FeedBurner Users: Playing With Fire

I read this morning that Andrew Sullivan has added syndicated feeds to his weblog using FeedBurner.

No offense to the FeedBurner developers, but every time I see this, I marvel that another weblogger has handed over their most loyal readers to a third party.

FeedBurner offers several features for feed providers, but only one seems genuinely useful: better feed-reading statistics.

The others -- multiple feed format support, podcasting enclosures, Creative Commons licensing -- are easy to get elsewhere. If you aren't using a weblog publishing tool that supports them, you're on the wrong software.

The most highly touted feature of FeedBurner, support for all of the syndication formats, has become a trivial issue. Every popular aggregator can read Atom, RSS 1.0, and RSS 2.0 today, so there's little disadvantage to publishing in only one of these formats.

Perhaps I'm underselling FeedBurner (Stewart Butterfield of Flickr digs them), but people relying on a free web hosting service are taking a huge risk. What position will FeedBurner users be left in if it goes offline, goes pay, or cancels the account?

There's only one place on the FeedBurner site where I could find anything addressing this risk -- the terms of service, which sensibly protects the company from liability:

[Burning Door Syndication Services] may also in its sole discretion, for any reason or no reason and at any time discontinue providing the Service, or any part thereof, with or without notice. You agree that any termination of your access to the Service under any provision of this Agreement may be effected without prior notice, and acknowledge and agree that BDSS may immediately deactivate or delete your account and all related information and files in your account and/or bar any further access to such files or the Service. Further, you agree that BDSS shall not be liable to you or any third-party for any termination of your access to the Service.

Andrew Sullivan will draw thousands of feed subscribers, considering the popularity of his weblog. Wil Wheaton has 12,000 reading him through the service.

If FeedBurner goes out of business, which is the most likely outcome for any Internet startup, they'll instantly lose that entire audience.

Can someone using this service explain how its benefits are worth taking that kind of chance?


I agree there is a substantial risk that Feedburner may go out of business. But their user community would be valuable, and they'd most likely be able to sell it to someone else, who would try to keep it going.

The biggest risk is that this data isn't yours, it's theirs. What if an advertiser decides to target Andrew Sullivan's readers specifically? And what if Andrew disagrees with that?

This is why I like hosting my puny blog on my own servers, with my own software. It might be a small community of readers, but it's mine.

I have a temporary redirect in .htaccess that shuttles requests for my feeds to Feedburner because I like their stats and feed splicing capabilities. If Feedburner ever goes dark, I will simply remove the redirect and I won't lose my readers (all 15 of them).

Is there any way to tell whether your redirected readers are still going through your original URL to get the feeds, or if some of them are going straight to FeedBurner?

I wondered whether that would be a solution that lets people use FeedBurner more safely. I use .htaccess redirects all the time on my server.

I'm still getting plenty of requests for the feed files on my site so I assume most readers are still going through the advertised URLs. I don't advertise the Feedburner URL, though I suppose it's possible that the URL could be found through other means.

You're using an "HTTP 302 Found" request to redirect subscribers. There would be a problem for you if some aggregators responded to a 302 by adding subscribers to the redirected URL instead of the original, but I'm not sure whether any exhibit that behavior.

I tested your feed in BlogLines, but I can't tell whether it pulls from the original or the FeedBurner URL.

I recently switched to WordPress, thus, put in a permanent redirect for the old feed (index.xml) to the new URL (/feed/). From there I've got a rewrite rule (I wrote redirect above but I meant rewrite) to forward requests for /feed/ (and others) to my Feedburner feed.

Bloglines has been a bit troublesome since my switch to WP. I'm not sure they support redirects, or maybe I didn't get it just right. I know that after I put in the 302, my reader (Shrook) picked up on it immediately.

As others have said, it's trivial to use a URL local to your own server that actually sends back the feed as published by FeedBurner. In fact, there's never ever a need to provide the URL to your FeedBurner feed (if you don't use any of the FB options that rewrite links in your feed to make it obvious), so only the most curious readers would ever learn that the feed wasn't from your server or use the FB URL.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not using them for anything but one feed unrelated to my site, and it's really for the reason you professed (that it's reliance on someone else). But that's a derivative of me not being in the position of caring about any stats related to my syndication feeds; I'd be all over FB (with the above-mentioned ways of using the feed via a URL on my own site) if I did/ when I do start caring about the stats.

Go out of business? Come on, you know there plan is to get bought, right? (Why can't I hatch evil money mking scemes like that.)

How long until a larger company with lots of cash gobbles them up and controls all those feeds?

