Saturday, 21 January 2006

Related feeds: FeedAdvisor v Bloglines

Do you want to check out the "related feeds" of a particular blog to find more good reads similar to your favourite blog, or to see where others think your blog fits in? The ever-evolving Feedblitz, who provide a free feed to email service, have recently introduced a new FeedAdvisor feature, which claims to find and suggest feeds that are related to a particular feed. (They've since added access to it from the Feedblitz dashboard, and continue to tweak and tune it.) They describe this process as analysing what they call the "Subscription Web". They say it works via pattern matching using the aggregated subscription patterns of all Feedblitz subscribers. It:

"looks at your subscriptions. It then looks at all the users in the FeedBlitz subscription database who subscribe to the same feeds you do. It then looks at the content that these subscribers look at in turn, and then uses a proprietary algorithm to rank the content by relevance for you... Finally, the top three choices are presented to you. They're tailored to you, and are potentially unique for each and every individual subscriber in FeedBlitz" (but they say that "no personally identifiable information is revealed when the results are published").

Or put another way:

"FeedAdvisor analyzes the FeedBlitz subscriber database and maps your individual subscriptions to everyone else's. A proprietary algorithm then lists up to three new content sources based on the aggregated behavior of people who have the same subscriptions as you do. No individual preferences are revealed (that's obviously very important!), but the aggregate, emergent behavior of the entire population is boiled down to the top feeds that you seem to be missing."

And furthermore:

"FeedAdvisor constantly examines the subscription patterns in the FeedBlitz subscription database. But relevance is important, so after a certain point FeedBlitz will not make recommendations if the feeds do not appear to have sufficient weight in the population of subscribers like you. So, eventually the recommendations may stop - until a new content provider gets enough weight to be potentially interesting to you based on the FeedAdvisor analysis."

Now automatically finding related feeds is a great idea - but it's not actually a brand new concept. Bloglines, the free online feed aggregator that's probably the best known Web-based feed reader, have had a "related feeds" function since September 2004. I'll be describing that too, later on. But for now, back to FeedAdvisor.

How to find related feeds via Feedblitz's FeedAdvisor

There are several ways to find related feeds. To me, the easiest way (oddly enough it's not mentioned on the Feedblitz "how" page) to get FeedAdvisor's list of feeds related to a particular feed is to enter the feed URL in the search box at (incidentally Phil Hollows of Feedblitz has I see prudently registered too, to cater for regional spelling differences - but where's the redirect from that domain, Phil...?). Try it for your blog (opens new window).

Of course FeedAdvisor works best if:
  • you know the exact feed URL to enter (though it seems you can word search, more on that below)
  • people are subscribing to that feed URL via Feedblitz, as FeedAdviser can of course only aggregate and match feeds which go through it, and
  • (to get meaningful results) enough readers subscribe via Feedblitz to both that particular feed and other Feedblitz feeds that FeedAdviser will have big enough figures to work from - hopefully the relevance will improve with more data, i.e. more feeds added to Feedblitz, more subscribers subscribing to different feeds, more time for more stats to build up.
So if you got zero results for your own feed ("There is not enough information in the Subscription Web to yield meaningful FeedAdvisor results. Please try again"), don't despair yet - you'd be in the same boat (on the basis of current searches at FeedAdvisor anyway) as, say (and you can try these links and you'll see what I mean), Scobleizer and Boingboing! In fact that seems to be the case with some (most?) feeds I try, including my own feeds. No doubt that's because Feedblitz haven't been going long, only a few months, and they don't have as many subscribers to multiple feeds as are needed to provide fully comprehensive related feeds info yet. Or maybe it's because people who subscribe to well-known blogs which have been going for a while and are popular with geekier types already use feed readers and don't bother with email subs?

Who knows - an illustration of related feeds given by Phil of Feedblitz uses a feed which has fewer readers than mine, at least on Bloglines, yet that feed has related feeds on Feedblitz, and my feed doesn't. But in any case they ought to append to that "Please try again" message something like "in a month or two", to avoid people trying the same search every day (or every minute, thinking it's like Technorati and its temporarily busy servers?) in hope or frustration!

Here's what positive results look like, if you're curious (or see the search results yourself direct, opens in a new window):

Now let's rewind a minute, I hear you ask. Didn't Feedblitz say related feeds are tailored to the individual subscriber based on their existing subscriptions? How does the straight FeedAdvisor search work then? It functions even if you're not logged in (to enable FeedAdvisor to access your personal subscription data), indeed it works even if you're not a Feedblitz member, so it can't possibly be personalised. Maybe the generic FeedAdvisor "related feeds" search aggregates all subscribers' feeds and then extrapolates from that, much as I suspect the Bloglines system does. It would be interesting to know how it works, and how (if at all) it differs from the "potentially unique" results for each subscriber.

