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Why does my Feedburner Subscriber Count Fluctuate?

Feedburner-Subscription-Conters-2

  • Why does my Feedburner subscriber count fluctuate so much?
  • Are people unsubscribing and subscribing as much as my Feedburner counter says?
  • I notice your Feedburner counter goes up and down each day – why?
  • My RSS Subscriber Counter Goes Down Every Weekend – Why?

Over the last week I’ve been asked these and similar questions about Feedburner subscriber numbers a total of 7 times. Each time I’ve muddled through an answer to the questioner, thinking I knew the answer but not being sure.

So this morning when I woke to the question twice more in my inbox I thought I’d go straight to the font of all knowledge at Feedburner – Rick Klau (Feedburner’s Vice President of Publisher Services) and ask him for an official explanation of fluctuating Feedburner subscription numbers.

Here’s how Rick answered the question:

When we report a subscriber number, that represents the total number of individuals who had the feed requested on their behalf on that day.

Most of these subscribers fall into one of two groups:

  1. those using a stand-alone feed reader
  2. those using a web-based feed reader

In the case of stand-alone feed readers, that user has an application running on their computer which fetches the feed repeatedly throughout the day. We look at characteristics of those requests, and differentiate between repeated requests from the same person (as indicated by regular polling intervals, consistent IP addresses, and common user agents) and different requests (where one or more of the previous data points vary).

In the case of web-based feed readers (My Yahoo, Google Reader, Bloglines, Pageflakes, etc.), those services retrieve the feed repeatedly throughout the day, but do so on behalf of multiple people. Almost all of these services report to us how many of their users are subscribed to the feed. At the end of the day, we tally up how many stand-alone feed readers are subscribed, and add them to the web-based users. The end result is the total subscriber number we report. (I’m leaving a few details out; see below for a more complete answer.)

The fluctuations are almost always due to people using stand-alone computers who don’t turn their computer on, or don’t load their feed reader on a given day. If their feed reader doesn’t ask for the feed that day, we don’t see them, and consequently don’t include them as a subscriber. (note from Darren – this is why on weekends numbers tend to go down as a result of less people checking their feed reader).

Other explanations are when a site gets Dugg – large spikes in traffic, at least when some of the visitors are using older versions of browsers, may result in us being unable to differentiate between browser accesses of the feed and the browser’s feed reader accessing the feed. A more detailed explanation of this phenomenon is here – look for my answer to the question asking about spikes from getting Dugg.

Finally, for a more comprehensive look at the various components of a subscriber report, we did a case study last year on TechCrunch. It should provide even more context for the hows and whys of subscriber calculations (and fluctuations). It also makes some important comments on “Reach”. Unlike the subscriber number, which may be representative of people who indicated an interest in your content but who do not actually read it, Reach reports on just the items that were viewed in aggregators or the clicks that drove traffic back to the publisher’s site. As a result, it represents a much more accurate picture of the engagement a feed’s audience enjoys, while the subscriber number represents the total audience who’s expressed an interest in the content.

About Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse is the founder and editor of ProBlogger Blog Tips and Digital Photography School. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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Comments

  1. Christina says:

    I frequent a lot of blogs and use Bloglines to sub to RSS feeds. As I added another blog to my feeds just today I checked back to see if their counter updated from 29 to 30 subscribers afterwards. It didn’t. This incident made me wonder about how accurate the counters are, when they update, and how they work exactly.

    Thanks so much!

  2. This was quite helpful, thanks!

  3. Stavanger says:

    Very good information, I use shrook on OS X. So now I understand if I don’t turn on my computer one day someone’s feed count is dropping. More reasons to be on the computer ;)

  4. YouNeed2See says:

    Good explanation Darren. I notice when I get dugg I usually have about 300 more subscribers which gradually goes down the next few days.

    I think it may have to do with the people who view your RSS feed but don’t actually subscribe to it, and until FeedBurner realizes there’s no more ping, it removes the user.

