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On RSS Subscriber Counts and FeedBurner Metrics

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Yet again, Twitter is burning about funkiness with FeedBurner subscriber counts cratering. The situation has gone on for too long and I now feel I have to write something about this, especially as (a) nobody from Google / FeedBurner is stepping up to the plate, and (b) enough, already.

Full disclosure: Since we compete with FeedBurner, feel free to use whatever size pinch of salt you deem necessary as you read.

How Subscriber Counts are Calculated

First a backgrounder. When you read your feed, it's been fetched from the source (such as FeedBurner or FeedBlitz's new FeedBurner alternative) and delivered to you by a piece of software: your browser; your online RSS service (such as Google Reader or Bloglines or FeedBlitz's email service); your desktop browser (such as FeedDemon) or a search engine or something else. Think of these different pieces of software as vehicles loading up on newspapers at your newspaper's printing plant. Some, like Google Reader, are big trucks and take lots of newspapers for delivery to lots of subscribers; some are just individual subscribers (e.g. individual FeedDemon users) in their virtual cars taking just their own copy.

When these aggregators visit FeedBurner or Feedblitz, we have to decide a few things when figuring out your subscriber count. Firstly, is it an aggregator / feed reader at all, or simply a search engine? This matters because search engines aren't directly contributing to circulation, so they don't affect subscriber counts just because they're scanning your feed for others to find later. The hit is noted but that's about it.

If it's an aggregator reading the feed, however, then bulk aggregators will (usually) report the number of subscribers they're working on behalf of using what's called the HTTP user agent header. So, in a sense, what that tells us is how big the truck is that just loaded up at our virtual newspaper press and who runs it. If on any one day that aggregator truck backs up several times, we'll take the maximum reported number of subscribers that day as the number reported for your feed.

For other desktop aggregators it's a little more involved, but at the end of the day FeedBurner and FeedBlitz total up the numbers and ta-daa: your daily subscriber count.

Problem #1 - Sampling

The thing is, both services report a daily subscriber count. A day is midnight to midnight in the relevant time zone (for FeedBlitz it's US eastern time and for FeedBurner I believe it's still US central time). So, for example, say an aggregator checks your feed just once every 24 hours (ish). Say that one day this aggregator checks your feed at 11:59pm (i.e. just before midnight) on day 1, not at all on day 2, and then at 12:01 am on day 3. That aggregator has, more or less, checked your feed once every 24 hours. But because it was a minute "early" one day and minute "late" the next there's a whole "day" where the truck didn't show up at all for the purposes of calculating your circulation. Result: zero subscribers reported from that aggregator on day 2.

This is a sampling error, in that the aggregator in question wasn't present in the sample used to produce your subscriber counts for day 2.

What you see (at least, in FeedBurner - we do things a little differently at FeedBlitz and I'll get to that later) is a cratering subscriber count and a good business day for coronary emergency departments around the globe. (OK, just kidding about that part).

In practice, most aggregators check feeds once every 30-60 minutes, so this kind of thing actually doesn't happen very often in the real world.

Problem #2 - Broken User Agents

Sometimes aggregators don't report their subscriber count at all (this has been a problem recently with Google's FeedFetcher agent, which pulls feeds on behalf of Google Reader and iGoogle). Sometimes user agents misreport the subscriber count. Our very own FeedBlitz's email service was guilty of this (*cough*) for some publishers a couple of days early last year.

The numbers reported by the user agents are what RSS services use, for better and for worse, to derive your circulation. GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) holds true here just as it does anywhere else.

Why I believe this does NOT explain FeedBurner's recent issues

[If you want to hold your nose because we compete with FeedBurner then here's where you want to do it]

Belatedly FeedBurner reported an issue with FeedFetcher. Basically they're saying "it's not us (FeedBurner), it's them (Google Reader's FeedFetcher)" - or, in other words, this is a case of problem #2 above. Nothing to see here, folks, move along, it'll be fixed soon.

I don't buy it.

