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Creating the perfect (trackable) blog article

Categories: Metrics understanding, Plugins & Hacks / Comments: 15

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Tracking RSS blog feeds presents a problem for on-site web analytics tools such Omniture, WebTrends and Google Analytics. Why? Because as the name suggests, on-site web analytics tools measure visitor activity whilst on your web site and so cannot track activity that happens off site.

For example, consider the following scenario: A visitor arrives on your site and likes the blog content so much they decide to subscribe. All activity – from the visitor arriving, viewing pages and then subscribing to your feed is tracked. Note, that even though a RSS subscription usually takes place off-site e.g. to feedburner.com, this can still be tracked using the virtual pageview technique (you could also use event tracking to capture this information). This provides you with an indicator as to the interest of your RSS content. That is, the number of subscribers. All well and good.

However, so far this has all been on-site visitor activity, so it does not tell you what happens next…

Now that your visitor has subscribed, there is no need for them to re-visit your web site when you post your next article. Instead, they simply receive your content in their RSS reader and may never visit you again! Because reading an RSS feed happens off your website, you are not able to track this activity. You will not know if subscribers are reading or engaging with your content.

And that is the problem – your RSS subscribers can read your content, enjoy it (have great engagement, or not) and you will be totally unaware of one of your most important visitor types – your influencers. Unless that is, you make the following changes…

Tracking RSS viewers (using Google Analytics)

Although this example uses Google Analytics, the same technique can be applied to any on-site web analytics tool. Essentially, there are two important parts to creating a trackable blog feed:

  1. Crafting the article to entice RSS click-throughs – so they can be tracked on your site
  2. Crediting these to your feed using filters – to highlight RSS in your reports

1. Crafting your article to entice click-throughs to your site

This is key to tracking your RSS readers. If they don’t click through from their RSS Readers, you cannot track them. Nothing you can do about that. But what if you tailor your post to entice click throughs? Not by using special offers or free give aways (through that can of course be a method if you are an Amazon or similar large retail brand), but by how you distribute your feed.

For example, in WordPress*, you can alter feed settings to distribute only a partial snippet of your article. Therefore, assuming you have an enticing headline and first paragraph, those readers interested in viewing more will click through to your site and so be tracked.

This is a great way to track engaged RSS readers – casual readers of you headlines are screened out because they don’t click through (so are not tracked), while engaged visitors click through and therefore are tracked.

*Note : Although the default restricting of your feed is useful in WordPress, you are unable to control its length. The WordPress setting breaks your RSS post at a fixed length (around 300 characters). This can be frustrating to article writers who want more control. The excellent Better Feed plugin allows you to do control the snippet length using the standard article break tags <!–more–> or <!–nextpage–>.

2. Crediting RSS click throughs to your RSS feed

With engaged RSS readers now clicking through to your site and therefore being tracked, we need to bubble these up in your reports.

The issue with distributing your content via RSS, is that links within the XML format are exactly the same as your regular page URL links – they cannot be modified to differentiate RSS click throughs from "direct" or bookmarked visitors (this is the case for WordPress and Blogger).

The good news is that nowadays most people use a web based RSS reader such as Google Reader, My Yahoo, Bloglines, Netvibes etc. As these visitors are first redirected through the RSS reader service before landing on your site, they leave tell tale referrer information that can be tracked.

Good. So now at least we have the data coming in. But, tracked as referrers in your Google Analytics reports, these RSS visitors are hidden – they are buried with all the other referrals you receive. In fact, its a common problem with web analytics data – not being able to see the wood from the trees due to information overload. However, help is at hand by re-labelling your RSS visitors with a Google Analytics filter to highlight them in your reports.

This technique will sound familiar if you have read Tracking social networks with Google Analytics using filters.

Using Google Analytics, apply the following filter to re-label your Google Reader referrals:

Google Reader Filter

Other RSS filters can also be setup in a similar way – this is a Yahoo Reader filter for example.

The result is a report such as this:

RSS report in Google Annalytics
Referrals from RSS web readers re-labelled using filters

You could also set the filters to simply label the referrals as medium=RSS so that all RSS visits are aggregated and can be compared with other mediums such as paid search, organic search, email visits.

Update 11-May-2009 : It never ceases to amaze me the power of community… By coincidence Jack MacIntyre has just created two WordPress plugins to track RSS and track Tweets for you automatically. It only works for WordPress users and cannot differentiate Google RSS v Yahoo RSS readers, but its clever stuff – powerful and simple…

So now you have a method of tracking your most valuable blog readers – your RSS subscribers. Does this help you or do you have alternative methods of tracking subscriber reading habits? Please add your comment below.

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Comments

  1. At last, Feedburner integrates with Google Analytics: http://bit.ly/11AtTC. Does this mean my hack is deprecated..?

  2. I’d been using Timan Rebel’s RSS Link Tagger for this kind of link tagging for quite a while now, and have added this functionality, with his permission, to my own Google Analytics for WordPress plugin.

