Are RSS Subscriber Numbers Bogus?

Are RSS Subscriber Numbers Bogus?

Reader Comments (74)

  1. It’s a no-brainer for me with respect to “subscribers” – I want the true opt in person who’s going to regularly read and get value from my content. I want them to participate and make the community of content better. “Passive” or “bundled” readers look great but I’ll take my much smaller number of truly engaged readers any day. By the way, I’d like to invite all of you active blog readers to come take a look at our content and let me know what you think of it.

  2. An important factor influencing an answer to your question is the cost to generate each “engaged” reader. I could build a cost model to compare the two but would probably get an argument about the costs included in each numerator, given how content development and maintenance costs for a typical blog are spread around.

  3. I’d much rather have 100 subscribers who are passionate about the content and participate in making the discussion valuable than having 100,000 passive subscribers and a feeling that my posts are as effective as winking in the dark.

  4. I suppose I’d like some combination of the two. Right now we have a small but highly involved readership. Our challenge is that there is a huge population (book lovers) who don’t know we’re out there — and it’s a population that is made up of later adopters. So part of me thinks that being bundled in Googlereader might reach those that would never think of looking to see if a site such as ours even exists, once they do get on the RSS bandwagon.

    If I had to choose, though, I’d definitely take the smaller but more highly involved audience.

  5. I want real readers, but if having a higher FeedBurner number encourages more people to subscribe- and read regularly, that could be real helpful too!

  6. Hi Brian, I think honesty is always the best policy and I expect that when I see a FB count that it’s the subscriber count for that particular blog. I didn’t know you could bundle RSS subscriptions together.

    I thought this post was going to be about how people are displaying false FB widget counts by hacking their FB url and pointing to someone else’s feed who has high numbers, or displaying an otherwise hacked widget.

    I’m seeing more and more of this, brand new blogs that have almost no traffic in Alexa but state in their footer that they’ve been around for 2 or more years (with a newly registered domain) and they have a feed count of over 15,000.

    What do you think about that, have you come across blogs like this yet?

  7. I didn’t even know there were any bundles which goes to show you just how much I know about RSS. In any case, I’d choose the latter option, and hopefully most other people would too.

    It’s a matter of quality, not quantity. Would I rather have 10,000 readers who never commented, bought from me, linked to me, or read my stuff? Or would I rather have 4000 that interacted with my blog on a regular basis? That’s an easy one.

  8. I won’t lie, my feedburner stats are a little on the pathetic side (I haven’t done much in the way of promotion)… However, even though my blog is still pretty young, you’d notice that there are multiple comments on every single entry. THAT makes me happy.

  9. Bogus subscribers don’t build community on a blog; they just bog everything down. Real subscribers, on the other hand, actually add value to the blog’s content by contributing to the conversation. I’d much rather have a handful of valuable readers rather than thousands of moochers.

  10. My blog has 16,000 subscribers according to FeedBurner, but a “reach” of about 10,000 (at least, about 10,000 item exposures occur each day, and I post less than once a day). So.. in my case I don’t think the numbers are heavily inflated; most items are getting read by most users. Like CopyBlogger, though, my blog is very subject specific, the #1 blog in its niche, not included as a default within any sort of reader, and has a tight, loyal audience.

  11. It is easy for me, as a type-A personality to get all hyped up and/or depressed about my beginner’s blog stats.

    However, my most treasured comment was from an atheist, back a while ago, and we had a very nice dialog sharing each others viewpoints.

    I guess for me, do I want to hold a badge that says that I am the number one blogger in the land (which I have a propensity to do), or would I rather engage with a few people and hopefully make some life changing discoveries.

    I choose the later.

  12. Of course the goal of every writer is to gather a ‘readership’, and as a consumer, I’m more likely to go with Kelly’s definition of popular – the comments and the sense of community.

    However, those big RSS numbers are impressive, and from a business standpoint, they can give you a lot of leverage and position… if people like you would stop pointing out that they don’t mean anything.


  13. I prefer “attracting [my] followers the old-fashioned way” because then I know they voluntarily and deliberately chose to sign up.

    There’s a lot more power in that route, I think.