  5. Sometimes a splog might pick up on your feed and also cause it to go way up. A while back one got hold of mine and subscription numbers shot wayyyy up for a few days.

  6. YouNeed2See says:

    I’ll also point out that on your homepage under “Recently at the Blog”, it hasn’t updated to this post (it still shows your Heatmap post). I don’t know if this is on purpose or a bug, but I figured I’d let you know.

  7. Tallfreak says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. I’ve been so confused about my feedburner count today.

  8. Melissa F. says:

    Thanks for the info. I have often wondered…

  9. WizCoder says:

    I wish that some to clean up the counter so its reflect its real number.

  10. jhay says:

    So that’s what is going on. Now things are more clear for me.

  11. Matt Wolfe says:

    I was wondering the same thing! Thanks a lot for helping clear that up.

  12. Leo says:

    Awesome job, Darren. That’s why you are at the top of your field — you go the extra mile and make things clear for your readers.

    As you know, I’m one of the people who emailed you with one of those feed questions … and now, things are much less confusing for me.

  13. Very insightful.
    We went though this, well, sometimes alarming, experiance the other day over at RandomJabber.com.
    It is most interesting and a very good thing to remember.

    Thanks!

  14. Guillermo says:

    Have you read my mind? I swear I was thinking about this same thing today! Thanks for the post!

  15. mariam says:

    Ahh, thank you! I just thought the readers were being fickle! Is there also any reason for Feedburner’s Site Stats? It keeps on saying no visitors but it shows up on Google Analytics?

  16. Emma says:

    Thanks Darren. I always wondered about that. It makes total sense now. I can always count on Problogger to have timely answers to things floating around in my head. (I had JUST checked my feedburner stats before I read this article!)

  17. Mario says:

    I have experienced the same thing but your explanation makes perfect sense.

  18. I had the same thoughts on feedburner.

    Your thoughts on why are similar to the ones I already have been thinking of.

    Thanks for the post!

    Carl Zetterlund

  19. Allen Stern says:

    Darren – your post comes at a perfect time to complement my post from 2 days ago asking if RSS Subscribers is the new Hits?
    http://www.centernetworks.com/are-rss-subscribers-equal-to-hits

    Reach might be more meaningful but frankly I don’t think showing these numbers is of any real meaning.

    Some have commented on CN that they like sites that have higher counts as it makes them more trustworthy somehow. I disagree, take each site as it comes.

  20. Marko says:

    Thanks for the info. This thing bothered me for a while….

  21. John says:

    Well some of the doubts about feedburner has been cleared.

  22. Andy Beard says:

    This isn’t 100% accurate

    They also sometimes have bugs that mean that some data isn’t included.

    As a very specific example, yesterday they for some reason didn’t include my email subscribers within the total, which means my total subscribers dropped by around 190 and rebounded again today.

    You can spot this kind of error fairly easily by looking at the breakdown of who is using your feed on a day by day basis.

    p.s. your top bullet in Firefox seems to be inline with your post header information. You might need to add some “clearing” in the CSS.

  23. Sarah says:

    Thanks Darren, this is extremely helpful… I had classified this issue as a mystery for a while now! Mystery resolved :)

  24. Bachelorium says:

    Same, I’ve got an error with the first bullet point in Firefox

  25. Hi Darren, just wanted to let you know that the first bullet point in the post has been squished over the right-hand border of the post, just to the bottom right of the comment count, and half of each word is buried under the column to the right. I’m using Firefox 2.

  26. Good answer to a question a lot of bloggers are always making, I included of course.
    Thanks 4 the info.

    Best regards ;)

  27. Sue says:

    Honestly, Darren, you do read minds. I was just wondering why mine fluctuates so much. And where everyone went since yesterday. Thanks for this very informative post.

  28. ugyen says:

    Good answer Darren, This is true, my readers get the fluctuation daily.

  29. Ashok says:

    I was also thinking something similar the reason of fluctuation.

  30. I used to wonder about these inflows and outflows at many sites, many times. This article is really an eyeopener!

  31. Paul says:

    /me raises hand for being one of ‘the seven’ who asked the question.

