Design, RSS and Internet Explorer

Fraser Kelton talked a little bit yesterday about blog design, the memetrackers and the effect of both (or either) on a blog’s RSS subscription count.

rsslogoI’ve been thinking about and actually charting my RSS subscription numbers for a couple of weeks now trying to pattern out where my subscribers are coming from and why they do or don’t stick around. I haven’t arrived at any conclusions yet, but here’s what I’ve figured out so far.

First, My Tragic Template Tale

Fraser was responding in part to a post by Jeff Jarvis bemoaning the limitations of blog templates. In large part I agree with Jeff, but I think that limitation is really a function of the connected structure of the internet itself. By that I mean even if you didn’t use a blogging platform and hand created your web site and all the articles/posts thereon, you’d run into the same problem. Why? Because blogs by definition have to make it easy and efficient for search engines, other blogs and desired web applications to easily mine them for data.

For example, blog platforms have to know where to put and not put new posts, old posts and other content so the Technoratis, Googles and memetrackers can identify new content, index it and extract the relevant portions. I’m sure if you were a code writing guru you could accomplish just about anything you wanted as far as your blog template goes, but if you went too far into uncharted territory, none of the search engines could find your content. Those of us who have had problems getting indexed correctly by Technorati are exhibits aplenty for this proposition.

But there are other problems related to blog templates that make me crazy. My blog template is the result of hours and hours of work, both by me and a CSS-guru friend of mine. We worked very hard to get the 3 column layout to work the way I want it to. Now it does. But as a result I am highly resistant to any major changes to my template, because of the resulting change to the look and feel of my website. So I am a slave to my template in that regard. But that’s only because I like it.

There’s an even bigger problem.

Because of my occasional partial RSS-feed problem that I can’t get anyone at Bloglines to address, much less fix (and it happens to other people as well) and because there is some evidence that the problem is caused by Blogger, who I use to publish, but not host, Newsome.Org, I have been in the process of trying to move over to WordPress. Another friend of mine is helping me do that- the biggest hurdle being the mandate to preserve the prior posts, comments and look and feel.

Well guess what? We can design a template that looks just like this one. In fact we (by we I really mean he) have already done so. The problem arises when we try to import my old content. Because of naming conventions and other problems, it is very hard to do. We’ll probably figure it out, but it’s a lot harder than it ought to be.

Porting blog content around should be easier. There need to be standards here, and as of now there are not.

Now About Those Subscribers

I have not been able to fully pattern out my subscriber situation.

But one thing I know, which supports Fraser’s Internet Explorer theory, is that I get a lot more web traffic than I do RSS traffic. Probably 10 times more, though the numbers fluctuate wildly.

By fluctuate wildly, I mean my subscriber count goes up and down, sometimes by hundreds in a matter of a day or two. Maybe this is normal, but sometimes, for no apparent reason, my count goes up or down by the hundreds. The overall trend is up at a good rate, but the chart looks like a day traders’ dream.

I also know that when I get linked by one of the mega-blogs, like Steve, Scoble, Doc or Hugh, my subscription numbers spike way up and then recede like a wave. Not all the way back, but I estimate that I lose over 50% of my new subscribers within a week after the link. I don’t know if that’s just me or if this is representative of a larger trend.

My web site traffic spikes when I get a link from a mega-blog too. But it recedes even more. I often lose over 75% of my web traffic spike over the following week.

Maybe this means I can’t write or that my blog is boring, but, again, the overall trend is very positive. My numbers are growing very steadily. But it’s a pretty wild ride if you believe the charts- like riding a bucking bronc up bloggers hill.

Obviously, the answer to part of the web traffic loss is that the hurdle to an RSS subscription is higher, but retention is probably greater, since you have to elect to unsubscribe. On the other hand the hurdle for a web visit is very low (merely a click) but there is no subscription to automatically bring you back. Plus, almost all of the RSS subscribers come first via a web link and won’t need to come back that way once they subscribe to the RSS feed.

But it’s still a wild ride.

My Conclusions

Nothing particularly mind-bending, but here they are:

1) A lot more people visit my blog via a web browser than via an RSS feed.

2) Web browser visitors are less likely to return.

3) Mega-blog links provide significant traffic spikes (thanks guys, please keep them coming).

4) Well over half of the mega-blog traffic spike melts away within a week.

5) A link from a big but not mega blog that shares your target audience will result in more long-term growth than a link from a mega-blog that doesn’t.

What this tells me, of course, is that getting to the top of bloggers hill takes more than a link from a mega-blog. It takes a regular flow of links from both mega-blogs and other blogs that share a similar target audience and content that attracts that traffic back to your content.