the two I’m familiar with. However, the way I achieved it on my site was to just edit the actual RSS file. There are instructions on the Web about how to do it. Worked fine for me.

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  10. By Armen posted on March 24, 2008 at 3:16 pm
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    I agree with some of the consensus above. Who said Blog Herald readers don’t mind? I know I do. This is a real pet hate of mine, so I’m going to stop now before I go off on a rant!

    Just to point out, I’m subscribed to BH, but I hardly ever click through, meaning, I hardly ever read the full articles of what they publish. This is one of the few times, so well done Jonathan.

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  11. By Jonathan Bailey posted on March 24, 2008 at 4:54 pm
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    Armen: Thanks for the praise. I have to admit I underestimated the animosity that many of the BH readers had regarding the partial feed on the site. I will have to ask around and see if perhaps there is any willingness to experiment.

    Thank you all for your input!

    Reply

  12. By Misti Sandefur posted on March 25, 2008 at 2:35 am
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    I too wish Blog Herald would switch to full feed. I will only click to read the entire post if it gets my attention within the first few sentences. To be honest, I don’t click to read the entire post very often. The reason is because I subscribe to RSS feeds to make reading the many blogs I’ve subscribed to much easier, and I want to see the full feed in my RSS Reader. With that said, if BH were to switch to full feed, you wouldn’t lose me as a reader. In fact, I would read more of your posts.

    Reply

  13. By Jonathan Bailey posted on March 25, 2008 at 7:13 pm
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    Misti: Thank you for your feedback on this!

    Reply

  14. By Jonathan Bailey posted on March 26, 2008 at 6:56 am
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    Chris: While it is an interesting idea, as I said in the article, FeedBurner has said that there is no difference in the number of clicks received by partial or full feeds. Many report more clicks on full feeds than partial ones.

    I’m not sure how or why that works, but I can not argue with the numbers…

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  15. By Chris Marshall | Martial Development posted on March 26, 2008 at 5:43 pm
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    Jonathan, you may be right. However, the article you referenced doesn’t actually give any numbers (“…I think…unlikely to…” etc). Considering that, and the fact that Feedburner is in the business of drawing traffic OFF your site…

    Reply

  16. By Lisa posted on April 5, 2008 at 8:29 am
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    Thanks for the mention but- I think you have me backwards! I posted that I dislike partial feeds and that I rarely go read the full post. I’m much more likely to click through to comment on a full feed than to see what the partial feed says.

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  17. By Rose posted on November 8, 2008 at 12:19 pm
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    You make good points, but I still publish on short. If bloggers really want to read what I’ saying they’ll come to my blog, if not then I guess I have lost a few readers.

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