When Google Reader launched new subscriber figures earlier this week, I touched base with Google to find out if they’d be doing a real top blogs list rather than the ad-hoc ones now out there, plus how often the stats were updated and a few more things. Answers have come back from Google Reader product manager Nick Baum. Will a top list come? He can’t say. But he did say figures are updated roughly every day and anyone with a subscription is counted, regardless of whether they read the feed. Longer answers are below.
Question: Why did you start reporting counts?
Nick: We had the data since the subscriber stats launch in February, and we figured it could help users make better decisions about which feeds to subscribe to.
Question: Will you do a top feeds list?
Nick: We generally don’t discuss future plans.
Question: How often are the Google Reader figures updated?
Nick: Dailyish, though they might occasionally fall a bit behind.
Question: What to the figures mean? IE, does the count show anyone who has a subscription? Only those who have a subscription and have actually been monitored to have read an item from the feed in a set period of time? Anyone who has that particular feed in their subscriptions?
Nick: Anyone who has that particular feed in their subscriptions.
I sent the questions along before Mashable did its very nice look at how default feeds work on Google Reader and how these mean many who might not actually read posts from some blogs are counted as readers just for having a subscription. As you can see, Google confirms this is the case with Google Reader.
As Mashable also noted, this is the case for many other feedreaders. Moreover, it’s true for any feed, regardless of whether it is a default choice. Being a default choice just means you get many more subscribers faster.
I’d stop short of saying counting those who might not actually read a feed as a subscriber means those readers stats are bullshit, as Mashable called them. Instead, I think FeedBurner gave an excellent explanation last year about the difference between subscriber figures and reach:
FeedBurner’s "Reach" calculation is akin to the number of people who have opened the newspaper and actually glanced at the Sudoko puzzle, as opposed to the guy who lets his paper sit out in the rain and get soggy while he’s spending the weekend in Medicine Hat. He’s still considered a subscriber, but just can’t get to his feeds right now.
One interesting thing would be for FeedBurner to post reach figures, rather than subscribers figures. Similarly, the services that report these figures to FeedBurner and others might adopt this metric. Of course, the screams would start as everyone’s counts suddenly dropped!
Still, subscriber figures are also useful. Sure, that "newspaper" delivered might not get read — but someone is taking it and potentially will be reading it.
We’re going to take a closer look at feed stats and related issues in the near future. In the meantime, I’d encourage people to also read FeedBurner’s View of the Feed Market from earlier this year, which also addressed the entire default feed situation:
Many aggregators offer a set of default feeds for every new account, or provide "bundles" of feeds by category. These feeds will get disproportionately high subscriber numbers at specific aggregators.
This prelude sets up what we think is a better statistic for measuring market share: Engagement. Audience engagement, which is to say, people reading feeds and people clicking on feeds – is how we’ve increasingly been interpreting feed subscription numbers to better understand market penetration.
Also worth reading are SEOmoz’s Why Feed Tracking is Hard and Problogger’s Why does my Feedburner Subscriber Count Fluctuate?