Measuring blogs, part 3: Tracking RSS the old fashioned way?

A reader emailed after my post last week about measuring RSS to ask “Why not slip a 1 pixel ‘webbug’ into the RSS feed?” Good question.

Advantages of web bug graphics:

  • Unobtrusive in the RSS reader’s pane.
  • A direct hit to your server, allows you to play games like feed views and unique users. Note I didn’t say page views or content views; more on that in a second.

That’s about it, really.

Disadvantages? Plentiful:

  • No referrer, no specific content tracking. RSS readers generally send “no referrer” per the HTTP standard rather than try to make up a referring URL (though some, like Radio Userland, refer back to a host page for their services). So you can’t track which content piece the reader was coming from.
  • Doesn’t always get forwarded. RSS items generally contain minimal markup, so an extra image tag inserted is sure to be noticed and removed by most bloggers. Why is this important? We care about the total reach that our content gets, on other peoples’ sites as well as our own. At minimum you won’t be able to count any references that your content gets on tech-savvy bloggers’ sites.

Plus, of course, any tracking system that relies on client side code can be exposed—and risks your readers’ alienation. And, as we’ve discussed before, alienating your blogging readers can be a sure way to invite shunning—and shrink your reach, but good. Kind of the opposite of what you’re trying to do in the first place.

And, by the way, this goes double for any more complicated embedded Javascripts or other solutions.

But what about embedding meaningful images, each with a unique name (perhaps associated with your article’s GUID), in each article? Kinda suggests that the photobloggers are the people most likely to get real tracking of how their content is read.

Of course, they’re also the most likely to get it stolen, renamed, and rehosted on someone else’s site.

This is starting to feel like the three laws of thermodynamics, which I propose we recast as the three laws of measuring RSS:

  1. You can’t win.
  2. You can’t break even.
  3. But you don’t want to get out of the game. Not if weblogs are worth one one-hundredth of the hype that they’ve received. (And I think they’re underhyped. Weblogs at Harvard? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.)