The social web has almost relegated website traffic to a shoulder shrug of a statistic  for some. But the number of people of visit your website or blog is an important measure of your reach or exposure. However, many people make a mistake in analyzing or even determining a website’s traffic. And the social web is partially to blame.

RSS feeds change not only the metric, but the information you’re looking for. Here’s why:

Provided you are following the sage advice of social media and/or Internet marketing counsel, you’re publishing content on your website. Perhaps it’s a blog. Maybe it’s company news or other information run through your content management system. If your CMS was created in the last four or five years and isn’t called Cold Fusion (little developer’s joke for ya), it probably produces an RSS feed, or XML file of content updates. Hopefully, you’ve let visitors know the feed is available should they choose to subscribe to your website’s changes.

The problem with RSS numbers - Items posted is much different than items actually read.

The problem with RSS numbers - Items posted is much different than items actually read.

The shift in thinking then comes because those who access your website’s RSS feed often do so in a feed reader like Google Reader or Netvibes. These readers display the content from your website without a visitor ever being registered there. Someone read your blog post, but your web analytics package never registered any data.

RSS allows people to access your content, not your website. So the information you are looking for is no longer web traffic, but content traffic. And content traffic is measured both on and off your website.

So how do you determine your website’s traffic in the world of the social web? It’s not as simple as you may think.

First, you need to know your website’s unique visitors. Your analytics software will tell you that. Then you need to know your RSS analytics. To find this, you need to run your RSS feed through software packages like Google’s Feedburner, which is free, or a competitor like FeedBlitz, which is a paid service, but cheap and more reliable. These services not only help you manage your subscribers, but analyze and present  you with metrics about how your RSS feed is used.

Now, you may think you take your unique visitors and add the number of RSS subscribers and there’s your content traffic. But it’s not that simple and that number is going to be unbelievably inflated. Not to mention, some people click through the feed to your website and are, thus, counted twice in that scenario. The thinking here is flawed because the total number of RSS subscribers is not representative of the number of people who do something with your feed.

According to Google/Feedburner, the RSS subscriber total represents the number of services (not people) that access your feed for distribution. While there are roughly 9,500 people who subscribe to Social Media Explorer’s RSS feed, if 100 of them abandoned Bloglines a year ago, but didn’t shut down their account, those 100 people never access the feed even though Bloglines still pulls the data for them.

Fortunately Feedburner has a metric in their analysis of your feed called Reach. This number represents the number of unique people who have either clicked on your feed (driving them to your website) or read your feed in a reader. However, I could not find a delineation between “click through” and “read.” By that rationale, unless Feedburner has some hidden metric, there’s no 100-percent, accurate way to know how many people consumed your content. You don’t know how many clicked through to subtract from your unique visitors.

To make matters more confusing, if you download your Feedburner statistics (Excel or CSV file) you can identify the number of “item click throughs.” However, this number is greater than that of the Reach metric on my reports, so you don’t know if that’s click throughs to your site or clicks on headlines to expand your feeds or something else. In fact, if it were either of the first two, the Reach metric should be the larger number.

Clear as mud?

My assumption is a better set of metrics can help you with FeedBlitz, but I’m testing it now and have not yet seen their full reporting. If you use it, please help us with a run down: Can you pull data that tells you how many people read your feed vs. how many people click through to the site?

For now, I would tell people that while my content traffic is an inexact number, I calculate it by adding my daily unique visitors to my Google Feedburner Reach number. There is some overlap, but using August 31 as an example, there were 981 absolute unique visitors to Social Media Explorer. Feedburner says 246 RSS subscribers did something with my feed. Thus, my content traffic was 981+246 or 1,227 people.

As inexact as it is, this is what we have.

Or is it?

Analytics folks, unleash your wisdom on us in the comments. Tell me if my math is wrong, I missed some metric feature. Or, even better … tell me there’s an easier way to do this. If I’m not seeing it, we all want and need to know.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog and signature Explore events. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://twitter.com/BillPowell Bill Powell

    Another challenge to this scenario is when Facebook is connected to your blog via RSS, I'm sure it counts it as one reader, even though I read your blog post on Facebook.

    Connecting your blog's RSS feed to Facebook will divert traffic from your blog and allow your friends to stay on FB to read and comment. This idea, pointed out by Grant (@colorburned) caused me to rethink automatically having the FB-blog connection.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Good point, Bill. Because of the complexity of the analytics-RSS alone, I didn't dive into social network metrics for your content. That adds another layer of work to figure out how many people consume it all. But that's certainly something to consider, not just for the Facebook effect on the RSS numbers, but your content positioned off-site as well. Thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jaykrall Jay Krall

    Hey Jason, great post. I agree that RSS is one of the murkiest areas for measuring reach. I haven't seen anything more recent than last year's Forrester report on the state of RSS but it said 11 percent of people online are using it. So I think your stats show that it's much heavier utilized by your community than most blog audiences, which makes sense.

    I've shared your frustration with trying to get a sense of RSS traffic through Bloglines or Newsgator. It would be cool if something like Feedburner's Reach stat were available publicly like traffic figures from Quantcast or Compete. And I wonder how people who use a tool like FeedMyInbox to send RSS to email are counted. Interesting stuff, thanks again for the food for thought.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks Jay. All good thoughts. I think the end answer to all this is going to be that there are so many RSS features and aggregators and feed manipulators that we'll never really know how many people see our content. But it would be nice to have a baseline idea.

