FeedBurner Subscriber Count Problems

[ FeedBurper ] I checked my Feedburner subscriber count on April 2nd and was surprised to see that the number of RSS subscribers had dropped from around 1800 to around 1100. The next day, my subscriber count decreased again, this time to around 700. Today, my Feedburner statistics increased slightly to around 1000 subscribers. So, in the course of three days I lost around 40% of my loyal readers, according to Google Feedburner. Will I get these subscribers back? Will my Google subscriber count return to normal? Why did my Feedburner count drop in the first place? Let’s explore the issue and try to answer these critical questions.

Not an Isolated Incident

Feedburner chokes way too often. Many of you will remember that this sudden drop in subscriber counts also happened several months ago when Google began transferring everyone’s Feedburner accounts to new or existing Google accounts. In the process of migrating everyone’s feeds from the “feeds.feedburner.com” subdomain to the inventively named “feeds2.feedburner.com” subdomain, many sites experienced severe drops in their Feedburner subscriber counts. According to Google:

In addition, the algorithms we use to calculate subscribers and reach at Google are more accurate and up to date than the algorithms previously used at FeedBurner.com, so your numbers will not be exactly the same before and after the transfer. We are constantly tuning our analytics to ensure they are accurate and correct for our publishers, but going forward we are only doing this within the Google environment.

Unfortunately, the Feedburner-Google transfer process left many bloggers with ridiculously low subscriber counts for nearly a week. Here at Perishable Press, subscriber counts dropped by more than 50%, fluctuating only slightly for the next several days. Other sites suffered through counts that were significantly lower than expected, with many feeds reporting either zero subscribers or the dreaded N/A error. Even after many people spoke up and blogged about the problem, it was not until shortly after the extremely popular site TechCrunch called Google out that subscriber counts began to return to normal.

Oops, Google Did it Again

Fast-forward to just a few days ago, and we see the whole sordid affair happening all over again. This time, subscriber counts were suddenly and drastically reduced for no apparent reason. People once again began blogging and twittering, questioning and speculating, no doubt hoping that this time it the low counts were just a fluke, and that everything would return to normal soon. But it hasn’t. Four days later my subscriber count is still around 40% below normal, and many other sites are experiencing record lows as well. Apparently, people spoke loudly enough to be heard by Google, which finally broke the silence with this brief statement yesterday:

Issue: We are observing reduced subscriber totals reported by Google Feedfetcher for many feeds. This number represents subscribers you may have via Google Reader and iGoogle. These lower totals have occurred over the past two days. We’re working closely with the Feedfetcher team to determine when a resolution might be possible.

Workaround: None. Please bear in mind feeds are available as usual and subscribers (feed and email) are receiving any updates you may be posting. This is a reporting issue only.

Apparently, the statistical under-reporting of Feedburner feeds is due to malfunctioning Feedfetcher software, which is responsible for tracking Google Reader and iGoogle feeds. While frustratingly helpful, this tidbit of information should have been delivered the moment the problem was discovered, not two days after the fact. Even so, it is an interesting side note that the percentage of dropped subscribers correlates to the number of readers using either iGoogle or Google Reader to access our feeds. It would be great to have access to this sort of statistical demographic (aggregator usage, etc.) available to us via our respective Feedburner accounts, but for now I would be happy with just some accurate subscriber numbers.

Of course, the bad news is that there is no known workaround or fix for the issue and that the Google giant is still trying to figure out when a solution “might be possible.” The good news is that Google is finally aware of the issue and will most likely resolve the matter within a relatively short period of time (I’m being optimistic here). Whether or not subscriber counts return to their previous levels after the fix remains to be seen.

It’s About Us, not Google

So where does all of this leave us? As bloggers, subscriber counts are extremely important. They serve as social proof, demonstrating a relative sense of quality, measured in terms of popularity, consistency, and/or relevancy. Many bloggers work extremely hard to deliver quality content to their audience every day. A growing or otherwise consistent number of readers is a key signal to bloggers that their work is paying off. When subscriber counts decrease, strategies are re-evaluated and changes are made. When subscriber counts increase, we are encouraged and continue working diligently along our chosen trajectory. For better or for worse, subscriber counts have replaced such things as Page Rank to become the new currency of the Blogosphere. A blogger’s subscriber count is:

  • social proof
  • a sign of success
  • a signal of quality
  • an indicator of status
  • a key statistical measure
  • important for advertising
  • correlated with profit
  • used for motivation
  • used as compensation
  • used in competition
  • good for promotion
  • good for business
  • good for pleasure

I mean think about it, why else are subscriber counts displayed so prominently on millions of sites across the Web? Because they are important. Important to writers who spend endless hours producing quality content to their visitors. Important to designers who labor over every detail of their site’s design just to improve visitor experience. Important to bloggers who are passionate about sharing their content with as many readers as possible. To millions of different people, subscriber counts are the most important indicator of growth, status, and success for their site. With millions of users, much trust has been placed into the hands of Google. When their Feedburner service does what it promises, that trust is justified. When Feedburner chokes and Google ignores it, that trust is completely misplaced.

Hopefully Google will realize this soon and take steps to improve the accuracy and consistency of their Feedburner statistics. Seriously Google, when Feedburner breaks, let people know as soon as possible. Explain the issue completely and resolve the issue expediently. Demonstrate transparency and prove to us that we haven’t misplaced our trust in your services. Anything less is unacceptable. Please don’t add Feedburner to the long list of promising companies that were ruined and left for dead after being consumed by yet another over-sized cooperation.

Knowing is Half the Battle

When Feedburner catastrophes strike, we may have no control over the service itself, but there are several things that we can do to prepare, prevent, and remedy the situation. First of all, knowing is half the battle. When you notice that your Feedburner count is drastically different than it ways the day before, it is important to determine if the issue is isolated to your site or if it is a more widespread problem. A quick search for “feedburner subscribers” or “feedburner count” on Twitter and you will know immediately if others are experiencing the same issue. You may also try similar searches on Google, just in case anyone has already managed to crank out a blog post on the issue. Note: if you use Google, you will want to restrict your search by the relevant date range to avoid digging up previous occurrences.

Another useful strategy for avoiding nasty Feedburner subscriber errors is to implement a simple Feedburner fallback mechanism. This will cover your bases when the Feedburner service takes a nosedive or otherwise delivers erroneous results.

You may also want to begin thinking about how your feed URLs are specified around your site. Instead of using your Feedburner URL, you should provide visitors with the URL of your actual feed. For more information on this preventative strategy, check out my article on Why Feedburner Needs a Feed Fix.

And finally, if none of the above strategies provide any sort of relief, there is always the option to drop Feedburner for an alternate feed-tracking and delivery service.

Alternatives to Feedburner

“Are there any alternatives to Feedburner?” I encounter this question repeatedly every time Feedburner drops the ball. Up until recently, Feedburner was pretty much it for delivering feeds and keeping track of statistics. This is one of the reasons why just about everybody is using Feedburner — the competition has been scarce. Fortunately, some promising Feedburner alternatives are gaining ground:

FeedBlitz
FeedBlitz has been around as long as I can remember and should have been in on the feed-delivery/tracking game from the beginning. Even so, better late than never with their new RSS delivery service.
RapidFeeds
RapidFeeds publishes and monitors your RSS feeds for free. Looks relatively new but very promising. Read more about it here.
Do it Yourself
For the technically inclined, there are probable many ways to host and track your own feeds, but thanks to this article by Samir Bharadwaj, a DIY Feedburner alternative is possible for just about anyone.

Unless Google gets a grip on their Feedburner service, these alternatives could really take off. If you have any experience using these services, please share with us in the comments section below.