  14. I am one of those who rarely reads blog through rss feed,I prefer subscribing by email and only to blogs that I am dedicated to.The rss number on other blogs don’t bother me since i know that they can be manipulated atleast thats my opinion when i see outrageous numbers.I have been reading this blog for very long time now,i recently subscribed by email and am just dropping my first comment.I will rather have few number of people who really like reading my blog.

  15. Very interesting take on this subject, as I’ve given a lot of thought to numbers vs. engagement of late. Nothing makes you take a critical look at metrics like having your own product to sell on the Web, and at this point, it’s clear that the most meaningful metric is essentially an intangible one.

    When you run a site for an extended length of time, you really get a “feel” for how connected and engaged your readers are. Although there’s certainly something to be said for raw subscriber numbers and reach, nothing compares to true, voluntary engagement.

    I’ll take 500 die-hards over 50,000 incidentals any day. After all, you can run a hell of a business with 500 people who hang on your every word! Oh, and it’s worth noting that die-hards attract other die-hards, so this is definitely a win-win situation that has a tendency to perpetuate itself.

  16. What this says to me more than anything else is that the industry still has a long way to go to “solve” the issue of accurate reporting.
    Remember when “hits” was the metric everyone quoted for site traffic?
    The development of standardized, accurate measurements of audience engagement is undergoing an evolutionary cycle similar to what site metrics have followed. It should get better every year, including both qualitative and quantitative measures, partially thanks to discussions like this one.

  17. I think there are two issues here.

    First, even discounting the whole “bundled blogs” issue, FeedBurner is notoriously bad at keeping accurate numbers. So there is no real way to pinpoint the number of subscribers you have at any given moment anyway.

    But the second and most important point is that “subscribers” — even those who subscribe directly to your blog — do not necessarily mean readers. I’m sure there are people who read a blog, say to themselves “that was really interesting”, subscribe, and then never come back again…

    Either way, the numbers are bogus.

    That being said, these numbers can be useful to a certain extent. A blog with 10,000 bogus readers is still more popular than a blog with 100 bogus readers.

    But as others have mentioned, metrics like the number of people who actually read your blog, who comment on your blog, and who (gasp!) buy your products or services because of your blog are ultimately better measures of the “worth” of your blog.


  18. Funny. I read that post, wanted to blog about it, went on to other things, and immediately forgot. Then I read your post and get to relive what I was going to write.

    Here’s something I got from Christopher S. Penn: the only number that matters to him at the end of the day is how many people signed up for a student loan, because that’s the product he’s selling (on his company blog/podcast, not to him, personally, mind you).

    In my case, I’m not selling anything directly (yet), so I use the number as a gauge of how many people are finding my information relevant. I’m surely not in any auto packs yet, so I presume every single person in my count is likely a real person who chose to spend some time with me. If there are a few who are phoning it in, fine.

    Truthfully, I count comments more than subs. : ) Though I do screen cap my milestones.

  19. Numbers alone will never tell the true story. Robert Scoble wrote an interesting post on participation and noted that while others have higher numbers he has higher engagement. My mission for writing a blog is to engage a community so I would trade subscriber volume for higher engagement. However, as you pointed out higher numbers can be leveraged to drive deeper engagements with customers so in a perfect world I want both!

  20. I suppose we should hear from a blogger who is auto-included as an option in packages like Google Reader.

    There is no question my hope is that all of my RSS subscribers are engaged but bigger numbers can only help. Many of you have said you would rather have 500 engaged subscribers than 50,000 so-called bogus subscribers, but as someone in the position of being the fortunate recipient I wouldn’t give a single one back and depending upon the goals you have for your blogging, I suspect most of you wouldn’t either if you had them.

    The issue of suggesting these are somehow bogus is just silly. Being included in Google Reader is a windfall of being a Bloglines top 100 or Technotrati top 100 and not a lottery winning.

    If I could get you listed in a Google package for your favorite keyword would you take it? – you’re lying if answer no to that.

    These numbers, real or not in your mind, are the fruit of an investment that paid off. They also produce engaged readers at a rate far greater than without this exposure, help attract additional media coverage and attract advertisers interested in the numbers.

    As one who has worked pretty hard to achieve this windfall I can tell you my blog is worth far more because of it.

    I am quite certain that there are blogs out there that are far superior to some of those included in the usual suspects list, but you take what you can get and make what you can of it.