    I did admit it was a rather mundane question to be asking in the first place, to Darren’s credit he emailed me back the same night… When do you sleep man!?

    Cheers for the full explanation!

  32. Helpful info, Darren. I’ve been confused by my fluctuations before, but no longer.

  33. I commented about this on Seomoz a couple of weeks ago. I not only explained the reason for the problem, but I also proposed a solution. Let me know what you think. Here is the link http://www.seomoz.org/blog/why-feed-tracking-is-hard#jtc31119

  34. I actually was trying NOT to think about this insanity last week….getting quite aggravated at the fluctuations.

    I read this post and it made it CLEAR AS MUD on the first read….but a read or two later……I’m feeling the “love” again for feedburner!

    Thanks Darren! I’m really enjoying your posts!

  35. Thanks for this. I was wondering why I lost 10 subscribers a few days ago, and they are now back.

  36. Marc Eilbeck says:

    great post this is one ive been asking myself for a while

  37. Jason says:

    I’m still not clear about why they say digg users are using old browsers. Those who know how to digg or bury must have known how to install latest version, isn’t it?

  38. B. Durant says:

    I don’t get why they don’t count a subscribed feed as a feed even if someone doesn’t check it that particular day?

    In reference to – “If their feed reader doesn’t ask for the feed that day, we don’t see them, and consequently don’t include them as a subscriber. ”

    Oh well, great information nevertheless, thanks.

  39. 抽筋儿 says:

    I’m wondering that whether I could translate this article into Chinese for Chinese blogosphere.May I ?

  40. jill says:

    I have no luck at all with feedburner subscribers..whats the big deal..it seems once an e-mail is envolved people just get werry,I guess I dont blame them but I give mine out all day long..Google alerts bloggers you name it my email address should be queen spam..Anyway great blog ..love your work..oh yea new design rocks…jill

  41. analogstuff says:

    Thanks for the information about feedburner Darren.
    I always had this question in mind about feedburner subscribers but now i came to know the answer from your article.

  42. > Almost all of these services report to us how many of their users are subscribed to the feed.

    This is pretty misleading.

    What the services do is include the number of subscribers as part of their request header. This information then appears in your server log.

    This is done for everyone, not just Feedburner. They are not reporting ‘to Feedburner’ how many subscribers you have. They report to every web server they access.

    See http://blog.velospace.org/?p=15

  43. Paul B says:

    At last a definitive answer, thanks for going to the effort of asking. Appreciate it.

  44. elamb says:

    Feedburner gives me steady traffic. I guess I should get smart on it.

  45. Vanessa says:

    I did a search inquiry and later came here. I’ve posted a link to this subject, much obliged for your digging and going to the source for the answer. Also like the new design, especially the comments section, not as busy. I have always learned so much from the comments along with the always timely articles. Much thanks.

  46. Cuckoo says:

    I knew the reason of fluctuation. I was more interested to know if we can find out who all are subscribing to our blogs.

  47. In the context of your other article about full or partial feeds is this interesting quote about reach:

    “Unlike the subscriber number, which may be representative of people who indicated an interest in your content but who do not actually read it, Reach reports on just the items that were viewed in aggregators or the clicks that drove traffic back to the publisher’s site. As a result, it represents a much more accurate picture of the engagement a feed’s audience enjoys, while the subscriber number represents the total audience who’s expressed an interest in the content.”

  48. Shawn says:

    One day, my feedburner count was at 6 readers. Then, the next day, it was dfown to 2. Finally dropping to 1. Then back steadily at 2. I thought that was weird too

  49. This is basically what I suspected was going on. However, this week I’ve held high at 2700 give or take a dozen all week then today, count has dropped to just over 2000. I checked a few other blogs and they all seem to have taken this big hit. Is that just the Saturday effect or has something bigger happened this weekend because it’s November ;-)

    db

  50. Well, here on the east coast of the US, we had a big storm.. I’m sure a lot of people had outages or just shut off to avoid crashes..