Why Feed Readers Need to Identify Their User Agent

Ever since Google Reader’s demise last year, a slew of new RSS reader services have been come to market, whilst older more established products like NetNewsWire have been given new life. The vast array of choice in services consumers can choose from is impressive. Many of these have slightly different approaches to how one consumes news, such as Feedly and Digg, which break away from the older approach of just subscribing to and displaying a list of feeds — not unlike treating RSS like email.

We at FeedPress are happy to report that most of the popular solutions out there expose their user agent. So what exactly does that mean to publishers? Well, it means that services like FeedPress can paint an accurate picture of who is either reading your writing, or listening to your podcast. From a content creator’s perspective, it’s crucial to know that you have an audience who’s paying attention to your work.

We launched FeedPress back in October 2012 with the intent on building the most robust and well supported RSS analytics service out there. As independent content creators ourselves, scratching our own itch was the primary impetus behind this project, as we were unhappy with what was available at the time. So that bring us to an important question: why would anyone build a news reader and not expose their user agent? This is something we’ve been battling for numerous months now. Whilst many services do this already, there are some popular ones that sadly don’t.

The well behaved

Below is a list of news reader services that do allow us to track subscriber counts (every self hosted reader like Fever, Tiny Tiny RSS, NetNewsWire, and others are counted in the analytics).

  • Feedbin (but no feed ID)
  • FeedWrangler
  • NewsBlur
  • Netvibes
  • Bloglovin (but no feed ID)
  • Lector
  • Bulletin.io
  • g2reader
  • HanRSS
  • Instacast
  • Xianguo (but no feed ID)
  • FreshReader

For those that don’t provide feed IDs, IDs correspond to different URLs which all redirect to FeedPress. This allows our analytics dashboard to provide a little more detail about what exactly is hitting your RSS feed.

The not so well behaved

Feedly

Feedly is an extremely popular news reader service. They claim to have 12 million users, so they are by far the biggest concern to us at the moment. Since they aren’t reporting their user agent, this makes it extremely difficult for content producers to tell if anyone is checking out what they do. We have made numerous attempts to contact Feedly via email and on Twitter (see our tweets here and here), however, they have yet to provide any promising information about if and when they will start providing this data. In September Feedly released an API, which we dutifully did all of the integration on day one with their provided sandbox access. We are now into November, and they still refuse to give us access to their production API. Meanwhile we don’t have access to anything and they make money out of your content.

Digg Reader

Much like Feedly, Digg has been unable to provide any convincing evidence that they care about publishers or that they plan on allowing third party analytics tools to track subscribers. We reached out to them via email and on Twitter to see if they would respond.

Email answer:

Thanks for reaching out. Our CTO says that will be in there either before or shortly after launch. It’s on his list!” — Veronica.

This was back in June…

We patiently waited several months and tried reaching out on Twitter in September. Here’s what they had to say:

That’s on our to-do list this month.

Unless something miraculous happens between now and the end of 2013, we aren’t entirely optimistic that they will be able to deliver what we believe should have been supported on day one.

AOL Reader

We were unsuccessful at contacting the AOL Reader team via email, so we instead tweeted them way back in June with the question below.

Hi, our users would love to know how many subscribers they have on AOL Reader. More info here: https://feedpress.zendesk.com/entries/24128856-How-to-be-a-good-feed-fetcher- … — Thanks!

We never did receive a response. Not wanting to push our luck, we let the months roll by and tried to reach out to their team in September. We finally received a response (if you can call it that).

Hi, we don’t have plans for that yet.

We provided a follow-up comment emphasizing why allowing analytics services to track subscribers was so important (there are plenty of writers who’s livelihood relies on paid sponsorships or advertising). A promise was made to let their engineering team know.

That’s good to know! We’ll send this over to our engineering team to prioritise.

Finally, we let a couple months go by and reached out to AOL again.

We don’t have a timeline yet, once there is, we’ll let you know.

What can be done?

We have and will continue to do our best to communicate and work with any news reader service that wishes to supply the kind of data that analytics services like FeedPress offer. If you’re using us (heck, even if you aren’t), we urge you to do your part and make your voice heard. If you chose to pay for a news reader service, please consider supporting one that has publishers at the forefront of their mind. As writers, artists, musicians, and podcasters, we all need insight into who’s following our creative work. Perhaps we live to create for ourselves, but it doesn’t hurt to know that people out there care about what we make.


About the author

Alex Knight. Is Product Manager at FeedPress. He lives in Vancouver, Canada, and is passionate about building awesome things that people enjoy, writing, podcasting, and audio production. He has 10 years of experience in SaaS in various web, marketing, publishing, analytics areas. Alex is also a student of Radio Broadcasting & Entertainment at BCIT.

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