  21. People tend to flock to those that they think everyone else is following so high RSS numbers are good for that. And of course there are egos to be stroked!

    But for my business, which is an art gallery, I would rather have a group of highly engaged readers even if the number is smaller. I don’t believe bigger is better all the time.

  22. Doug, Copyblogger does a little over 13,000 feed views a day (over the last 30 days). Summer is slower than other parts of the year, but that should give you an idea.

    Ann, yes… a combination is what we’re looking for. High subscriber numbers are self-reinforcing, in that they lead to other quality subscribers.

    Buck, I think subscriber levels do influence advertisers (as John Jantsch just said in his comment).

    Pearson and Brogan, yes… the stat I check first in the morning is the money. Everything else is incidental when you’re in business.

    John, there’s no one that would turn down inclusion. My point is that engagement matters most, so even if you don’t have huge numbers, you can do quite well business wise. But as I stated in the post (and in this comment) social proof is self-reinforcing… and it leads to higher overall subscriber engagement levels, even if the ratios are out of whack.

  23. A group of us just had this discussion the other day, and I would far and away choose fewer subscribers that are there on purpose, engaged, and commenting. Because for me, the blogging isn’t just about what I push out there, but it’s what I get in return.

    I’m looking forward to growing my blog readership, but I’m happy to do it organically and more slowly if it means that I’ll have better conversations in the long run.

  24. Funny you should ask… I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. And did a little research.

    I had 388 visits to and 783 page views of my blog from 6/29 through 7/5. No more than 10 of those visits were from me, popping by quickly to “check in” while at work. Throughout the week, I had between 11 and 15 people access my blog each day via my Feedburner feed. I had 158 comments during the same 7-day period, so 40.7% of those visits (and 20.2% of page views) “produced” a comment.

    Another blog I read daily said she had over 7,000 page views last week. (I’m not sure what she counts as her “week,” but that’s really not the point.) She had 91 comments, so 1.3% of her page views “produced” a comment.

    Her blog’s goals seem to be different than mine (and neither are for business, so I know this whole comment is a bit off-topic). And we go about getting readers/hits differently; I have found a number of photography blog carnivals that I participate in each week, for instance, and she is active in a number of “networks” of bloggers and blogs for a few herself.

    It’s RARE that I don’t have at least a handful of comments for ALL my posts, regardless of content. I do know that some people leave comments just so I’ll visit them, too, but that’s o.k. Most of us have been there at one point or another.

    The really cool thing is that I “pick up” a new regular reader or two virtually every week.

    In short, I’ll take “enagement” over “numbers” any day.

  25. Speaking of things that are misleading, YOUR HEADLINE! 🙂

    “Are RSS subscriber numbers bogus?” As a measurement of engaged readership, yes, of course — but that’s not what that number is trying to measure.

    But the headline and much of your article dances around (though never states) some idea that RSS numbers (say, as reported by FeedBurner) are inaccurate. FeedBurner itself acknowledges that it’s number is basically an intelligent estimate (my words, not its), but that number is simply reporting the number of RSS readers that access an individual RSS feed.

    So is Fred’s 133,000 a bogus measurement of RSS subscribers? Not really. Is it a hugely overinflated number when compared with his truly engaged audience? Of course.

  26. Mike, my headline is a question that leads into a post designed to counter Fred’s assertion that RSS subscriber numbers are “basically useless,” and also give an example of situations where low engagement ratios make sense. Maybe you should go to his blog to disagree with his conclusions. 🙂

  27. I take a lot of time to provide hands-on usable information and so I would really want to get subscribers that hunger for the next post and will come to read it because it helps them. Of course being able to floss a high sub count surely would attract more subs but I would hope that my content would keep them coming back.

  28. I prefer community over plain numbers, however like many have said here, those numbers can help build your community. So yup, I agree, a combo of both is good – thus the RSS number isn’t useless in every sense of the word.

  29. Real, qualified readers – 100%. Bogus subscriber counts completely contradict the purpose of the web – to share information, connect and build relationships.
    Great post…

  30. Great point. I have had one heck of a time getting my first 50 subscribers but I also know most of them came from places like blog catalog and are misleading but I still dont think I am waisting my time as long as I am involved in different things in addition to gaining subscribers. check me out at

  31. It’s the old quantity vs. quality discussion. I tend to agree with John Jantsch’s post that I’ve you have the kind of traffic he has been able to generate you certainly take it. T

    here are obvious side benefits from it in terms of general web exposure and being quoted much more widely on other blogs, which in turn generates more intrest. Look at Seth Godin, his brand recognition and traffic are great and he doesn’t even accept comments.

