October 15th, 2007

Blog Feeds Have Garbage Subscriber Just Like Magazines

by

It’s really stunning how the more things change the more they stay the same in media. Blogs, perhaps the archetypal new medium, are showcasing their feed subscriber numbers, which turn out to be potentially rife with garbage, just like magazine subscriber lists. What’s worse, just like the magazines that pile up unread in people’s homes, many blog feeds are loaded with subscribers who NEVER read the feed and probably don’t even realize they are subscribed.

Pete Cashmore has a scathing expose on how blogs can pump up their feed subscribers by getting on feed reader services’ default feed list.

A default feed, in case you don’t know, is a feed which is presented to users on signup. Google Reader, for instance, pushes new users to these feed bundles: instead of searching for feeds you like, just grab a bundle on a certain topic. This is a great boost for those sites that can get themselves listed in these bundles: often by striking a deal with the feedreader company or being friends with the owner.

This is the blog equivalent of magazines that pumped up their circ numbers through shady third-parties like Publisher’s Clearing House, which essentially get people to subscribe to stuff they don’t want. Sound familiar?

Here’s my recommendation for everyone in the blog media space — go befriend a magazine circ director (I can recommend a few people if you’re interested). They will open your eyes to the realities of subscriber lists — it can be, at its worst, a dirty little business, with lots of artificially inflated numbers and lots of false value never delivered to advertisers.

And lot’s of scandals waiting to happen.

So also do yourself another favor and read up on magazine circulation scandals (and newspapers — plenty of circ scandals there, too). Realize that the circ game has been around for decades, and what blogs are finally waking up to is as old as the hills — lots of hard lessons learned out there.

Comments (21 Responses so far)

  1. Great points Scott! We had the same issue with Sunday coupon runs – this was with newspapers not mags but the same issue nonetheless!

  2. Scott, your post is very timely. I know a couple of “people formerly known as Bloggers” who are wrestling with these issues.

  3. does compete count visits from rss readers
    http://siteanalytics.compete.com/mashable.com/

  4. I work in a library, and we routinely get two or even three copies of some publications when we’ve only subscribed to one. We know what they’re up to, and our patrons don’t complain because we give away the extra copies.

    I’ve often wondered though, why it is major national publications would sink to this kind of quite-obvious fudging of their circulation numbers. Don’t they think their subscribers notice?

  5. Great post Scott: I was in newspapers and was knee-deep, daily, in circulation wars and the trash that comes with that game.

    I hope bloggers can steer clear of this but as you point out, many of us will learn the hard way.

    vb

  6. As one who works in new and traditional media…

    Inflating readership is the status quo in both mediums. If you don’t fudge your numbers, you’re fighting on an uneven plane.

    The practice is especially rife in e-newsletters – publishers has software to track how many people are opening emails – but they report how many are sent out.

  7. I think Google has solution for it , where it only allows people in news to comment. Perhaps that is the solution?

  8. I am always sort of surprised when I see an otherwise technologically sophisticated blogger proudly displaying a widget listing feed subscribers. It is one of the most unreliable web metrics. It’s a modern version of the “hit counter” from the bad old days.

    Web metrics are imperfect to begin with. RSS metrics are even less reliable.

  9. scathing expose on how blogs can pump up their feed subscribers by getting on feed reader services’ default feed list

    Er, what evidence did Mashable include that blogs intentionally “pumped up” their numbers?

    Pete gathered some great data on what appear to be Google errors, but drew lousy conclusions.

  10. @Scott Lawton,

    So if I know my subscriber numbers are inflated by my feed being on default feed lists, and I display my Feedburner feed count without any caveats or footnotes, then I’m not really “pumping up” my numbers, right?

    Right.

  11. @Scott Karp: thanks for engaging; that’s one of many reasons I love blogs.

    So, if I know my (page views) are inflated by (undeclared robots) and I provide Sitemeter stats to advertisers ….

    So, if I know that the Technorati 100 counts all sorts of things that aren’t links in posts …

    Er, no, I don’t think that providing objective (if flawed) third-party data (or internal server logs) is “pumping up”. Every data source has flaws, including the ones that companies pay big bucks for.

    Nor would I fault a blogger for trying to get on a default list, not least because some of the “incidental” subscribers will become real readers and commenters.

    Pete did a great service by finding some very specific problems with a small number of blogs. I won’t be surprised when I see genuine scandals around bloggers who cross very bright lines in order to artificially boost their numbers. But neither you have provided any such evidence.

  12. @Scott Lawton,

    You’re right that all these third-party data sources are flawed — but sitemeter, for example, miscounts everyone in the same way. Proactively getting your blog added to a default feed list is a different matter entirely — sure, a small percentage of default subscribers may convert to real subscribers. Some people scammed into subscribing to magazines end up subscribing. That proves nothing.

    There may not be any true “scandals” yet, but Pete’s data shows how slippery the slope is. Taking subscribers in bulk from third-parties is what got magazines and newspapers in a heap of trouble. That comparison to blog feeds is just to striking to ignore.

  13. I can’t agree more.
    The practice is especially rife in e-newsletters – publishers has software to track how many people are opening emails – but they report how many are sent out.

  14. @Scott Karp,

    As an aside: the reason I’m pushing back is because I have high standards for “blog journalism”, and I think you (and Pete) do too.

    Proactively getting your blog added to a default feed list is a different matter entirely

    I disagree, but in any case: with zero evidence that any of the 91 blogs did so, where’s the “scathing expose”?

  15. It’s impossible to read everyday all the posts in all the blogs we subscribed. First lesson for bloggers should be: write just what is important, don’t write for wriiting, your blog will join the trash bin. Lack of space is a plus of tradicional media.

  16. Perhaps, Google has solution for it, as they have only allowed people in given news to comments rather than opening up to everybody.

  17. Great…maybe the fact that I don’t have a lot of feed readers means that my readers are very serious and use to come directly to my blog……or maybe nobody cares about my blog.

  18. I would have to agree with KirkB. What use is there for this counter? I am not a fanatic blogger – but am an ardent blog reader. I don’t care about counters at all.

    Same on Linkedin and people advertising in their username the thousands of contacts they have. What is the purpose other then revving the engine and burning rubber.

    The only ones that should pay attention are the marketers and advertisers who are sold eyeballs. Don’t mind that role reversal for a change.

    Cowboys will get caught out sooner or later.

    Cheers

  19. [...] og Feeds Have Garbage Subscribers Just Like Magazines So also do yourself another favor and read up on magazine circulation scandals (and newspapers — plenty of circ scandals there, too). Realize that the circ game has been around for decades, and what blogs are finally waking up to is as old as the hills (tags: blogs) [...]

  20. Not to mention all the blogs that I have subscribed to, that I am actually interested in and that I just don’t have time to read.

  21. But who are we too complain? You write yourself it’s an old game played by Magazines and newspapers for decades. Still advertisers advertise in those same magazines, newspapers… so why wouldn’t it work for blogs [they pump up their numbers a little, artificially, advertisers advertise on their blogs, people buy the advertising stuff; it's a working cycle]. And now and again a bog will go too far, just like papers get punished sometimes (they can not inflate too much you know; blogs will have to know their limits as well).
    As long as advertiser and “publisher” can agree on a price to advertise; nothing is wrong.
    It’s the market, silly!

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