Don't get me wrong. The Google Reader agent (FeedFetcher) was hosed a couple of times recently. Here are the Google FeedFetcher numbers for http://feed.feedblitz.com/feedblitz from the last 10 days as reported by the FeedBlitz logs:

DateFeedFetcher Count

So what you see is that Google failed to report numbers to us on two days - March 30th and April 2nd. (The large jump on 4/5 is that we at FeedBlitz discovered that, because of yet another quirk in Google FeedFetcher, that FeedBlitz was actually under-reporting Google's numbers, which we fixed for reports from 4/5 forward).

Blaming FeedFetcher only cuts the mustard as far as I'm concerned for problems with subscriber counts reported for 3/30 and 4/2. Since numbers are reported the day after, FeedBurner feed subscriber counts should have burped on 3/31 and 4/3 and then bounced back on 4/1 and 4/4. All should now be well again.

But it isn't. They're apparently off - again (or should that be still?)- today. Which begs the question that Google has yet to answer: WTF is going on over there?

Beats me.

I suppose there could be a reasonable explanation for this. Here are a few I thought of.

Perhaps FeedFetcher is using some sneaky internal-to-Google route to get to feedburner feeds now they (IMHO completely unnecessarily) moved everyone to Google domains, are using different code than they are for external feed fetching and so the FeedBurner is missing subscriber counts that everyone else is actually seeing.

Feels unlikely, doesn't it?

Perhaps it's sampling error combined with a broken agent then? That 1 hour difference between the FeedBurner and FeedBlitz "days." Perhaps FeedFetcher happened to stop reporting numbers after 1am eastern on all the FeedBurner problem days, so FeedBlitz saw them OK (between 12am and 1am) and FeedBurner didn't (because their day starts at 1am eastern), so there were more "days" when the count was zero for FeedBurner than for FeedBlitz?

I suppose it's at least possible. So I did a quick check. Looking at our logs, Google FeedFetcher reported susbcribers correctly on March 29th, obviously didn't on March 30th, but DID report numbers OK between midnight and 1am on the morning of March 31. So based on FeedBlitz's logs from the first incident I can't see the evidence for a sampling error problem either. (I didn't check the April date).

So perhaps it's just that FeedBlitz is new, and because we aren't hosting nearly as many feeds as FeedBurner (yet...). Perhaps the problem is not global to all servers running FeedFetcher but just to a few of the machines, and so we've merely been lucky to avoid seeing the problem. Well, OK, this might have some legs. But, OTOH if this is the case, it raises serious questions about FeedFetcher's QA and Google's roll out of new code into production. It's not as if the Google crew is short of money to fund these things properly. So, hmmm.

Perhaps someone from Google would care to comment here. For anti-spam reasons I moderate comments to this blog, but I commit to publish anything from Google here if someone shows up. I'll edit this post at noon eastern tomorrow (4/9) with any updates, errors or corrections based on these interactions, should they occur. If I'm wrong I'm more than happy to admit it and make the appropriate correction.

[Update: Noon April 9th - My update is in the comments to this post. Nobody from Google or FeedBurner has commented so far, and counts are broken again.]

Managing Sampling Errors and Bad Agent Strings Better

There's a more subtle question here, though. Knowing that sh*t happens, how can an RSS service avoid the yo-yo effect when subscribers come and go and user agent strings can get messed up? The goal here after all is to give you, the RSS feed publisher, the best insight into your readership.

I can't speak for FeedBurner but what we at FeedBlitz do is this:

1) In the reports we give you the unadjusted data for any given day. We report the readerships and so, if one of the "trucks" doesn't back up in that 24 hours timespan, it won't show up in that day's metrics.

2) But ... In the circulation chicklet we report a moving 3-day average. This smooths out any sampling errors, minimizes the impact of broken user-agent strings, and gives you a much clearer insight as to the true trend of your circulation. The dailies are always visible to you (see (1) above), but we believe that a moving average gives comparable accuracy with much better stability and, therefore, better results for you.

