What If No One Actually Visits Blogs?

Last week, I installed a WordPress plug-in, Open Web Analytics (aka OWA), that provides a pretty good snapshot of how much traffic a blog receives and how it gets there.

OWA isn’t significantly different from Clicky, Mint, Google Analytics, etc. but, for whatever reason, it hammered home the message that the number of people visiting my blog is fairly insignificant. Rather than be disappointed, this reality is interesting because, I think, there are lots of people are reading my blog judging by the 1,600 or so FeedBurner subscribers.

What’s happening is most people who take the time to check out MET – and I thank them for investing some of their time to do it – are doing so through an RSS reader. And I think you could make the same argument for many tech blog readers. Of course, the widespread use of RSS readers should not be a surprise given tech blogs attract tech-savvy readers who should know all about the benefits of RSS.

The upside is you have lots of readers even if only a handful of them actually visit your blog. The downside is many people never see your comments, the plug-ins you’ve diligently hunted down, your cool blog design or any advertising. For those of us not trying to make money from blogging, this is alright. But for people looking to make money from blog advertising, this is far from ideal.

Here’s an interesting scenario: what if RSS readers become more ubiquitous?

What if people who read political, gossip, entertainment, automotive, health, sports and science blogs start doing so through RSS readers as opposed to visiting a blog. How would that affect blog-vertising if, at best, all a reader sees is a small ad in your RSS feed? Would these ads generate enough revenue to make blogs viable economically? The answer, I think, is no.

The question that begs to be asked is whether RSS is a bad thing for blog-vertising? If people stop visiting blogs, do advertisers think twice about allocating some of their dollars into blogs? Maybe.

Let’s look at the counter-argument to the evilness of RSS.

While RSS is an efficient way to read blogs, it doesn’t give you the full experience. If you believe that comments are as interesting and valuable as a blog post, an RSS feed is going to be unsatisfying. If you want to see a blogger’s personality and things like their blogroll and interesting widgets, RSS ain’t going to do the trick. If you’re into fashion or celebrity blogs that feature large photos, RSS might not fit the bill.

Still, I do believe RSS is moving into the mainstream at a rapid clip as services such as Google Reader make it easier than ever to read and subscribe to a variety of content. At the same time, content producers are embracing RSS as a distribution vehicle.

This means blogs and advertisers using blogs will need to quickly adapt because the landscape is changing as we speak – and read.

More: For some thought-provoking perspective on blog traffic, check out Rob Hyndman’s post looking at quality vs. quantity.

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  • Alex Barrera

    You nail the question. It’s something it’s been bugging me for a while. I can give you two ideas. First, you can set your RSS so that it only shows a preview of the actual content (Dear Arrington used this exact trick in the latest post about Viral Videos). Second, you can, instead of using RSS, use OPML (or even a new version of RSS) so that you can add more ads/design. Probably as RSS becomes more mainstream we will eventually see a new RSS version (or even OPML) that supports a more ad-driven structure :)

  • Alex Barrera

    Ah I forgot, you can always create a subscription RSS, but I think that defeats the actual purpose of blogs :)

    About the comments, you can always syndicate the comments or, as some blogs do, add a counter with the number of comments at the bottom of the RSS item. As before, we’ll probably see an evolution on the RSS version so that comments can also be append to an RSS item. Maybe you want to be the first to propose it? ;)

    For the record, I do click through the RSS and onto the website to comment on something I think is worthwhile :) (See this comment hehe). I suppose a big part of subscribers tend to be very shy. Just take a look at TechCrunch. They have 165K subscribers but normally they tend to get something around 30-50 comments per post. The ratio is quite small.

  • Mark Evans


    I agree that RSS is going to change to make it more advertising friendly.

    I do wonder whether partial RSS feeds are actually effective. Do they make people visit a blog or do they encourage people to keep on trolling down their RSS blog list?

  • Omar

    You know, this begs a question, what IS a blogger? Are they primarily writers? Or as you’ve pointed out, does the page itself, the design and plug-ins make blogging something more?

    Personally, I think it helps to focus. If you’re a designer, then do design stuff. If you’re a writer, then focus on writing. The problem of course is that the current blog mentality forces both types of people to do everything. Obviously it’s a pretty broken model. Wouldn’t it be nice if writers could just focus on writing, and not have to worry about selling ads, content, design, etc?

    The current model is fundamentally broken, and your post about RSS just highlights that.

  • Mark Evans

    Writers just focused on writing while others take care of advertising and design – it sounds like a newspaper. :)

    Seriously, you make some valid points but I think part of blogging’s current appeal is the ability to do and be everything. For many bloggers, this will probably remain how they operate while the pros (and A-listers) could outsource their non-writing activities. A good example is FeedBurner, which handles advertising for many bloggers who have a high enough RSS subscriber count.

  • Alex Barrera

    Mike, that’s a very good question. I suppose it depends on your audience. I read ycnews on a daily basis and they don’t have any content, just the link (maybe this is even better than giving half the content). I still use it, but tend to skip the ones I’m not interested in. So it all depends on your interesting_posts / %_of_interested_subscribers ratio. I suppose that if you have a big subscriber pool it might be worth it in an economical sense. The problem to me is that it seems as if that ratio might oscillate very fast, so getting real numbers on that can be problematic. Then of course, nothing assures you that the readers that do click for the extra content will get you ad $ :)

  • Johnny Bones

    You don’t need to change RSS readers to make them more ad friendly; you need to change your perception of “The Internet”. The net is a way to efficiently share and move information and data. Traditional websites are going to change significantly, as more people adopt the RSS reader as their main browser. Remember, the Web browser killed paper media. Now we might be seeing a second shift toward more efficient info routing.

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  • Gillian

    Hey Mark –

    I tend to click through from my reader when I am tempted to write comments (take a poll, see content that is not included in the post). Some bloggers write specifically to attract this kind of traffic from the RSS lurkers, and are up front about it. They may only do it once in a while, as a sort of ratings exercise.

    Love reading, in whatever window…


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