Tracking RSS blog feeds presents a problem for on-site web analytics tools such Omniture, WebTrends and Google Analytics. Why? Because as the name suggests, on-site web analytics tools measure visitor activity whilst on your web site and so cannot track activity that happens off site.

For example, consider the following scenario: A visitor arrives on your site and likes the blog content so much they decide to subscribe. All activity – from the visitor arriving, viewing pages and then subscribing to your feed is tracked. Note, that even though a RSS subscription usually takes place off-site e.g. to feedburner.com, this can still be tracked using the virtual pageview technique (you could also use event tracking to capture this information). This provides you with an indicator as to the interest of your RSS content. That is, the number of subscribers. All well and good.

However, so far this has all been on-site visitor activity, so it does not tell you what happens next…

Now that your visitor has subscribed, there is no need for them to re-visit your web site when you post your next article. Instead, they simply receive your content in their RSS reader and may never visit you again! Because reading an RSS feed happens off your website, you are not able to track this activity. You will not know if subscribers are reading or engaging with your content.

And that is the problem – your RSS subscribers can read your content, enjoy it (have great engagement, or not) and you will be totally unaware of one of your most important visitor types – your influencers. Unless that is, you make the following changes…

Tracking RSS viewers (using Google Analytics)

Although this example uses Google Analytics, the same technique can be applied to any on-site web analytics tool. Essentially, there are two important parts to creating a trackable blog feed:

  1. Crafting the article to entice RSS click-throughs – so they can be tracked on your site
  2. Crediting these to your feed using filters – to highlight RSS in your reports

1. Crafting your article to entice click-throughs to your site

This is key to tracking your RSS readers. If they don’t click through from their RSS Readers, you cannot track them. Nothing you can do about that. But what if you tailor your post to entice click throughs? Not by using special offers or free give aways (through that can of course be a method if you are an Amazon or similar large retail brand), but by how you distribute your feed.

For example, in WordPress*, you can alter feed settings to distribute only a partial snippet of your article. Therefore, assuming you have an enticing headline and first paragraph, those readers interested in viewing more will click through to your site and so be tracked.

This is a great way to track engaged RSS readers – casual readers of you headlines are screened out because they don’t click through (so are not tracked), while engaged visitors click through and therefore are tracked.

*Note : Although the default restricting of your feed is useful in WordPress, you are unable to control its length. The WordPress setting breaks your RSS post at a fixed length (around 300 characters). This can be frustrating to article writers who want more control. The excellent Better Feed plugin allows you to do control the snippet length using the standard article break tags <!–more–> or <!–nextpage–>.

2. Crediting RSS click throughs to your RSS feed

With engaged RSS readers now clicking through to your site and therefore being tracked, we need to bubble these up in your reports.

The issue with distributing your content via RSS, is that links within the XML format are exactly the same as your regular page URL links – they cannot be modified to differentiate RSS click throughs from "direct" or bookmarked visitors (this is the case for WordPress and Blogger).

The good news is that nowadays most people use a web based RSS reader such as Google Reader, My Yahoo, Bloglines, Netvibes etc. As these visitors are first redirected through the RSS reader service before landing on your site, they leave tell tale referrer information that can be tracked.

Good. So now at least we have the data coming in. But, tracked as referrers in your Google Analytics reports, these RSS visitors are hidden – they are buried with all the other referrals you receive. In fact, its a common problem with web analytics data – not being able to see the wood from the trees due to information overload. However, help is at hand by re-labelling your RSS visitors with a Google Analytics filter to highlight them in your reports.

This technique will sound familiar if you have read Tracking social networks with Google Analytics using filters.

Using Google Analytics, apply the following filter to re-label your Google Reader referrals:

Google Reader Filter

Other RSS filters can also be setup in a similar way – this is a Yahoo Reader filter for example.

The result is a report such as this:

RSS report in Google Annalytics
Referrals from RSS web readers re-labelled using filters

You could also set the filters to simply label the referrals as medium=RSS so that all RSS visits are aggregated and can be compared with other mediums such as paid search, organic search, email visits.

Update 11-May-2009 : It never ceases to amaze me the power of community… By coincidence Jack MacIntyre has just created two WordPress plugins to track RSS and track Tweets for you automatically. It only works for WordPress users and cannot differentiate Google RSS v Yahoo RSS readers, but its clever stuff – powerful and simple…

So now you have a method of tracking your most valuable blog readers – your RSS subscribers. Does this help you or do you have alternative methods of tracking subscriber reading habits? Please add your comment below.