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My RSS Feeds Don't Lie: Candidate Blogs are Boring

BY Joshua Levy | Monday, December 17 2007

RSS feeds are the unsung heroes of the web. All day they quietly hum below the radar, showing up in our aggregator’s inbox and reminding us of how much there is too read, and how little time we have to read it.

Nevertheless, for observers of political campaigns those little XML files hiding behind web pages are essential. We political obsessives need to subscribe to loads of content to keep up with everything, even if the majority of candidate RSS output is repackaged press releases. “From a user perspective, RSS is the best way to monitor large amounts of sources,” Feedburner’s Rick Klau told me. “If you are a reporter, or a voter looking to monitor communications, RSS is a great way of doing that.”

So what can we learn about this underground activity of feed reading? How many RSS subscribers are there for the each of the campaigns’ blogs?

Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to tell. Subscribing to a site’s feed is more like email than web browsing, in that only the publisher knows how many people are reading. There is no comprehensive tool that approximates the total number of subscribers in the same way that Hitwise or Compete can estimate how many people are visiting a web site.

But there is Google. Google Reader, the popular RSS feed aggregator, makes it possible to search for a web site’s feed simply by searching a group of key terms or a phrase, like “Hillary Clinton blog.” We discovered that when doing this search, not only do you pull in feeds related to your search terms, but also the number of Google Reader subscribers to those feeds. So when I searched for “Hillary Clinton blog,” I received 20 results of feeds that somehow matched up with that phrase. The 11th hit was Clinton’s campaign blog’s feed address, with the number of Google Reader subscribers (305) beside it to the left.

Bloglines — the popular online feed reader that many geeks used before switching to Google Reader — also lets you search for the number of subscribers, but you can conduct a search for the actual feed address instead of keywords or a phrase.

While Google Reader or Bloglines don’t release their overall user numbers, an interesting Feedburner post from February indicates that they are the two most popular feed readers for feeds served by Feedburner (MyYahoo actually accounts for more than 50% of feed aggregation, but they only publish headlines that send readers to the original site).

With this in mind, we set out to compare the number of subscriptions to candidate blogs in Google Reader and Bloglines. Since we don’t have access to some key data — total number of subscribers to the blogs or the total number of users of Google Reader and Bloglines, for example — this is a less than scientific study. But we do think it sheds a light on how many people are paying attention to the candidate blogs, and which candidates are doing a good job of maintaining their feeds.

None of the candidates are using RSS very effectively, says Klau. “Candidates aren’t turning the feeds into widgets, so that I can embed the headlines from that feed into my page,” he said. “The campaigns could make it very easy for RSS to be the conduit of the content to my website, but I don’t see them doing that. It’s the same idea behind YouTube encouraging people to embed content.”

Our methodology
To produce this comparison, we focused on blogs, which are the most consistently updated pieces of original content on candidates’ sites. Some candidates, like John McCain, split up their blog feeds into categories, a questionable strategy that doesn’t seem to have inspired people to subscribe. Fred Thompson also separates his feeds into all blog posts and just those from Fred himself. He has more subscribers than any other Republican, owing perhaps to the blogosphere buzz he generated over the summer before he officially ran.

Barack Obama has two blog feeds, the stats for which we list separately, and some candidates — Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich, and Rudy Giuliani — either didn’t have a blog feed or had no subscribers.

All searches were conducted on the afternoon of Wednesday, December 12.

With a few exceptions, the number of subscribers roughly correlates to the online popularity of the candidate. As noted above, Fred Thompson has more subscriptions than any other Republican despite occupying the middle tier in number of YouTube views, MySpace friends, and Facebook supporters. And Mike Huckabee is a mystery; he’s an online favorite with an engaging blog and RSS feeds that are easy to find, yet he has relatively few subscribers.

Barack Obama predictably has far more subscribers than the other candidates, which is in tune with his dominance of social networking sites.

Overall, we're struck by how few subscribers campaign blogs have registered. It's another sign of a problem we've already pointed out: in Campaign 2008, blogs are not where it's at.

And now, the charts. Click on each chart to view the full-size version.