Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Why FeedBurner matters

When someone you’ve known for over 10 years says your company doesn’t matter, it’s worth giving the subject a little thought. Erik gave me a heads-up that he was thinking about this, and I didn’t discourage him from posting about it.

Before I go into the substance of Erik’s comments, it’s important to note that when Erik and I get together (which is sadly nowhere near often enough, now that we’re 1000 miles apart), we couldn’t be more different. He’s an electrical engineer, I was a liberal arts major. He can program, I can’t. In the nearly 12 years that we’ve co-authored a technology column together, he’s often taken the cautious, pragmatic approach to technology. I tend to more eagerly embrace stuff, play around, and try it out. That I’ve owned — and, in many cases, evangelized — products and services in Erik’s top 10 list doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. TiVo? How can you possibly hate TiVo? That’s practically un-American. (And Erik asks, “Is television really that good?” Dude, you haven’t been paying attention. 24. Lost. Battlestar Galactica. The Daily Show and Colbert Report. Sopranos. I don’t think we’ve ever had this much groundbreaking television available at the same time. Ever. And without TiVo, and my ability to transfer what I want to my computer to watch while traveling, I’d never be able to watch it.)

Anyhow, on to his comments about FeedBurner. At its core, Erik’s concern is that we don’t do a good enough job explaining what we do to newcomers. Point taken. When your audience ranges from individual bloggers and podcasters to USA Today, that’s quite a challenge — and one which we’re well aware we have room to improve upon. But for Erik to conclude that because we don’t communicate our value well enough, ergo, we don’t provide value, well, I don’t buy it. It’s hard to reconcile that position with this comment , or this one, or this one (be sure to read Mike’s commenters on that post), or this one. You get the idea. Hell — Google says there are over 200 instances of people writing FeedBurner rocks!

As to Erik’s worry that we sound like the early website purveyors, he’s just off the mark here. Whether people want a feed at feeds.feedburner.com or their own subdomain, the actual file URL is irrelevant to us; we’re not pitching the URL as a value-add at all. In fact, the “permanence” of the feed URL is often touted by bloggers as its own benefit: as they change their site’s plumbing (moving from Blogger to TypePad, or Movable Type to WordPress), their feed URL doesn’t change even though the application generating it does. While more technically sophisticated users might know how to tweak their webservers to hide this change from end users, most bloggers and podcasters don’t. The fact that FeedBurner ensures consistency for subscribers helps publishers.

Later on, Erik write:

On my weblog, I have thousands of HTML pages and only one feed. Why would I want to let a third party host this one file? Feedburner can add bells and whistles to your feed, but any webmaster worth his weight in salt can modify a website’s feed to do everything that Feedburner does. How hard is it, really, to add an “email this” link to your feed?

As for reasons you’d want FeedBurner to host your feed, in no particular order:

  • Stats. Traditional web statistics don’t reveal anything meaningful about your readership. How many subscribers do you have to your feed? What programs do they use? Which content in your feed are they reading? None of this information is easily obtainable by hosting your feed yourself. This may not matter to Erik, but it matters to the majority of our 140,000 users, many of whom log in repeatedly throughout the day to see what they can learn about how their content is being consumed.
  • Feed usability. When a user clicks on a feed today, they’re likely to see raw XML. I know what it is, Erik knows what it is, but most non-tech-savvy users don’t. And one publisher I spoke with recently said that as near as they could tell, 80% of the people who clicked on their feed URL left their site. Why? Because they thought something was wrong: no more pictures, fonts or designed pages: just angle brakcets and code. FeedBurner adds a stylesheet to your feed so that it renders better in a browser (here is mine); in addition, we add tools to add content to your feed (incorporating content from other services Erik doesn’t like, Flickr and del.icio.us, among many others).
  • Feed enhancements. FeedFlare lets publishers add interactivity to their feed (and the open API lets users build their own pieces of Flare, for others to use). That may not be of importance to Erik, but judging by the rapid adoption of FeedFlare by our users, there are tens of thousands who find this kind of enhancement to be quite useful. Are we saying we’re the only ones who can do it? Of course not. But putting it all in the same place as your stats and other feed management services means you have a one-stop-shop for getting more out of your feed.

Erik’s a smart guy, and I don’t take his critique lightly. As mentioned earlier, we’re working hard on revising the ways in which we explain ourselves to potential users. But I suspect that Erik doesn’t need some of what we offer — for instance, the stats may not be particularly useful to him, as knowing the number of subscribers or what they read wouldn’t likely affect how he writes on his blog.

Bottom line? Erik and I see a lot of things differently (he’d probably hate Lost and Battlestar Galactica, which is almost as bad as hating TiVo, but whatever). We’ve each had our fair share of good calls over the years. This is one case where I remain convinced that I’m in the right place at the right time… And Erik may eventually see that we provide a broad suite of services that let publishers get more out of their feeds. As is evidenced by his comments throughout his post, he’s not really looking to get more out of his content right now. For those that do, we’re listening. Tell us how we can get better.

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