    How important it is to have very engaged readers is a matter of blog objective.

  32. Seeing how I don’t seem to get either the 100k subscribers or 3 comments a post currently… sure, why not? I’ll take it!

    The problem is getting the numbers up there to begin with, it seems…

  33. This doesn’t seem like a fair choice. I can only see two reasons why a high number of “disconnected readers” would benefit a blog.

    1) Marketing: This makes you more likely to be auto-included in a reader or to otherwise encourage people in your target audience to “give your blog a try” Here the “fake” readers actually lead to real readers.

    2) Advertising “deception” To encourage an advertiser or a sponsor in by a high RSS feed number. This is at best a short term strategy though since if people aren’t reading your blog, any sponsor will ultimately be disappointed.

    Side note: I’m not talking about “lurkers” — people who read but don’t comment, those readers can be very useful for a variety of other reasons.

  34. I am very confused by the different kinds of stat counters and the different ways of calculating visitors.

    Does anyone know of a website (without an ax to grind) that explains all this so clearly and simply that even a copywriter can understand it?

  35. I’ve never trusted the feed numbers, but for a different reason. Feedburner only looks at feeds that go through them, not the feeds one creates on their own. I have no idea how to track those. According to Feedburner, I have no one subscribed to my feed, but I know for a fact that there are some people who subscribe. I guess I’m just not meant to know.

  36. @Frank Chloupek – I see what you’re saying but packaging your company name in with other products is nothing new and a sound marketing strategy.

    I once went to the book store and opened up a book only to find someone had left their business card in it. Was it deception? I doubt it.

    I don’t like however the fact that there are inflated RSS numbers out there that can mislead people into thinking how popular a site is.

    It’s an interesting concept because yes packaging is good, but to see the other side, wouldn’t it be better to not automatically subscribe people and instead just suggest?

    Ok it’s getting late and my mind is turning to mush.

  37. Call me crazy . . . but the “bundled” sites mentioned above have minimal response in their comment section. This site “Copyblogger” has fewer subscribers and more action where it counts – the comment section.

    This applies to other sites as well: ProBlogger, DailyBlogTips, etc. When you compare the two, and try to determine which is better; automated subscriptions through a “bundled” service, or “the old-fashion way” (as Brian puts it) where the reader subscribes on their own merit?

    I think the obvious answer is: “the old-fashion way”.

  38. @John J No one doubts the credibility of your blog or the effort you’ve put into building that subscriber number. But I also understand your need to legitimize those numbers even as some commenters paint them as somewhat bogus. My guess is that high subscriber numbers help you demand greater sponsorship dollars for your blog and other products

    A note on Feedburner: I have two other analytics packages installed on my blog and I suspect that in many cases, Feedburner under reports subscriber numbers. The page views reported by Feedburner are dwarfed by the analytics reports. It gives me little confidence in my Feedburner subscriber numbers.

  39. Thanks for that! I’ve often wondered how some blogs get over a 100K readers subscribing, and I thought that there must be some magical formula they use. But that RSS feed bundle makes a great deal of sense. Even so, props on getting that popular to be included in those bundles.

  40. I wrote about the Feedburner myth way, way back in…well, not that way back, February 2008. I think feed counts are temperamental and as mentioned here, if your feed is bundled with a reader then you can steal a march on other sites without even trying.

  41. Well, I can definitely tell you that I am one of the RSS subscribers! I may not comment on everything… but I do read most of the new things that come in. So thank you. 🙂

  42. Maybe we need to have a new metric, maybe something like “RSS Click Through Rate” telling you how many people who read the RSS feed actually went to the blog from it. That would be very useful.

  43. My subscribers are increasing and decreasing and I think I must believe that somehow, there’s a bogus about them.

    I also enjoy some regular commenters but of course, they are those who obviously just promoting their blogs.

    But I value them more because I know most of them are really enjoying what they are reading from my posts and I also get the chance to check their blogs and learn from them too.

    Moreover, commenters are more likely to see our ads.

