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Web Site Measurement Hacks
By Eric T. Peterson
August 2005
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HACK
#47
Measure Content Syndicated via RSS
An emerging frontier in web measurement is the ability to track weblog readership, referrals, and link out clicks. No known vendors support weblog measurement directly, but this surprisingly simple hack will show you how to do it yourself
[Discuss (0) | Link to this hack]

Given the attention paid to weblogs and the blogosphere in general, it is surprising that no vendors have stepped up to provide a solution to measure content syndicated via really simple syndication (RSS). I personally have been blogging in the dark via my employer's web site for over a year, always wondering "Who reads this stuff and what do they say about it?" It turns out there are a few things you can do to measure reach and acquisition for your syndicated content, depending on how involved you want to get, your particular web measurement application, and the RSS publication platform you publish from.

Easy Things You Can Do to Measure RSS Readership

If you're only trying to figure out who is linking to your posts, not necessarily how many people are reading or which links they're clicking, Bloglines (www.bloglines.com) provides an excellent tool for doing exactly that. Their search for pages linking into a URL accepts the location of your weblog (for example, http://weblogs.jupiterresearch.com/analysts/peterson/) and tells you who is linking to you ().

Figure 1. Bloglines citation search

Bloglines returns a list of other feeds indexed by their service that have a link to your site. Considering that at the time this book was written, Bloglines enjoyed a greater than 50 percent market share for RSS readers (an estimated four million people, based on data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project), the sample Bloglines provides is pretty good. Other resources for tracking how your posts are picked up around the Internet include:

Technorati(www.technorati.com

Here you can search for your content and see who is linking to you. You can also search for your feed URL, generate a report similar to Bloglines', and sort by recency and author.

Feedster(www.feedster.com)

This site can be used much like Bloglines and Technorati, but has the added advantage of being able to generate an XML feed of the search results.

Blogdigger(www.blogdigger.com)

This site is a variation on this same theme, but has a Firefox search extension so you can search Blogdigger right from your favorite web browser.

Still, you may be looking for more data than that, perhaps a simple count of which stories are being viewed when.

Hacking Your Web Measurement Tool to Track RSS

The nice thing about RSS is that it accepts normal HTML content and, for the most part, renders it correctly regardless of which reader application is used. This can be exploited by web measurement applications by using a simpleIMG SRCrequest that will be tracked as a page view.

Simple RSS tracking using web server logfiles.

The essence of this hack is the fact that web server logfiles process image requests just as readily as requests for normal web pages, and are nearly always able to parse information out of the query string. What this means is that if you drop a one-by-one pixel image somewhere on your web server, you can make a request for this image—including the name of the story in the query string—from inside your blog post.

In the following example, a file called rss_blank_image.gif resides in the site's /images directory. When you paste this image request into your blog post, you would replace the RSS STORY NAMEwith the post's headline, converting spaces to plus-signs or %20s (whitespace characters):

    <img src="http://www.yoursite.com/images/rss_blank_image.gif?n
      =RSS+STORY+NAME" border='0' width='1' height='1'>

This will create a line in your web server logfile for the request and capture information about the date, time, user agent, and IP address of the requestor, along with the n=RSS+STORY+NAMEinformation. You can then use your measurement application's query parsing capabilities to search for requests for the blank image and report back on the value of n as found in the query string.

TIP

Consult your vendor directly about how to set up query string parsing.

Also, if you're lucky, your web measurement application will have the ability to set a server-side cookie, usually via an ISAPI filter of some kind. If this is the case, you will also likely be able to get visit and unique visitor counts from this simple image request.

Treat RSS Like Email or Banner Advertising

One important thing to keep in mind is that even if you don't do anything special to track the number of people reading your syndicated content, you still need to measure how that content drives visitors back to your web site. Put another way, the number one reason you should be syndicating content via RSS is to drive visitors back to your web site, an activity that can be measured in much the same way you measure email marketing or banner advertising .

If you're syndicating regular content that you present on your web site (different than blogging), you should always do these two things:

  • Provide only a summary view of the article, not the whole article.

  • Embed tracking codes in any links in the summary to track the number of people who click to read the entire article.

Doing this will allow you to know how effective your RSS feeds are in terms of driving traffic back to the web site. But wait, you're not done there! Because you're embedding tracking codes and creating tracking URLs , you should be able to use your web measurement application to:

  • Determine how many visitors and visits your feed is generating.

If you get in the habit of treating content feeds just like any other marketing channel, you'll be able to take advantage of all the other learning you've done about how to best measure your marketing efforts. Content syndication and RSS are cutting-edge topics right now, generating tremendous excitement but getting very little attention in terms of how they're measured. Take advantage of this hack, and you'll be doing better than almost everyone else out there.


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