Full Text vs. Summary Feeds

What the hoopla is all about.

It’s a hot topic among bloggers. Full feeds or Summary feeds? I’ve exchanged some words with a reader here about it, but I’ve always been sitting on the fence.

RSS Feed Basics

For those of you who don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, let me take a moment to cover the basics.

This blog (and its individual categories or topics) is available in two formats: HTML viewable in a Web browser and RSS viewable in a feed reader (or aggregator). The HTML format includes nicely designed pages (if I do say so myself), access to polls and comments, and full site navigation features. The RSS format includes just the most recent posts in whatever format a subscriber’s feed reader displays them in.

The benefit of the RSS format is that content is automatically delivered to subscribers as it is published. There’s no need to visit the site to see what’s new. The feed reader will automatically gather all new content for reading at the subscriber’s leisure. You can learn more about RSS on Feedburner’s Feed 101 page.

Full-Text vs. Summary Feeds

Bloggers normally have the option of creating feeds as full text feeds or as summary feeds. (To set this option in WordPress, go to Dashboard > Options > Reading. We provide full instructions in our WordPress book.) A full text feed publishes the entire content of each post to the feed, making it unnecessary for the subscriber to come to the source Web site. A summary feed publishes just the beginning of each post to the feed, making it necessary for the subscriber to come to the Web site for the remaining content of each post he wants to read. (In WordPress, this is only the first 55 words.)

It’s pretty well established that full text feeds attract more subscribers than summary feeds, so if getting more subscribers is a blogger’s goal, full text is definitely the way to go. But full text feeds have several drawbacks that have kept me from jumping on board:

  • Full text feeds eliminate the need for subscribers to visit the site at all. All your hard work on blog design is completely wasted on feed subscribers.
  • Because full text feed subscribers are less likely to visit your site, they’re also less likely to comment on entries. This reduces the interactive aspect of your site. I think this is a serious problem, since RSS subscribers are more likely to have something constructive to say about technical topics, which is what I often write about here.
  • Because full text feed subscribers are less likely to visit your site, they’re also less likely to click ads there, thus potentially reducing your revenue stream. (Of course, it’s a valid argument that RSS subscribers are more tech savvy and less likely to click ads in the first place.)
  • The appearance of feeds in a subscriber’s feed reader is dependent on settings within that reader. As a result, entry formatting can be lost, resulting in ineffective appearance to the reader. For example, headings may show up as boxes in the margins rather than as headings.
  • Full text feeds are more likely to be scraped by splogs. That means your content may be used by “bloggers” to build content on their advertising-heavy sites, as well as link farms and other unsavory Web traffic-generating or revenue-generating schemes.
  • If you write very long entries or include many posts in your feeds, you could reach feed length limitations with FeedBurner (if you use it).

For summary feeds, the only drawback is that they’re less likely to get subscribers since a lot of folks don’t think it’s worth subscribing to a feed if the entire content does not appear in their feed reader.

Sitting on the Fence

With all of this in mind, I’ve been using summary feeds since I switched to WordPress about a year ago. I haven’t been very interested in building the number of subscribers. This drew a lot of flack from a subscriber, especially when I couldn’t make up my mind and switched back and forth between the two kinds of feeds over the period of a number of weeks. I assume that she dropped her subscription when I stuck with summary feeds.

Now I’m more interested in building my subscriber base. So I’ve switched back to full text feeds. It’s been about a week, and my feed has already been scraped once, with a pingback that I assume was supposed to help the scraper’s Google placing. (I deleted that pingback comment as soon as I found it.) One subscriber (Miraz) has already joyfully commented on the switch. Others haven’t commented. I don’t expect them to, since there’s no way to comment from within the feed reader software (see drawback list above).

Anyway, I’m encouraging subscribers now and it’s a full text feed, so I invite you to subscribe. But please do stop by once in a while to share your comments with other site visitors.

March 6, 2011 Update: After a long run with full-text feeds, I finally switched back to summary feeds. I just got tired of seeing my copyrighted work automatically re-blogged on sites created by feed scrapers.

What do you think?