Subscriber Counts Now Mean Nothing

I normally start my day by reading my RSS feeds and checking my blog stats and assorted other things. Imagine my surprise this morning when I checked my blog subscriber count. I glanced at the number and was shocked that it was almost double. I figured there was something being double counted, so I continued to read my RSS feeds. That is when I found the FriendFeed post on subscriber counts:

So if you have 200 people subscribed to you on FriendFeed, and you’ve added your blog as a service on FriendFeed, now you can see those subscribers right alongside the subscriber counts from Google Reader, Bloglines, My Yahoo, and anyone else subscribed to your blog’s feed.

I understand that they are just trying to help, but the trend is what concerns me. First, let’s look at some numbers of a few blogs and FriendFeed users. This blog had 1544 subscribers yesterday. Today I have 2869 subscribers, with the gain mostly due to people subscribing to my FriendFeed account. Louis Gray’s blog had around 8000 subscribers almost a week ago. Today, it shows that he now has 13814 subscribers (he is louisgray on FriendFeed). Lastly, we have the Stay N’ Alive blog that had around 950 subscribers earlier this week. Due to Jesse Stay’s FriendFeed account, the blog now has 4730 subscribers.

Now, I am all for the ego stroking goodness of my subscribers growing, but the problem is whether this growth can be considered natural. I will not go into the true accuracy of the Feedburner statistics, but at least it was a benchmark of how many people were reading your RSS feed. FriendFeed puts a layer of abstraction between the blog and your readers. I know FriendFeed can drive some good traffic to the blog, but returning a subscriber count for the blog does not seem quite right. FriendFeed is an aggregator, so my subscribers are really subscribing to me, not my blog.

The real problem, as I said earlier, is the possible trend. Using FriendFeed, I post an update to Twitter and Facebook whenever I write a blog post. What if Twitter and Facebook started to report subscriber numbers because I post a blog link there? Granted, my subscriber numbers would not go up that much, but the inflation of those numbers would cause the subscriber statistic to be completely useless. My reasoning is that applications like FriendFeed, Twitter and Facebook provide you with passive subscribers. They get links to your blog whether they want to or not. People subscribing to your blog’s RSS feed did so specifically using their reader of choice.

Nothing against the FriendFeed team, as they have always been awesome, but I think the subscriber count reporting may be a bad idea. I would prefer that they remove the feature (not that I have a choice) and continue adding awesomeness to FriendFeed itself.

29 thoughts on “Subscriber Counts Now Mean Nothing

  1. I publish a full feed from my blog so subscribers get the same content they would have if they visited the site. I can lump that into traffic as if they were a site visitor.

    But friendfeed merely publishes a headline so those friend feed subscribers have a very different experience than the ordinary RSS or
    email subscribers. In looking at recent traffic, only 10 referrals out of 7,000 came from friendfeed.

    I agree with you. I think the FriendFeedAgg is a bad idea.


  2. Doug,

    FriendFeed can actually give you some decent traffic. It really depends on the topic and what else is going on that day. The problem I really have is that on FriendFeed (and other sites) you are subscribing to the people more than a specific service.

    The headline vs. full text thing is an interesting problem. Many media RSS feeds only give you a headline as well. The main thing it points to is the importance of your headline.


  3. I agree that FriendFeed is about subscribing to people… If you want to subscribe to a specific service, you don’t need FriendFeed’s mediation !

    I provide full text feeds and it may decrease page views, but on the other hand I’m pretty sure that most log analyzers underestimate the proportion of automated traffic from various spiders – Awstats for example misses some of them. So the resulting statistics probably exaggerate the actual readership.

    But in the end it does not matter : the difference between social media and broadcast media is that diffusion is no longer the leading metric. It is now all about participation and involvement.

    So unless you are out building brand awareness, the measure of success is how much you engage your readers. And if you really must quantify that, then you should focus on counting incoming links and comments.

    Page view numbers are so flawed that they are not even good as an ego boost anymore…


  4. Jean-Marc

    Pageviews are a somewhat useless statistic in their raw form, but they are not that bad as a relative measure. If your pageviews increase by 10% over the course of a month, then you can assume that things are going well. Specific numbers in those cases are definitely useless.


