Advantages of FeedBurner and Some Web Feed History

By Xah Lee. Date:

Today, i have to make a decision on whether to use the FeedBurner free service for managing my web feeds.

Advantages of FeedBurner



You lose total control of your feed. There are several aspects.

Your domain name is no longer in the feed URL. For example, your feed address may be like this: . When using FeedBurner, your feed URL is this: . If you are a big business, you probably want the feed to be on your domain, because it gives a better sense of being YOURs.

You lose complete control of the formatting. If you are a big publisher, or a very popular blog writer, you probably want to be in total control of how your site or feed looks, down to the layout, color, date format, etc. With a feed service, you lose that.

Relying on 3rd party. If the feed management service provider goes out of business, you'd be in trouble. Because, all your feed URL is known to the public by the FeedBurner address. If they go out of business, it would be problematic to update your readers about your new feed address.

A Bit History of Web Feed

For those of you don't know, web feed is a web syndication system. It started in the late 1990s. In those dot com days, the web started to have what's called web portal sites. Earliest being Yahoo. Basically, you login to your yahoo page, and you can read all today's news, weather, local news, stock quotes, etc, in one place, and all customized to you.

Yahoo isn't a news company. So, it needs to get these info from other sources. One method, is thru email and web pages. So, yahoo staff have to constantly process email or web pages, and process them to extract some sort of summary, so that it can be displayed to you in a nice way. Often, this process is manual and not well defined, labor intensive. Any news publisher, from big ones as CNN, AP, BBC, Fox News, to small local ones, to any specialized news in science community, gaming community, or any other, have this problem. So, born is web feed format called RSS (stood for Really Simple Syndication).

RSS is a file format. What it simply do is to have clearly marked format for Entries, each with Summary, Content, Link, Date Updated, Author, etc. And this file is published on a URL (public or private). So, the partners of the publisher, can just grab this file, and easily choose sections they need to republish or distribute. This saves the original publishers the trouble of various formats and communication with its partners, and it saves web portal sites endless labor of reading, re-writing, editing, to republish articles.

That is in the late 1990s. Over the past decade, the internet grew fast. We have blogs, social networks, instant messaging, online maps, ajax, YouTube, Skype, Twitter, and Google with its array of web services. The RSS's use has changed. Remember, RSS used to mean Really Simple Syndication. The keyword is Syndication. The word is used among publishing businesses. Meaning, a piece of news articles, columns, comic strips, as a business partnership, is republished in several different publications. RSS was mostly for those publishing houses.

Today, thanks to primarily Google, any web page that has a nature of constant update, has a web feed. With the popularity of feed, RSS is now used by every joe blog writer. It no longer stand for some Syndication. The term RSS itself faded into obscurity. Today, we just have “web feed”, and all major browsers has built-in ability to read feed today, directly, without reading it thru some portal site.

(Note, the tech spec of the RSS file format has also gone thru changes. For example, see: Atom Webfeed.)

How Does FeedBurner Know Reader Stat?

So, in about mid 2000, there sprang FeedBurner. What is it? There being so many web feeds, people begin to have a need to manage the feeds, starting with big web companies. They need to know, for example, how many readers they have for a feed?

This is interesting. When i looked into FeedBurner in deciding whether i should use it, one of the advantage i found is that it gives subscriber stats. But this appeared to me contradictory. For example, my web feed is published on my website. So, i know exactly how many times my feed file is accessed, from my web server log. However, why is it i can't know how many subscriber? A bit thinking resolved this. Remember, Web Feed, as a syndication system, was designed to be accessed by software agents for the purpose of republishing your article, not directly read by readers. So, you do not have a way to know how many readers you have. For example, many people read blogs from their Google account. Google grabs the feed from my site, republish it for these people to read. So, to me, there's only 1 access to my feed, but i could have hundreds of readers.

But then how does FeedBurner know how many people read your feed? Well, it can't know exactly. However, it does provide far better tracking than can be discerned from your web server log, because, FeedBurner being in the feed business, knows about all the technologies of other feed reading applications, or are in close connection with other feed using businesses. For example, FeedBurner might have access to the stat of web portals or feed reader businesses of readers who subscribed your feed. For example, i don't know how many people are reading my blog from Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc, but FeedBurner knows because it probably have connection with these companies. (Note: FeedBurner is owned by Google since 2007)

Monetizing Feeds

Another advantage is that FeedBurner can monetize feeds. Meaning, that ads will appear on your feed, and you get money from them.

The question for me is, why can't i put ads on my feed myself? For example, i can use Google's Adsense service. The problem is, most ad services today deal with ads on web pages, not web feeds. Web feed has not yet become a popular media for ads. So, putting ads on your feed isn't well supported. FeedBurner, being a feed business, has means in doing that, with respect to the business of running ads, or the technology of inserting ads into your feed file format.

Better Feed Interface

Notice today, that many feed pages has Share Widgets, that allow readers to easily add your feed into their feed reader. With such widget, user can just click a button and they are subscribed to your feed. Without these widgets, user usually have to copy your feed URL, switch to their feed reader application or web site, click another button to add a feed, paste your link, click again to submit. Having web share widget is quite a convenience for your potential readers, and such convenience may increase your readers a lot.

feed add widgets
Web share widgets to add feeds to various web portals.

You could of course add these widgets yourself. However, FeedBurner just makes it easier. For example, the popularity of different web portals or feed readers come and go. This year, might be a popular web portal, and PalmPot might be a popular device to read feeds, next year, they may fade into obscurity. You will need keep your webshare widgets up to date with the computing industry fashion. For example, there was Netscape, Lycos, AltaVista, Inktomi, Infoseek, Excite. These are top sites of the dot com days. Today, most are forgotten. As of this year, we have Twitter, iPhone, Facebook, and tens other portals or social networking sites, each with tens of thousands of users but otherwise unknown to you. It is hard to keep up. FeedReader manages the list of web share widgets and API for you.

Google Reader Dies

Google just announced that they are killing Google Reader. The fate of FeedBurner is also uncertain. See: Google Reader RIPS