The long and the short of it – RSS summaries vs. full articles

Recently Eric Mack asked me my thoughts about showing summaries vs. full articles:

I have a question about length.

This brings up an interesting issue, which is the length of an RSS feed.

Some blogs post the first 200-300 characters, in an effort to get people to click-through to the site. (Which, of course, many don’t). Others provide the entire blog as an RSS Feed, which limits its utility for photos and embedded URLs. I can see strengths in both approaches.

I would like to get your thoughts on the pros and cons of RSS Feed lengths so that I can advise David accordingly.

The answer is, “It depends.”

From the reader’s perspective, the best answer is always, “Let me decide.” The RSS spec includes a <description> element and a <content> element. Most RSS readers will let the user decide which one to display by default, and will let them select it on a feed-by-feed basis.

So, more accurately, the question is, “Is there ever a compelling reason to only include short excerpts in the <content> element?”

And the answer to that is “Yes”.

The question is, from a business perspective, how does your blog support your business? If your revenue is primarily driven by product sales and/or advertising revenue, then it makes sense to only include short excerpts. You have to get people to your site to make any money. But your content had better be compelling and unique, or it could actually backfire by turning some people off.

If, on the other hand, your blog supports your business because it reinforces your brand, increases your visibility, strengthens your credibility, and creates a dialog with your readers, then by all means show the full feed. Leave the shorter feeds for the news sites who depend on ad revenue.

RE: embedded links and photos, many RSS aggregators will display those, too. Bloglines, which I use, does. You just have to make sure you use fully qualified URLs, not relative ones.

So, that’s my answer, but I’m sure there are others who feel differently. Contrasting viewpoints welcome in the comments.