RSS Circulation, not Subscribers

Since we're on metrics, here's something else I believe that FeedBlitz does differently from FeedBurner. FeedBurner is an RSS company; they care about RSS susbcribers and that's what they report in the chicklets and on your dashboard. From what I've read it is my understanding (and, again, I'm prepared to be corrected on this) that FeedBurner does not count browsers in the RSS subscriber count.

In other words, if someone views your feed in their browser but does not subscribe (using either the browser's internal subscription mechanism or some other feed reader) then I believe that they aren't counted in your feed's total subscriber count from FeedBurner.

But, hang on a minute. These visitors are reading your feed content. So, if my assumption is correct, FeedBurner isn't counting them in your RSS subscriber count because they're readers, not subscribers. But because they're not on your web site (they're on FeedBurner's), your web analytics package isn't counting them either.

Yikes. There's a potentially significant population of "ghost" feed readers that nobody's accurately tracking. Continuing with my newspaper analogy, a subscriber who views your feed in their browser but doesn't subscribe is equivalent to someone who buys their copy of the newspaper at the news-stand, gas station, or the convenience store. They're not a subscriber to that newspaper, but they are part of the newspaper's circulation.

FeedBlitz tracks and counts these readers, because we're a social media marketing company. We care about all your readers no matter how they consume your content. Non-subscribing visitors are still viewing your content, getting your message, thinking about what you're saying. Such readers are therefore part of your feed's circulation too.

FeedBlitz therefore adds these readers to build a circulation (not a subscriber) metric. It turns out to be statistically significant. For the Feedblitz News feed yesterday (4/7/09) some 2% of FeedBlitz News' total circulation were in this non-subscribing category. If you exclude the FeedBlitz News subscribers managed by our email delivery service, this casual count is in fact the same order of magnitude as RSS subscribers from other (not FeedBlitz email) aggregators. That's an important number to understand and not to miss.

The $1.49 Question

So. If you're reading this far you probably care a great deal about your RSS subscribers and how they're reported. Perhaps you're really hacked off with FeedBurner's persistent volatility and unresponsiveness. Perhaps you're really, really annoyed with yo-yo metrics and, like me, don't understand why this should be so.

OK. How pissed off are you, exactly? If you thought about it in monetary terms, is your continuing annoyance and frustration greater than our minimum $1.49 /month fee? Or, more positively, is it worth at least $1.49 / month for you to have reliable, trustworthy metrics and a supported service?

Really? It is? Then start our 30-day trial at http://www.feedblitz.com/ (click RSS - New) so you can focus on what you do best and stop worrying about your metrics. I think we have a better service, but if metrics are what really get your blood boiling then, like I said at the beginning of this post:

Enough already.

Do something about it.

Switch to FeedBlitz.

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Blogger Ari Herzog said...

Appreciating your explanations above, it reads to me that if FeedBurner was not having any issues, you would not be gung-ho (and rightly so) asking people to sign up with FeedBlitz.

As an outsider looking in, that turns me off. You're a company. You're offering a service. It costs something for that service. Fine so far. But once you start attacking the competition and poking holes in this or that, I question things which leads to comments like this.

Oh, and it doesn't cost $1.49 a month. That's for the minimum number of email subscribers. My guess is the average blogger who signs a contract with you has far more than the 0-9 subscribers.

12:58 PM, April 08, 2009  
Blogger Phil Hollows said...

If FeedBurner weren't having issues, had continued to innovate and continued to deliver they way it used to, there'd be no opportunity to exploit; we wouldn't be on the RSS business.

But they do, haven't and don't. So we are picking up where they left off - that's the market for you.

People are more than happy to pay for reliable email - our rates are very competitive which is why folks like Gawker Media pay us to manage their lists for them.

And of course I'm gung-ho about my business! If I weren't out selling and promoting it then I think an outsider would have to be very concerned. And on my blog in my posts I will never not ask people to give us a chance. Asking for the order is part of building the business.

It does cost a minimum of $1.49. You don't have to bring your mailing list over. If you do, yes, the rate changes, but it's still exceptionaly good value.