  5. You are right that even considering their flaws, pageviews still retain some usefulness as indicators. I believe that the same applies to subscriber counts, but with an even bigger grain of salt considering the amount of automated aggregation and filtering involved in stream consumption.


  6. friendfeed uses RSS to poll the blog, but then posts only a link (and an image from the post, if any).

    What would your input be for a site like socialmedian, where the full text of the article will be shown to anyone who listed you as a “newsmaker”. Should socialmedian report the subscriber count?


  7. DGentry

    Having SocialMedian report subscriber count is an interesting question. They do work a little bit differently as well, but I still get the feeling that it is not the right idea because the subscriptions are still people based. Socialmedian definitely starts to blur the line a little as well.


  8. I’m with you Rob. I want my subscribers in FeedBurner to be people that really subscribed to me directly. Sure, people occasionally read the link in FeedFriend, but it’s far more passive. They may read it, they may not. That’s not helpful (and probably horribly misleading).

    I don’t want a popularity count, I really want to know how many people are interested in what I am saying. If it reaches 0, at least I can go off and find another hobby …


  9. This is very bad! Of course I’d like higher numbers of RSS subscribers but this is a fake number. I hope they consider this again… and I hope it doesn’t give the idea to others like Twitter hehe…


  10. I checked my FeedBurner stats for my four blogs (where I saw order of magnitude increases in my subscribers). However, FeedBurner also includes a “reach” number which notes people who took some sort of action regarding the posts. At least for internal consumption, that’s a better measure of true commitment anyway.


  11. Subscriber counts have always meant less than the marketing hype around them wants us to believe.

    Sure, I know the Sunday Paper sends out, for example, 2 million copies. Does that mean if I have a quarter column article on page 42 it will be read by 2 million people? No. A lot of those papers go back, unbought. More end up in the bin (hopefully for recycling, at least) unread. The ones that have read probably haven’t read all the way through. How many read every word through the paper? A tiny fraction of that 2 million.

    Subscribing is like buying that paper. One step up from passively walking past and scanning the headlines, and no guarantee that your stuff is being read.

    Much more valuable are the counts of people who are actively relating to you, or your site. They not only read, but write comments, maybe refer people, buy your stuff and DO things with it – then send you testimonials to boot. Harder to measure but even more important is the quality of your relationship with them, as well as your more passive readers. Build that up enough and you may convert some of them to active participants.

    You hit the nail on the head, when you said these kind of subscriber counts are a form of ego stroking. Would I rather have a subscriber count of 20,000 or an active community of 20 people who I KNOW I’m making an impact with, changing their lives for the better?

    I’ll take the 20 people any day.


  12. Subscriber counts never meant anything in the first place.

    So what if 5000 people sub to your blog? How many actually comment on it or ever read it?


  13. […] Subscriber Counts Now Mean Nothing – Did you notice a big jump in your RSS subscriptions last week? Well, then you must use Feedburner and Friendfeed. Feedburner now includes people who have subscribed to your friendfeed, if your blog is one of the services that you include in friendfeed. I disagree with this and thinks it make the number of subscribers even more meaningless that they were before. When I subscribe to someone on friendfeed I am subscribing to that person, not necessarily that person’s blog. And now all I need to do to get more subscribers is get more people to subscribe to my friendfeed. And that is a lot easier to do than getting RSS subscriptions. […]


  14. Well, I guess I just don’t care in general how many people are subscribed to my blog . . . but maybe that’s why I have so few readers 😛

    I just appreciated reading good content and hopefully producing some here and there.


  15. […] Rob Diana takes a look at the numbers and wonders if they even matter. Diana would prefer the counts are removed. He saw huge jumps in subscriber numbers for his blog along with the blog of Louis Gray. Sure makes my boost of 17 subscribers look tiny! […]


  16. […] There is an opportunity for growth – When your content is on Friendfeed someone who is subscribed to you can ‘Like” your post and then the post will show up in that person’s stream so anyone who is subscribed to them will now see your post. I know FriendFeed can drive some good traffic to the blog, but returning a subscriber count for the blog does not seem quite right. FriendFeed is an aggregator, so my subscribers are really subscribing to me, not my blog. – Rob Diana […]


  17. This expains a lot for the sudden rise in feed subscribers I had since June 17th. The number wasn’t as significant as 100%, but that’s because I barely use FF.


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