Hey there Rogers -- Eric from FeedBurner. We definitely encourage publishers to use the .htaccess to redirect their feeds so the continue to "own" the feed URL. One feature we still need to add, though, is the ability to redirect people off of a feeds.feedburner.com feed if a publisher no longer wishes to use our services: a "graceful shutdown", if you will. I believe it's in our best interest to offer this feature asap because, as you mention, I'm sure many publishers are reluctant to offload the feed management to us until they can be assured they will continue to have total control over the URL no matter what happens to FeedBurner.

A few more things I just want to say:

1. We never do anything to your feed that the publisher did not elect to do. If you ever see an ad, for example, in a feed managed by FeedBurner, then that's because the publisher wanted it there and is deriving revenue from it.

2. Everything that's free today will be free in the future. We are planning on offering additional premium paid services in the near future.

3. We're not going out of business anytime soon. I can't elaborate on this right now, but you'll have to trust me on that one. (smile)

I totally understand your concerns, and we're doing everything we can to offer features to publishers in as seamless a manner as possible. As soon as we add the ability to redirect off of a FeedBurner feed, I hope we'll have addressed your issues.


Eric Lunt

Feed source URLs can be managed, as has been pointed out. Not really an issue.

But, Eric, are you not in fact engaged in trying to establish an ad network on top of RSS/ATOM?

I'm not convinced it is going to work, and therefore not convinced of the long-term prospects for companies doing it or planning to. This would appear to currently include Feedburner, Bloglines, Rojo, and others.

What happens when someone comes along and launches an open-source, free server-side aggregator that also happens to strip and filter advertisements, and polls from distributed and cloaked points of origin?

If your revenue model is an ad network, are you not at that point, in um.. deep doo-doo? Because people don't like ads, and given a choice, they'll flock to a free alternative that doesn't have them.

Conversely, Google has never had to offer a lot of VAS to get people to use AdSense. And Feedburner does offer more than a few. Not enough for me, but I'm on the extreme end of the argument for/against ads embedded in content.


I use feedburner for my personal (if not highly read) blog (http://searchingforthemoon.blogspot.com) but I follow and am interested in Feedburner for many reasons. (not least because they are a fellow Chicago based company)

But I have to disagree, rather strongly, with your comment "people don't like ads..."

I and I don't think I am totally a minority here like well targeted, useful ads - don't mind them in the least, and to witness the success of Adwords and Overture, apparently a large number of other people don't mind them either.

As a frequent and active listener of Podcasts (and soon hopefully to be a podcaster myself) I know that many people who distribute podcasts are really appreciative of Feedburner's services - as with podcasts suddenly feed management becomes a lot more ctirical and stats even more important.

I think that as podcasting and RSS continue to evolve, well targeted ads will grow in acceptance. I don't mind the feedburner generated ads in the feedburner feeds I subscribe to and I hope that they help contribute in a small way to the revenues of bloggers and podcasters whose work I appreciate.


I don't really get why you need third-party tools for better feed-statistics -- you can change the link elements and pipe them through some statistics-generating script that runs somewhere within your reach (that is, right next to your web site).

I tend to distrust centralized services, too, and mainly for the "what happens if it goes down"-reason. Take blogrolling.com for example, which, at times, seems to have more downtime than uptime. It's not really that I distrust them -- I'm not afraid that they'll go running with my oh-so-precious content -- but I'm afraid that they'll grow more popular than they can handle. I've seen it happening before, and it'll happen again. Not to say that this *will* happen to Feedburner, of course, but it *might*. At least one person I know reverted back from Feedburner because of performance issues.

I think there's a beautiful task for the guys and gals that write the weblog software: better feed statistics.

I also think that I really shouldn't begin each paragraph with "I", but that's off-topic. =]

I've hacked Drupal to automatically redirect the feed URL to FeedBurner, while allowing it to access a private feed URL. I find that since I've been using FeedBurner, it's reduced my bandwidth usage dramatically, since over half of my users read the feed. I also have it insert Amazon ads in my feed, for people who only read my feed & don't visit the front page.


"Bloglines has been a bit troublesome since my switch to WP. I'm not sure they support redirects, or maybe I didn't get it just right."

Bloglines definately supports redirects. I have used a 302 redirect on just about all my feeds and bloglines followed gracefully.

I used to provide scraped feeds for the Tivocommunity.com message boards. Since I was generating the feeds solely as a public service, I didn't want to chew up any business bandwidth or CPU cycles... so I had Feedburner republish the feeds, and pointed folks there. Worked quite nicely.