Feedblitzers only?

Feedblitz seem to suggest that you have to publish or subscribe via them in order to search for related feeds, but in fact you don't (as you can see from the above - people can just search on the FeedAdvisor site). You just need to know what feed URL to enter. Obviously whether you get any results and how meaningful they are will depend on the number of people who do subscribe via them.

However, especially if you don't know the feed URL off the top of your head (and it's rare that you would), it's certainly easier to find related feeds if you're a Feedblitz member (bloggers who've submitted their feeds to Feedblitz are automatically subscribed to their own feed.).

To find feeds related to a feed you've subscribed to via Feedblitz, login to your Feedblitz dashboard. There's a search box on the front page like the one on the FeedAdvisor site, but again you have to know the feed URL. Or else you can click "Click to see FeedAdvisor at work" first, which takes you to your list of subscribed feeds, then click the FeedAdvisor button for that feed to see its related feeds (which I think is easiest) - or preview a feed by clicking the binoculars icon by the feed and scrolling to the end of the preview. (Presumably Feedblitz will take away the extra step of having to click "Click to see FeedAdvisor at work", which just seems an unnecessary extra step, and add the FeedAdviser function to the standard My feeds page - probably it's just a work in progress thing.)

Also, if you're a Feedblitz subscriber, your Feedblitz emails should list, at the end, the top 3 related feeds for that feed, as suggested by FeedAdvisor, but excluding feeds you're already subscribed to.

You can then preview any related feed, subscribe to it, or reject any feed which you never want to darken your inbox or preview page again. (I assume that last action would be noted by FeedAdviser and used to help tweak their algorithm.) Or you can click the FeedAdvisor button to find feeds related to one of those feeds listed, in turn, and just keep related feeds surfing for as long as they produce results.

Now you'll notice that the Feedblitz email and preview view only shows the top 3 related feeds. To view the full list of related feeds, use the FeedAdvisor button, or search FeedAdvisor via the front page of the dashboard or on the FeedAdvisor site.

What can you search; discrepancies; and how Feedblitz could lure in more subscribers

Now on to stuff I don't know but would like to know, and things Feedblitz don't do (in this context at least) which I'd like them to do (or think would be good for Feedblitz, from a marketing point of view, if they did. No charge, maybe they could just rope me in on their future betas...!).

The FeedAdvisor search (site or dashboard front page) lets you search for feed URLs. You can even search for words (like "blogging" or "gadgets" or "consuming"). But not blog URLs (I've tried). Yet if you search a feed URL it doesn't take you straight to its related feed, but to a page showing the name of the blog, with the option to click a FeedAdviser icon to find the related feeds for that blog.

The "Subscribe" page via the dashboard does however let you search blog URLs (and autodiscovers the feed URLs) - but you can't search for words. If you enter a feed URL it just subscribes immediately you to that feed. (Actually I wish it would offer you a preview option first, just in case, as the Subscribe button does on Bloglines - but it subscribes you direct...)

Why not make the two consistent to handle feed URL, blog URL and word searches on both? Why not allow the search function on the Subscribe page to accept word searches too, e.g. for blog names? (by the way I think "URL to Poll" is a bit user-unfriendly for non-geeks - why not "Enter URL of feed to subscribe to" or the like, and also make it clear that you can search for blog URLs as well as feed URLs?). And why not let a feed URL search on FeedAdvisor take you straight to the related feeds page for that feed to save time, and accept blog URL searches on FeedAdvisor?

I'd like to know how the word searching on FeedAdvisor works. If you search say "blogging", you'll find blogs listed that don't mention that word in their title. I blog about "blogging" a lot, yet my feed isn't in that list. What does it search, and how? Now if people could tag feeds on Feedblitz, Bloglines etc, I could understand that searching tags would work, and indeed I wonder how quickly feed tagging will be introduced by the major feed readers (Google Reader, which I covered previously at an early stage in its history, allowed "labels", i.e. tags, from the start).
(I personally think tagging individual posts is better than tagging entire feeds, except for blogs that have a very clear and consistent theme, one-track blogs so to speak. As with tagging blogs, with blogs which cover a variety of topics the tagging of entire feeds may perhaps be too general to be useful, or as useful as tagging posts anyway. The key difference would be that blog tagging is currently done by the bloggers, so feed tagging if done by subscribers would be more like tagging on Delicious, and so would be much more interesting in terms of the social networks effects.)

So anyway, how the word searching works on FeedAdvisor may have to remain a mystery for now, but I'd love to know the answer.

