Sunday, 6 November 2005

Feedblitz email subscriptions: new features review, tips, thoughts

I previously blogged about Feedblitz, a free service that allows you to offer email subscriptions to your blog or site. Well they've been rapidly developing new features and making improvements, which is always a good sign (and indeed their subscriber base suddenly grew 40-50% on 4 November, because one very large feed switched over from Bloglet the day before). Here's a roundup of the main features.

More ways to publicise and encourage others to subscribe

Originally Feedblitz provided code to include on your template or website to produce a sign up form on your blog which people could fill in with their email address to sign up for email subscriptions to your blog. Now, they've introduced and expanded on another option - you can give people a link to click on which takes them to a signup page on the Feedblitz site. Mine for example is this (click it if you want to see what the signup page looks like):
NB the "Sub" has to be capital S or it won't work, and you must include the questionmark and of course change the "Sub=" number to your own feed's Feedblitz number.

How to find out your "Feed ID" - to find out what's your own "Sub=" number (which is your Feed ID on Feedblitz), login to Feedblitz, click My feeds, click the icon against the relevant feed name under the "Action" column, look for the "<input name="FEEDID" type="hidden" value="somenumber"> " line, and your Feed ID is "somenumber".
If you read Feedblitz's own blog post on this subject, you'll see the code I give is different from theirs. Use mine instead if you want an easier life for yourself and your potential subscribers. They have fixed their system, see the next heading below, to get rid of the (to me) rather dodgy "exe" link, but they haven't updated their post to reflect this.

This new feature is handy because, as Feedblitz pointed out in their own blog post, this gives you more ways to publicise your blog and get new subscribers - you can email the link to people that you want to invite to subscribe to your blog, and include the link in email or messageboard signatures or in chicklets, etc. You can even pre-fill in a potential subscriber's email address for them if you wish, by inserting "&Email=theiraddress" at the end of the link, e.g. in my case it would become - feel free to click that link to see what it does, but note that it has to be "Email" uppercase E or it won't work, and if there's more than one person you want to send it to you have to use separate links for each one, tediously inserting each email address separately, unless you're very geeky and can automate it. (It's too much hassle to do this though if you have a huge number of addresses to fill in unless you use mailmerge, so I'll leave that mass stuff to the power users to work out...).

Better subscription method

The Feedblitz form for subscribing, and the code provided by Feedblitz to enable you to include the form in your blog template or to click to access the subscription form (on which more below), made use of a link to a "Feedblitz.exe" program. I had thought that was a bit unusual and not perhaps the best idea, for reasons Feedblitz have themselves now recognised (makes it "look like a virus to particularly dim anti-virus mail monitors and / or junk mail filters", "some download managers think that an exe is always to be downloaded" and were trying to download the Feedblitz file instead of bringing up the subscription form) - but I didn't mention it before as I thought we were stuck with whichever way Feedblitz chose to provide the subscription mechanism.

Fortunately, Feedblitz have now changed their system and you can access the subscription form, and provide others with a subscription link, using a link which doesn't involve an explicit "exe" file. If you installed their old subscription form it should still work, but you might want to get the new code and replace it. I am.

To do that, you could just tweak your existing form by changing:
  1. to (leave in the quotes around the URL of course), and
  2. < input name="uri" type="hidden" value="NameOfYourBlogOnFeedblitz" /> to <input name="FEEDID" type="hidden" value="XXXX">
making sure you change XXXX to the value of your Feed ID (see the previous heading for how to find out your feed ID).

Alternatively you can login to Feedblitz's dashboard, go to My feeds, click the icon and copy the entire new code there and just paste it into your template in place of your old code.

More info on subscribers

As Feedblitz have announced, you can now see the date when someone subscribed, and also get email notification when someone's subscribed to your blog via Feedblitz, even it seems if they've subscribed anonymously (although the email only says that someone has signed up, not who they are - Phil Hollows, if you're reading this, maybe you could change that to show their email address in the notification too (unless of course they've subscribed anonymously)? Otherwise it's not so useful to the blog owner, or rather not so interesting!). You can turn off email notifications if you get a blizzard of uninformative emails, though (Dashboard, My feeds, click the icon under the Action column against the name of the feed in question - Phil I hope you'll introduce short tooltips/titles for those icons? - and untick Send sign-up notification emails). Remember too that if a subscriber chooses to subscribe anonymously, you won't see their email addresses at all (but see below on how and when they choose that).
You get an email notification when someone fills in the Feedblitz subscription form - but what if they never click the confirmation email, and therefore never activate email subscriptions to your blog? You would then get a false indication of how many subscribers you have. Personally I think the notification email should be sent to the blog only only when a potential subscriber clicks the confirmation link in the Feedblitz email.