    Added benefit over the plugin mentioned above is that my plugin allows you to use hash based link tracking, and will, if you enable hash based tracking, automatically use hashes for your RSS feeds as well, which saves you the worry of duplicate content issues.

  3. RSS feed goes out with a link back to the news page and only a few lines or so of description and content to entice them. Thanks for the tips!

  4. gargi says:

    Is it possible to find complete path of visitor through google analytics.

    I don’t want to use Navigation or Entrance path which are only 1 or 2 level deep.

  5. Robert K says:

    Nice post indeed – I’ve made a news page based on this – RSS feed goes out with a link back to the news page and only a few lines or so of description and content to entice them. Thanks for the tips!

  6. Hi Brian, nice blog you have here.

    For users of WordPress and Google Analytics, I have created a plugin that will add campaign tracking to each post you make. The campaign variable is set to the post title, so you can see exactly which RSS items are bringing traffic to the site.

    It is a very simple install (there is no options page, it just works).

    See http://www.jackmcintyre.net/projects/tracked-rss/ for details. I am always looking for feedback, let me know what you think (or how it can be improved).

  7. Jeremy: I subscribed to emails on my own blog and the latest post came through with the page break in the same place as on the original post.

    I am not sure if this was always the case as I moved the Feedburner account over to Google earlier this year. But it certainly works nicely now.

    HTH, Brian

  8. Jeremy: Thanks for the heads up. Pity I messed up the permalink…

    I hadn’t considered email subscribers simply because for me (and the sites I have worked on), this has been very low numbers – typically much less than 5% of total subscribers. Out of interest what proportion of your subscribers are for email?

    It doesn’t look like Feedburner can be used to control email snippets in the same way as RSS – definitely a feature request for Google though!

    Shelby: It really depends on your article(s). For example, not every post of mine has a natural break/continue point – particularly if its a short post, so I don’t use one. See for example my post on ‘Why counting uniques is meaningless‘.

    I tend to write longer, more in depth articles, so there is a natural ‘page turner’ for people to use. When that isn’t an option try alternatives such as thumbnail images that require a click through to your site to view it properly, or ‘view this article in full’ link.

    That covers most examples, though sometimes I just accept that not every RSS post can be tracked…

  9. Great post, Brian.

    Like Internet Strategist, I’ve been asked by several readers to switch to a full feed. I complied.

    Before that, I used partial a feed for the specific reasons you stated. I’m thinking of switching back, though.

    Is this a case where usability and analytics collide? Of course I want to track more accurately, but I also want to give my users what they want/need.

    Any advice?

  10. intereye.de says:

    Very good and insightful post. I tweeted it and will implement it for my blog. Thanks!

  11. I am a part time web developer and now want to switch myself to Web2.0 Application Development, i was searching some stuff about Web2.0, Social Media, Social networking and Blogs, by passing Google Search i came acroos your website which has excellent resources of Web2.0 and e-Marketing.

  12. Karl Foxley says:

    I’m so glad I stumbled across this post today (found you on TopRankBlog.com. I was looking for a solution for increasing click-throughs from the RSS feed and the plugin you mentioned seems like a good fit.

    I’m going to give it a trial run and hope it has the desired affect.

    Thanks for posting.

    Karl

  13. I immediately added this filter to the analytics for my blog because if Google Reader is correct my RSS subscribers are predominantly using it.

    I intentionally used a partial feed but when Louis Gray specifically asked me to change to full feed I did. If you haven’t seen his blog I highly recommend it – and his Technorati rating is over 600 so having him reading and recommending my blog is well worth the change.

    Great tip on using a call to action to get your RSS subscribers to click through to your blog though. One way would be to mention the great discussion going on in the comments of your blog post.

    I just went one better and wrote an entire blog post about the benefits of visiting and commenting in at least some blogs. I’ve used it in this comment so you can easily find it and hopefully comment on it yourself.

    @Jeremy I always place the article break in the point of a post that leads to wanting to know what comes next. If there isn’t naturally such a place I create one specifically to get that click. You can see examples of this in every post I publish.

  14. Minor typo – but in the article headline. “Prefect” s/be “Perfect”? Feel free to delete this comment when fixed.

    Recommending the Better Feed plugin is helpful. 300 characters rigid limit is painful :)

    Do you know, or do you know of any estimates of, reduction of completing reading articles as a consequence of requiring a click part way through the article? This measurement technique suggests increasing effort before the break to engage users to click – which is probably good discipline for copy writing, anyway.

    I used to use FeedBurner to measure, but they’ve recently made that less helpful. I’ve got a web server log file parser to report numbers of subscribers – also partially accessible (Google readers only) in the Google Webmaster console. Can’t tell active subscribers, of course.

    And, a missing component. I have about as many users subscribed by email as by feed reader on my company blog. The email is a full (via FeedBurner) article. Any idea how that could be controlled and measured?

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