There are several key features that make Feedburner a great service.

First in my book is the bandwidth factor. Fanblogs.com has 100+ feeds - that's a lot of pipe given that some aggregators still don't honor revisit rules.

Second is the ability to monetize the feeds. Fanblogs was able to go from partial feeds (yuck!) with no ads to fully enabled feeds with a contextual ad. The response has been fantastic, believe it or not.

Third is the statistical tracking. The current tracking methods are great, and the coming soon (Pro) features are fantastic.

Fourth, Feedburner allows me to manipulate certain feeds without impacting my other feeds. This is a great test environment for seeing what clicks with users.

Finally, Feedburner allows me to maintain site integrity. Users don't see that their getting a Feedburner source. They're subscribed to my local URLs. If a change has to come, then it's very easy to transition. While I have one hell of an htaccess, I couldn't be happier.

Interesting issues. I think I'll go the .htaccess route for my own protection.

The original question, why give over your clients is a good one. I suspect that non-commercial blogs will get benefit from the services and will give up marketing opportunities in order to receive the feedburner services. Larger, commercial blogs be more cautious and will want more control over the options applied to their RSS and the ability to participate in revenue streams.

From the comments above it seems that FeedBurner understands the concerns and realizes the importance of addressing them. It's a good discussion. Let's see what happens.

The bandwidth issue is another red herring.

How much dark fiber is out there?

Right, okay, can we stop that sillyness then.

Shannon, if people liked advertisements, there wouldn't be local laws constraining billboard placement in many parts of the country. Tivo woudln't exist -- how many did they sell? Mute buttons would rarely get used. Etc.

I am not willing to trade any piece of information about what I do online to anyone in return for having the content I consume interrupted and/or defaced by someone else's idea of what they think I might want to purchase or what brand I might like to know about.

It's assinine in the face of alternatives (radical ideas like, you know, charging money for your services instead of handing a portion of your brand equity over to a parasitic third party; what a concept!?)

Feedburner offers a bunch of great services. Cool! They've indicated that they intend to fund that by injecting third-party content (ads). Not cool!

If this isn't what they're doing, it would be nice to know that. So far, no such indication.

The privacy question is as of yet not answered, too.

As for the business model; there are better alternatives; namely, charging for it. People will pay for good and useful things. Wouldn't be surprised to see paid service offerings from Feedburner et al in the very near future.

Nice thread, enjoying getting all the different perspectives.

just be careful with the redirects, guys. I've lost more than one feed when my RSS Reader updated the feed URL to the redirected URL when it should not have.

"...but people relying on a free web hosting service are taking a huge risk. What position will FeedBurner users be left in if it goes offline, goes pay, or cancels the account?"

Oh, I am so not going to touch that one.

Rogers, you have good points. I know there's another service 2rss.com that people use to emulate a RSS 2.0 feed from my site, and it does put in ads.

But for high access sites like Sullivans, I can see how offloading the bandwidth while still getting the stats is attractive.

And if feedburner bellies up, I don't think it's a hardship for folks to just re-subscribe. That's not that much work.

And let's start a rumor that FeedBurner is being bought out by Yahoo. After all, flickr likes the company...

They could sell you readers to spammers. What if every third time they load your feed they get some spam feed instead? Have they violated the terms of service? check it out. They don't say they provide any service.

I had over 300 of my readers feed hijacked and are now being directly sent to FeedBurner because many of the aggreagators do not like the re-direct and pick up on the feedburner URL.

I am stuck with 300 people on there service. Not only that the service is slow as heck to update even when we send a ping the updates many times takes 4 and 5 hours.

I run a sophisticated monitoring service of my site and you would be amazed the number of times bloglines was down. Granted this was some time ago as we have stopped using their service.

I can gurantee you we will never allow a third party to handle our feeds again ever.

I gotta say how much I love that Winer's pointing to this thread today, saying that FeedBurner doesn't have a TOS or privacy policy. Silly me -- I thought that the two documents linked to the phrases "Terms of Service" and "Privacy" at the bottom of the FeedBurner page were those documents?

Wow. Some aggregators are broken so let's blame feedburner?

As for .htaccess not being the answer. Agreed. For those that have access to apache it's an easy solution. For others, if your weblog software is half-way decent can't it just output the temporary redirect itself?

As for feedburner stealing your feeds. Does anyone actually think this is a possibility?!?

Your readers won't track down your feed if feedburner screws with it?

They provide a useful service. Use it or don't. I just don't see it as a big problem. To me it's like saying don't trust a hosting company because they may pull your weblog...