It seems to me your remarks are that you don't like my promoting my business because an incumbent monopoly has left created an opportunity for a new entrant that the market desperately needs. And that when I make differentiating points you construe that as poking holes in the competition. I think there are issues there that are unaddressed because there were until now no meaningful alternativess. Now there is one. So I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on that one.

In this post I have reacted to a persisant problem that the vendor has not addressed. I've explained why it might tbe happening and pointing out why we take a different approach on some things. I at no point said "FeedBurner sucks" - they may be fine for most people.

I do think the silence from the Googleplex is telling and the things they say don't agree with the facts on the ground as I see them.

Fuerther, I think the market and players in it are entitled to ask "WTF" at this point. You did yourself, basically, in the post I originally responded to.

My 2c.

1:15 PM, April 08, 2009  
Blogger Ari Herzog said...

Your first sentence confuses me, Phil. I assumed--and perhaps wrongly so--that FeedBlitz is in business to offer a service, not to offer a service in response to another company.

Or am I mistaken and that FeedBlitz would continue to offer the same services and run the same campaigns for new business if FeedBurner and/or other companies were NOT having problems?

See my conundrum? FeedBurner has the monopoly, agreed. But is FeedBlitz a company trying to gain customers despite the monopoly or because of the monopoly?

1:29 PM, April 08, 2009  
Blogger Phil Hollows said...

We are indeed here to offer a service. The service needs to address a need, otherwise nobody will buy it. For that we need a market and an opportunity or niche to exploit.

That's what the first sentence is about. Were FeedBurner firing on all cylinders then the market opportunities would have been different, or perhaps we might have approached the issue from a different angle as we planned FeedBlitz's next steps.

But that's history and conjecture. FeedBurner *is* failing many people and we *are* here to offer a choice.

Google has unwittingly provided that opportunity. Competing against them is not a decision that is made lightly, believe me.

Having made the decision, however, we're fully committed. I think We have built what we believe is a better service. We're growing it and we're seeing increased market acceptance.

So we are doing this now because of the monopoly and its missteps (not out of principle).

We are also doing this despite the monopoly. It's *google* for crying out loud :-)

1:45 PM, April 08, 2009  
Blogger Kevin said...

I'm with you Ari, these lenghty posts attacking Feedburner are a turn off.

I'm a long term paying customer of Feedblitz and I use Feedburner to serve my feeds. To me, this Feedburner metrics thing is just a storm in a tea cup.


Because long ago I realised that of total readership of my feeds (several thousand) only a tiny percentage of them actually get them via RSS readers, about 97% get them via email through Feedblitz. So I stopped looking at the Feedburner numbers long ago.

So what if Feedburner's metrics miss a day occasionally. If you have 500 reader one day, zero the next, then 502 readers on the third day, you don't care because you know the zero day is an glitch in the (free) system. If you really thought you had lost all your readers on the glitch day, you should seek help :)

PS. Phil, I posted a comment/question re your blog post titled "RSS and SEO" - did you get it? If you didn't think it was worthy of publishing let me know and I will submit the question again via the support channel.

9:38 PM, April 08, 2009  
Blogger Phil Hollows said...

Hi Kevin:

I see your point but for most publishers the ratio of RSS:Email is the opposite of yours and the volatility in FeedBurner metrics is a huge issue. I'll be back to my regular programming for a while anyway :-)

BTW I will publish that other comment on the SEO post; I was busy with the metrics thing and so haven't got around to posting the screenshots I'll be using to illustrate the point. Will definitely get to that today.

8:26 AM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Phil Hollows said...

*this is the noon update as promised yesterday*

I promised yesterday to post any comments and corrections from Google or FeedBurner.

Nobody showed up from Google or FeedBurner.

I did post all other comments, including some that were critical of the post and my tone; you can read them above. It's been a lively and honest discussion.

At the risk of aggravating those who think I'm being unfair on the competition, this post was updated on the FeedBurner status blog yesterday (April 8) afternoon:


The update says it's fixed, all will be well.

Today (April 9th) it is demonstrably not so. FeedFetcher (the user agent that populates Google Reader) stopped reporting subscribers - again - on the afternoon of April 7th. As a result, subscriber counts are - again - borked.

