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.
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.