Oh wait. We've seen that story haven't we?

Great discussion, but I'm not sure what all the worry is about a 3rd party hosting your RSS feed. Frankly I have more downtime on my weblog's server than I've ever had on Feedburner.

Plus I'd like to point out that in the Web 2.0 world content is increasingly componentised. I host my blog on MT, my RSS feed at Feedburner, my photos at Flickr, my links at del.icio.us, etc. I do that because each of those specialist services offers more value on its own than I can get if I try and put everything onto 1 server (which as I mentioned above, is generally less reliable anyway!). e.g. Feedburner's stats tracking features - and while I could hack together something similar on my own server, I'd rather let a specialist do that work for me.

The one issue that I do think should be addressed long-term is owning the feed URL. While I use htaccess to get around it, I'd much prefer readers subscribed to my URL (ie www.readwriteweb.com) rather than the Feedburner one. I believe Feedburner is working on that issue though (see Eric's comment above).

The TOS protects Feedburner, not you, and the privacy policy is about your membership info on their server, not about who has access to your subscribers.

My point, Bart, is that they exist, contrary to what a statement like "There's no service agreement and no privacy policy" might lead someone to believe.

What position will FeedBurner users be left in if it goes offline, goes pay, or cancels the account?
Much better than if they were weblogs.com users!

That doesn't make any sense, P.B. The Weblogs.Com users are all either on Buzzword.Com or have moved to other servers after downloading their site data.

Sure they were moved. What i'm having trouble understanding is how that service is any different than feedburner. It tanked. Life went on people moved. If feedburner tanked wouldn't we all just move along. What's the greater risk here?

Many webloggers find that 50 percent or more of their audience is reading via syndication. Wil Wheaton has 12,000 readers via FeedBurner.

I think there's tangible value in having those 12,000 readers -- at least enough value to strongly weigh the advantages of third-party feed management against the risk of the service going offline. Don't you?

So, do you all host your own listservs? You can, but many choose to outsource to a service that specializes in email preparation and delivery. There is art in managing for scale, to confirming receipt and readership, to assuring compatibility across email clients, to avoiding spam filters and updating address books, to complying with laws and offering subscribers self-service tools. And they take on managing bounces, bandwidth, address changes, and reporting. Sound familiar?

If you read feeds, you use Bloglines or another reader.

If you publish feeds, you'll use Feedburner or a similar service.

Trust me, there's a huge opportunity for managing RSS distribution. And that's for feeds in the wild. We haven't even talked about a Feedburner enterprise strategy!

If Feedburner were to go off the air, I would wager a decent amount that they would give several weeks or months notice and arrange for the URL to redirect appropriately for longer than that. They certainly wouldn't announce one day that the service would be gone tomorrow.

I wondered the same thing when I switched over to Feedburner, and did a bit of testing with users' help.

In short, I use the 302 redirect, and only the feed reader in Opera 7.54 reset the feed url to feedburner.

The bandwidth issue is another red herring.

How much dark fiber is out there?

Right, okay, can we stop that sillyness then.

Um, okay...but could you explain how exactly I would prevent this argument to my ISP when they hit me with a bill for overage on my monthly upstream due to increased traffic to my RSS feed?

Sure, there's unused capacity out there, but unless someone has a plan to light all that fiber and arrange for no-cost bandwidth for anyone who wants it, the costs of bandwidth associated with providing content is very much not a red herring.

While I like and support feedburner, I happily acknowledge that there are valid concerns associated with using their services. Seems reasonable to me that one could be against using feedburner without having to pretend that there are no benefits at all to using their services.

- W

Would you recommend using a listserve where I couldn't move off it if I want to? (The htaccess method isn't going to work for the average FB user.)

What happens when one of the feeds they host is critical of the service?

What happens when one of the feeds is critical of some political cause the owners don't support? "

These are feeds, not the actual weblog posts themselves. There is nothing inherent in FeedBurner to warrant this concern, because it has absolutely no impact on the actual weblog postings themselves.

So if they 'filter' based on a topic, what happens? Huge uproar, big exodus off of system, people provide their own feeds, to which people subscribe. Why? Because the feed is nothing but a feed.

If they go out of business or get bought up by Yahoo (Om, where are you Om), and you don't like what they're doing, or they're no longer providing the service, does this mean, then, that the weblogger is silenced? That gives way too much importance to the feed, and way too little to the weblog, itself. People will just move on.

People host at centralized sites like Typepad and Blogger and Rogers, your own site now, and that's not a worry--but a place that provides hosting for the feed, is?