  44. Hi Brian, Interesting post.

    The same can be said for lots of statistics. In fact, Fred’s article mentioned Twitter followers, FriendFeed stats and other stats.

    When I see people go from 0 to 4,000 followers in the space of two weeks on Twitter, and they’re someone who claims to be in one’s niche (a niche you know intimately, let’s say) but you never heard of them or their site, then you know they’re gaming the numbers by mass following. (And often by mass following and then immediately unfollowing people who follow them so that they appear very popular with lots of followers with a tiny number of people they follow — I know that tune all too well having been on the receiving end of those games).

    And gaming the system has been done forever for Alexa rankings and Compete rankings and rankings that average citizens are not even aware of — often to attract advertisers.

    What isn’t recognized about FeedBurner numbers is that the blogs mentioned as being part of the small biz bundle were among the earliest writing regularly in that niche — and sticking with it — since 2002 – 2003. Those are all long-timers. And they’ve worked tirelessly to market their blogs, both online and off. Longevity and persistence have a lot to do with FeedBurner subscriber numbers.

    That said, engagement is the real key, I agree.


  45. Anita, I completely agree. Again, I want to make it clear that my only point is that people with fewer subscribers, but high engagement, can do really well with their blogs. But they should also look at their increasing subscriber numbers as a “rich get richer” scenario that escalates their growth, just like it has for you and John and other long-time quality bloggers.

  46. While it is true, I do tend to quickly rate a blog by its tally of subscribers, if I scroll through several posts and see few or no comments, those subscriber numbers lose quite a bit of credibility.

    In terms of my own blog, which is only a few weeks young, I want subscribers to genuinely engage in my content, and stick to it because they find themselves invested in my observations. I would rather have 100 ‘followers’ than 1,000 ‘subscribers’ any day.

  47. I decided a couple of weeks ago to remove feedcount. I realise there are probably reasons why readers may care to know, so they can judge community etc, but Feedburner bounces so much one day you can have 3112 (as with last week) but then it can drop to 2506 and the bounce back to 3005 and then up again next day and then down…………… it becomes meaningless and really only reflects the ping rates of iGoogle, Bloglines and Snarfer etc.

  48. Fred’s post sparked discussion with us, too, and as you know was the perfect example to illustrate what we were NOT trying to capture/analyze with our social engagement analysis experiment. (Congrats again on your Top 5 position!)

    As publishers or other types of web participants, before we get to what numbers represent (e.g. a click years ago to subscribe, or an avid reader?) we find ourselves questioning the numbers, their sources, and the methodologies to gather them in the first place. Google Analytics, Alexa, Technorati — are the results ever the same?

    That said, data and info management for publishers is still pretty embryonic, so we need to start somewhere. I don’t think any of the standard metrics and sources are “useless”; you just need to be aware of where they come from and their limitations.

    As importantly, too, is knowing what you want out of them. One of the most important things that’s come up in my research is that, numbers aside, it’s the connections, conversations, and learning that takes place that’s the real value to measure — the real engagement. Except it’s so personal and subjective that you can’t, really. And it often takes place via channels that can’t be recorded and processed.

  49. I don’t know how many people are like me, but I would much rather not subscribe to a site that interests me and have to make a conscious decision to visit the site, than subscribe and not even read what comes in.

    For instance, I visit Copyblogger a few times a week even though I never subscribed to it, whereas I hardly visit some of the sites I have subscribed to. I find that receiving those regular emails tends to become annoying, and I get to a point where I seldom read them.

  50. I’ve watched my feed numbers soar lately, but my visits have only inched up. But inching up is better than inching down.

    I try to encourage people to subscribe via email instead. I actually get a good number of regulars who click through and read.

  51. Thanks for the explanation on the bogus RSS numbers. I was not familiar with the auto sign feature for subscribing to feeds.

  52. I think this is a no-brainer. Having a large number of subscribers is certainly much better than having a smaller number with “good participation”. Your large membership could as well include a smaller set of dedicated followers. This in no way dilutes your focus.

  53. On my blog, I’ve always been more interested in having fans than passers-by.

    And I look at engagement (comments, link backs, etc) as a better measure of success than subscriber counts.

    Although it’s always fun to see your subscriber count moving steadily in the right direction. 🙂

This article's comments are closed.