And the FeedAdvisor site could be a great marketing and publicity tool for Feedblitz - lots of people might well want to visit and try it out to find related feeds for their favourite feeds. Skipping that extra step mentioned above where the feed URL is entered direct would help. So would adding to the front page of Feedblitz and FeedAdvisor a note to tell users that they can even try word searching for feeds. But most of all, on the results page why don't they add a "Subscribe" icon next to the preview and FeedAdvisor icons, to enable people to just enter their email address and password for an immediate Feedblitz sub for a particular feed? And on the preview page you get to from FeedAdvisor, why don't they have a subscribe icon or link too? I think those are missed opportunities there...

In fact why don't they have a FeedAdvisor search box on their main page which non-subscribers can use, with access to related feeds, preview and subscribe links in the search results? That's what I'd do, if it were me - let people have the chance to enter their fave feed URLs or site URLs or word searches, see what a Feedblitz sub to a resulting feed would look like and how the related feeds would work, interest them that way, then get them to give their email address and password (taking a cue e.g. from Google Base, who cleverly draw you in by providing a "Post your own item" link and letting you fill in all sorts of stuff, before they make you register for an account!). That's one good way to bring in more users on the subscriber rather than blogger/publisher front - especially important given FeedAdvisor's emphasis on subscriber, rather than "blogerati", focus as its main selling point.

As I said, no charge! (or for the proofreading either.. ;) - "orinted" and "aeither" on the FAQs page, "About the Subscripton Web" on the FeedAdvisor site...?)

How to find related feeds via Bloglines

Any Bloglines user will have noticed that if after signing in you click on the name of a feed from your My Feeds list, on the right along the top, after the number of subscribers to that feed, there's a "related feeds" link. As I mentioned above, Bloglines have in fact had this feature since September 2004.

Just click on that link to see which feeds Bloglines consider are related to that feed. As Bloglines have been going for much longer than Feedblitz and must have a vast subscriber base, the results are not surprisingly going to be better, at least at the moment. Well I think they're better anyway, given that I got zero results for my blog on FeedAdvisor whereas Bloglines says these are the related feeds for my blog (which I'm quite pleased about really, it's pretty accurate in terms of what I blog about e.g. Creative Commons, though sadly for me, but not surprisingly, the converse isn't true - i.e. the related feeds for BoingBoing and Scobleizer don't include my blog on their lists!).

Another way to check related feeds on Bloglines, for a feed you're not currently subscribing to, is just to click Add under My Feeds, enter the feed or blog URL, find the feed and click Subscribe, then Preview this Feed, then click the "related feeds" link.

Related feeds: Bloglines vs Feedblitz FeedAdvisor

I've tried a few feeds both via FeedAdvisor (while not logged in) and from my dashboard (in the preview view), and the recommendations don't seem any different (though I don't use Feedblitz for many feeds), so I don't know how well the personalisation aspect of Feedblitz works yet. That's the aspect that seems unique to Feedblitz, which Bloglines doesn't appear to offer.

I don't know whose algorithm, Bloglines' or Feedblitz's, is better in terms of coming up with the most relevant related feeds. As I mentioned, I suspect FeedAdvisor doesn't have enough data yet to provide significant results in the case of many feeds. But for the two blogs which I know definitely have related feeds on Feedblitz, as they're the examples given by Feedblitz, you could get a rough comparison just by seeing the results:

Related feeds for Burnham's Beat on Feedblitz

Related feeds for Burnham's Beat on Bloglines

Related feeds for Build a Better Blog on Feedblitz

Related feeds for Build a Better Blog on Bloglines

As you can see, there is some overlap, but the results aren't identical (and why should they be, I'm sure they use different algorithms). Only time will tell how it all works out in the battle of the related feeds. It's an interesting move though, and the results should be even more interesting as Feedblitz's subscriber base and feed database grow, and they develop the personalisation aspect. I hope Feedblitz will unveil the word searching officially at some point (and explain how it works) - and I wonder if they'll introduce tagging?

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Keith P. Stieneke said...

This is quite the interesting post about rss posting. I am always looking for new places to promote my feeds for my site Blog Smart Resources. I would like to feature your blog in mine or if you want to post it in my blog directory feel free to do so.

"ME" Liz Strauss said...

Hey there, I'm chuckling to think that one way to get readers to read to the end is to use a screen shot of their feed. Now I'll have to back to Bloglines to see whether we come up as related. :)
Thanks for the article.
ME Strauss

Improbulus said...

Keith, thanks - feature away if you wish. :)

ME Strauss, glad you got a chuckle out of that! Indeed, one could just keep going all day, surfing for related feeds...