Whatever "fix" was doesn't work. It got past FeedFetcher QA, production QA and (presumably) was accepted by someone in QA at FeedBurner prior to the post I referenced above being updated.

So today, FeedBurner's technology shouldn't be getting grief - it *is* feedfetcher's fault.

BUT - there are no status updates on the FeedBurner status blog. There should be. It's surely disingenuous to leave that post as-is given that it's at best deeply misleading?

Regardless, the acid test will be, once FeedFetcher gets what remains of its act together, how long it takes for the FeedBurner metrics to recover. With only two misses in the last 10 days or so FeedBurner's metrics were basically broken for a week. Time will tell if they do better this time.

So there you have it from where I sit. I guess I'll post an update here when and if FeedFetcher comes back so we can track how well everyone's counts recover.


12:10 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Phil Hollows said...

Kevin: I updated http://blog.feedblitz.com/2009/04/rss-and-seo-raising-bar_07.html for you with some screenshots. Hope it helps! Phil

12:56 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger John Nail said...

As someone whose entire business runs on RSS w/ over 300 feeds there, Phil is right in his assessment of Google/Feedburner. They have essentially abandoned their service and did a terrible job transitioning from Feedburner to Google.

The problems there all over the web and a real pain to deal with. Example - you can't get an OPML of your feeds their and haven't been able to for 2 months plus.Their major publisher tools were abandoned as well. Ads is all they care about not RSS like Feedburner did.

If you really want to control your feeds and get real data on them you can count on Feedblitz is the answer if you also use email as a major delivery source like I do daily.

Feedblitz is offering a much better alternative and it is essentially feed to its newsletter customers...

There is NO other service offering the breadth, depth and quality of Feedblitz and the posts here seem a bit odd to me.

Phil's metric comments are spot on and his SEO explanation is dead on. Feedburner offers a publisher zero SEO value or close to it. Feedblitz offers great value as Phil outlines.

Why is comparing or contrasting to an essentially abandoned service by Google unfair??

Phil didn't even get into the feed and server errors and downtime you now get which occur all the time often requiring multiple refreshes to get a page to load. That was NOT an issue before the Google migration.

If you really run a business delivering RSS based content to customers via musltiple channels- email, feeds et al there is no alternative close to Feedblitz now. I LOVED Feedburner but they are essentially useless now and will never get any better...and keep dropping the ball at every level with NO support from Google...

11:26 PM, April 12, 2009  
Blogger Tom Colvin said...

I'm a rather diligent and serious blogger, but I'm technically savvy enough to understand all that goes into tracking readership. Still, I DO follow stats.

I first became concerned last October when my WordPress blog crashed for a reason still unexplained. It was back up in about one week. My FeedBurner stats dropped from about 500 to about 175. I have no idea why. And my FeedBurner total remains on average at that level, with the frustrating flucutations you've noted.

According to my Hostgator stats, my level of "unique visitors" was about 5000 back in October. It's risen since 1 January up to 6000.

And I do not have a clue about how to correlate my unique visitors to my subscriber numbers.

My basic question is: Can anyone point to a source that clearly explains all the varying readership numbers that come in from different companies? I am very confused -- and frankly so depressed by it all that I'm considering turning off the computer, after 2-plus years of blogging, and watching TV instead.


6:39 AM, April 13, 2009  
Blogger Phil Hollows said...

Hi Tom:

No matter what, keep writing! Don't let differences in metrics get to you. Whatever you're usng as you rguide, as long as the overall trend is in the right direction you're doing great.

Different services report different metrics because reasonable people can differ about what to count and when. Using feeds and a different service to host the data, life gets evcen more complex. We are trying to make a difference by enabling google analytics for click throughs from feeds we host (see http://blog.feedblitz.com/2009/04/rss-and-google-analytics-integration.html )

Stats diving after a site failure is probably a bunch of spambots deciding the site's dead and not to fetch your feed any more. That might be a good thing. People are much more tolerant of problems and those you have left probably care greatly about what you write. So don't give up!

3:07 PM, April 13, 2009  

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