People put their photos, lots and lots of photos, into flickr and that's not a worry but a place that hosts a feed is?

Much ado about nothing. No likey, no usey.

When have I ever suggested that using my free Manila hosting server is not a cause for worry?

My users should worry, at least to the extent that they back up their sites in case the service ever goes offline. I don't even generate revenue, though my only meaningful expense is time, since hosting all 3,000 blogs currently costs only $59 a month.

I think anyone relying on a free service for content they consider valuable should look for data export functionality and URL redirection guarantees. Eric Lunt of FeedBurner says that it needs a redirection off FeedBurner option for publishers who choose to stop using it. Users ought to push hard for this feature.

how is using a hosted site syndication service more risky than using a hosted blogging service?

WRM: thanks for the counterpoint. I was thinking very generally. Sure, it can matter, to folks running on the meter, so to speak.

What I'm consistently hearing through this:

* We like the services a feedburner provides, mostly

* We're not sure who is getting access to extrapolated metrics or what they're gonna do with them, and would like to know

* There's no clear spec for the act of subscribing to a feed (or is there?), and therefore no way to indicate to the aggregator (client or server) where it should go to recover the feed "from the source" if the pointer to the feed data ever "goes away" (let's stop kicking FB's business model tires and look at the technical issue?)

Consider how MX records (mail exchange source addresses) work in DNS... there may be multiple entries, and each has a weighted priority. What if some vaguely similar capabizities were provided to feed pub/sub/polling?

Would that alleviate some of the concerns?

One more thing in Feedburner's favor: they'll splice in your Flickr or del.icio.us content. That's what got me hooked. Now my links show up in my RSS feed.

Benjamin -

Very interesting thoughts, thanks. As far as I know there isn't a single clear spec for handling the act of subscribing to a feed. There's the feed: URI, but my understanding is that this still doesn't address the "one time only" nature of subscribing to a feed...once you've subscribed, your reader ever after looks for that particular file.

Now that you mention it, a DNS-based solution similar to MX records would be ideal for one part of what's being discussed here, allowing for an authoritative pointer to the feed: rather than a static link to the feed, you provide static authority information for the feed, which is then used to find the actual feed. You could then shift feed providers the same way that you can change Web hosts.

The down side, of course, is that this would create a more overhead in the process -- since readers/aggregators would be doing regular lookups to find the actual feed locations -- and that...well, that it doesn't currently work that way, and it'd take a whole lot of people all agreeing to do it that way for it to work.

A good idea in many ways, but unfortunately probably not too practical in the current situation.

What is it about the subscription to the feed that makes it valuable? It's not really the feed, or the weblog. But Rogers when you say backup what they consider valuable, what is there about FeedBurner that makes the data so valuable.

The actual subscriptions themselves? So much of this is available in other spots, including Bloglines, Technorati, et al.

WB and Benjamin are working on a DNS like work around to ensure that a link to a feed propagates if the service goes down. What about DNS and go back to the site, and see what it says?

I'm not trying to discount the worries here -- but I think it's important to see a feed for what it is: a transitory listing of updated entries for a weblogger.

A weblogger going quiet: that's a sadness, a void. That's a voice never heard again. Having to change your subscription because the feed location changed? That's just mechanics.

I'm not trying to discount the worries here -- but I think it's important to see a feed for what it is: a transitory listing of updated entries for a weblogger.

The value I'm seeing here is all those readers hitting your feed URL with their aggregators.

You can't back that up. All you can do is ensure the path from those readers to your work that your feed URL provides.

Boy, you take the family on vacation for a few days and you miss the good conversations. Rogers, I think your points are all reasonable, as my cofounder Eric Lunt pointed out, and no offense taken whatsoever. I believe you will see in the near term that we are going to address all of your concerns and issues in a straightforward and meaningful way. I think the key point Eric made that I'd like to back up is that we believe that a publisher's ability to redirect off of FeedBurner is actually a benefit to FeedBurner. As with everything, there are easy and clumsy ways to do this, and more elegant and sensible ways to do this. We're working through these issues currently, but the proof is in the pudding. When we make announcements that address these concerns, we'll be sure to reference this post.

Eric and Dick do it again. Solving the blogosphere's problems. A mechanism to 301 (move permanently, as in off of feedburner.com) a RSS feed would be a great solution to the problem Rogers has pointed out.

I noticed a few minutes ago that all of my FeedBurner feeds, regardless of where I was hosting them were giving 500 errors. Does that happen a lot? Does anyone track that?

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Feedburner feed 'hacked'.

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