  • http://www.mackcollier.com/ Mack Collier

    Something else to remember about Feedburner, it also counts Friendfeed subscribers. So if someone is subbing to you on FF for your great pics on Flickr, they are still counted as a 'blog reader' by Feedburner.

    I think with most traffic-tracking services, it's best to look at trends, and spikes. If the spikes happen you need to understand what triggered the spike, and for trend, as long as it's increasing over time, that's fine.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      I would agree that trends and spikes and understanding them are more important, but surely in the digital age we can find a way to count things. That's all I'm saying. Math geeks built this stuff. Certainly they can find a way to quantify it. Heh.

      Thanks for stopping by Mack.

  • http://www.businessesGROW.com/blog Mark W Schaefer

    There is certainly a business opportunity for somebody here. a) This is very basic, important information, especially when you are trying to monetize and b) Non-tekkies (like moi) simply do not want to deal with this shit!! You should not have to figure out work-arounds and multiple platforms to determine how many people are reading your blog.

    Thanks for untangling things (kind of!) JF!

  • http://www.businessesGROW.com/blog Mark W Schaefer

    There is certainly a business opportunity for somebody here. a) This is very basic, important information, especially when you are trying to monetize and b) Non-tekkies (like moi) simply do not want to deal with this shit!! You should not have to figure out work-arounds and multiple platforms to determine how many people are reading your blog.

    Thanks for untangling things (kind of!) JF!

  • http://pauloflaherty.com Paul OFlaherty

    Unfortunately the “science” of calculating your traffic has become far to muddied and perhaps irreparably damaged.

    Oh for the days when everybody relied on Alexa Rank and Page Rank.. LOL

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Alexa? Bwahahahahahaha!

      Thanks for the chuckle, Paul.

  • http://www.iwritemarketing.com CarlPhelps

    I like how you pointed out the difference between people clicking through to your content and actually consuming. This is not only true for RSS feeds, but for your site's unique visitors as well. It is basically impossible to determine how many people actually consume your content. The best you can do is look for spikes, like Mack said, in visitors, and track engagement.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Agreed, Carl. Thanks for chiming in.

  • RichBecker

    You are absolutely right Jason. I like that you've tied to reach too, which indicates a potential audience as opposed to an engaged one.

    There are a few public relations firms we are tracking that are creating virtual client silos; meaning they subscribe the clients to each other, creating an artificial audience. It's like reverse astroturf.

    Well done,
    Rich

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Ugh. Thanks for the head's up on RSS astroturfing. There's another area we'll need to factor in and fix from the landscape. Wheeeee!

      Thanks for stopping by, Rich. Much appreciated.

  • KeithBurtis

    Jason, I am just starting to dig into feedblitz with a new project at http://www.oddpodz.com. So far I love it. I am ok with feedburner, but feedblitz has more versatility. I promise to leave a more detailed outline in the next few days.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Awesome! Let us know.

  • M.

    As far as I know the main RSS reader services only report the number of subscribers and not that of real readers, so there is no way to know if they are indeed reading the content (I have thought about counting the images served, as the RSS reader services “download” the content but not the images), but I would welcome other solutions :)

    As an example, I provide a few logs from my web server:
    x.x.x.x – - [30/Aug/2009:07:21:03 +0200] “GET /blog/?feed=rss2 HTTP/1.1″ 304 – “-” “Bloglines/3.1 (http://www.bloglines.com; 5 subscribers)”

    x.x.x.x – - [30/Aug/2009:08:01:18 +0200] “GET /blog/?feed=rss2 HTTP/1.1″ 304 – “-” “Feedfetcher-Google; (+http://www.google.com/feedfetcher.html;
    30 subscribers; feed-id=0000000000000)”

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks for the data. It's funny how inconsistent and inaccurate our digital world really is, isn't it? Thanks again!

  • http://www.SocialMediaCommando.com JoeMescher

    Social Media Metrics…

    <Rubbing temples>

    Not to mention the fact Twitter may be sending you 500% more traffic than your GA stats are crediting your blog. Good to track all possible points of entry and consider the overall equation, indeed.

    Props to Danny Sullivan for writing a thoughtful, well researched piece on Twitter Traffic vs GA stats:

    http://bit.ly/9QHAy

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Awesome! More inaccurate stats. Wheeeee!

      Thanks Joe. Nice link to Danny's piece. Thanks for sharing that.

  • http://thegeekgiant.com geekgiant

    Your bar napkin math at the end has me confused as well… You say “but using August 31 as an example, there were 981 absolute unique visitors to Social Media Explorer. Feedburner says 246 RSS subscribers did something with my feed. Thus, my content traffic was 981+246 or 1,227 people.”

    But that's not an absolute. How many of those 981 were RSS subscribers who wanted to, say, comment on the post? Never mind if your analytics package is counting spiders/bots etc… as a visitor.

    Analytics and metrics are imperfect. Server logs are the only true test of how many different ppl came to your site. But those don't exclude crawlers, bots and social media gurus.

    As an aside, your FeedBlitz box to the right shows one RSS reader…

  • http://www.blindacre.com/ BlindAcreMedia

    That's how I would calculate it too. I use Google analytics to help with this. I check the reports often, but only calculate everything at the beginning of every month, keeping track of the previous months

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    Fantastic post. I really like your writing style very much. Thanks for the head's up on RSS astroturfing. Thanks for sharing. Keep blogging.

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