And I wish that the My subscribers page would list all your subscribers and subscription dates, even the anonymous ones - can't Feedblitz upgrade their system so there is an "Anonymous" under the email column, where relevant? And also provide a "You have X Feedblitz subscribers" line?

(Phil? :) )

How to subscribe anonymously via Feedblitz

Privacy/anonymity - as I can see a subscriber is not given the option to subscribe anonymously when they fill in the form or click the link in the confirmation email. My view is that they should be given that option at that time. It seems the only way to subscribe anonymously is to set it up after you've subscribed via Feedblitz (login to Feedblitz, click My profile, tick the Private box). Which some people may forget to do, or maybe don't know how. I'm pretty keen on privacy and the right to anonymity so I hope that Feedblitz will give new subscribers the option for this at the outset.

Also, a relatively minor thing but you have to be anonymous for all Feedblitz subscriptions, or none - you can't choose which blogs are allowed so see your email address, and which ones aren't, on an individual blog by blog basis.

Premium services

They've also introduced paying subscriptions for premium services called "Turbo", for both readers and publishers.

Turbo publishers can have "on demand" publishing or "on demand polling" - where changes to your blog are only emailed out to your subscribers as and when you manually click to get them sent out, rather than Feedblitz automatically checking for updates regularly on a scheduled basis and emailing out any changes. (Of course this only works for those who've subscribed for emails of updates to your blog via Feedblitz - if they've subscribed direct to your newsfeed, they'll still get the changes to your blog as and when their feed reader gets them. So personally I think this feature is of limited use unless people can't get hold of your feed URL).

Non-premium users can only have Feedblitz emails sent out or received once a day, as mentioned in my previous Feedblitz post.

Feed content - long or short? Humans vs search engines etc

I mentioned in my previous post that one area where Bloglet, another free email subscription service, is better than Feedblitz is that with Bloglet you can set what subscribers get in their email to be different from what you've set in your Feedburner feed (or indeed in your blog's source feed).

In his comment on my post, Phil Hollows of Feedblitz said "my stock answer is to use FeedBurner's summary burner capability. After all, if your posts are too long for email, aren't they also too long for a traditional aggregator? It makes sense to me to fix the feed for both in one fell swoop. Still, post truncation will probably come in the not too distant future, but as a feature it's behind the new premium services currently in beta."

I want to elaborate on why I think it's important to be able to set what your subscribers see to be different from your source feed.

You don't necessarily want your subscribers to get a very long email, as I explained in the final Bloglet section of my previous post. Sure, you can do that by adjusting your source feed settings (whether via your blog platform dashboard, or via Feedburner's settings, if you use Feedburner). But I want my source feed to be as long and full as possible, with my subscribers only getting an abbreviated version. Why is that?

Well, it's clear that increasingly search engines such as Google's Blog Search, and blog owner/webmaster tools such as Google Sitemaps, draw on your blog's feed to be able to do their stuff - index your blog, mainly. They don't necessarily now crawl your site as regularly as you'd like, if at all - they depend on your feed. Now I'm no expert on ffeeds. Some of these web services should hopefully use the feed as a pointer to then go and read your full blog post, but if they don't then surely what they get (and, therefore, what their users see in relation to your blog) is going to be limited to what is in your feed. So, I want my source feed to be as full as possible, as I want what the search engines etc read from my blog feed to be as full and long as possible, with my complete text, tags and all (in fact, I want them to read the text of my full post without cutting anything out, period), while being able to not overload my readers with a long feed/email.

That's why I hope Feedblitz and other similar services will enable that capability, sooner rather than later. (Beginning to sound like a broken record, but - Phil??)

Continuing niggles

If you've logged in, then visit another part of the Feedblitz site, you can't easily get back to your dashboard except by using the Back button (as I reported in my previous post). Phil of Feedblitz said he would fix it, and that clicking Login from any menu gets you there, but then the problem is that "Login" isn't available from every page on the Feedblitz site… so I hope this is sorted out soon…

And I've mentioned the lack of tooltips/titles for the icons in My feed, so I won't mention it again!

Via Feedblitz's blog.

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