One of the most powerful Squarespace components is the journal module, which can be used to create a blog. And among the most useful, but least understood, journal features is the automatic publishing of xml feeds, also known as RSS, Atom or RDF Feeds. (For more information on the concept of a xml feed, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_feed)

Once you set up a journal and let your users know the feed URL, Squarespace will start tracking your subscribers. This is known as your subscriber count and you can find it under Traffic > Subscribers in the Admin area.

In order to understand the subscriber count, you’ll need to know that web feeds are an anonymous technology that do not lend themselves to easy tracking. People aren’t actually subscribing to a feed like they would subscribe to an email list. Since its anonymous, the only record we have of subscribers are what IP addresses downloaded the feed. To make matters more complicated, someone’s feed reader can come multiple times a day to download your feed thus inflating the count. In order to give a more accurate estimate, we only count the number unique IPs downloading your feed. This implicitly means that the current day’s subscriber count is an estimate until the day is over because we can’t calculate the number of unique IPs until we have a full 24 hours of data. To find the true subscriber count for today, you have to wait until tomorrow.

Feed aggregators, such as GoogleReader, Bloglines, or NewsGator, give Squarespace additional information to augment the subscriber count. Those services download a feed on behalf of more than one person and when they grab a feed from Squarespace, they will self-report a subscriber number in their user agent identifier. For example, Bloglines tells us this:

Bloglines/3.1 (http://www.bloglines.com; 154 subscribers)

We look for this information and add the number of people Bloglines has told us are using them to read our feed, in this case adding 154 subscribers to the subscriber count. Some feed aggregators do not report this information and in those cases, we are just out of luck. We count those as one subscriber.

The last thing to understand is that the subscriber count is reported on a daily basis, which is the most common way of doing it. We combine the unique feed downloads and the self-reported aggregator numbers on a given day and that is the subscriber count. When you change the subscriber stats to a weekly view, it’s really important to note that we calculate the average number of subscribers per day during that week, not the sum of the subscribers across each day of the week. Likewise, the monthly view is the daily average during that month.

Now that we have the basics of the subscriber count down, I’d like to address the two most often asked questions about subscriber stats:

1) What is my total number of subscribers?

2) Why have my subscribers gone down/up recently?

The answer to the first question is that it is not really a good question to ask. :) Since a subscriber is anonymous, we don’t know from day to day how many people are “subscribed.” The ‘total number’ is ephemeral and that’s why we call it a daily subscriber count and not a total. This implies the answer to the second question, which is that the subscriber number is naturally very volatile. If a subscriber doesn’t open their RSS feed reader for a day, they won’t be counted and your subscriber count will go down on that day. This is a very important point to remember around the holidays because people tend to take a break from their computers and their RSS readers (which is healthy!). So keep in mind the subscriber count fluctuates from day to day and that most blogs suffer from a noticeable drop in subscribers on the holidays.

To sum up, if you are checking your subscriber count every day, my advice is to relax because the count is only an estimate and there isn’t much value in tracking it from day to day. And don’t worry if your subscribers fluctuate, especially in the beginning. The best way to see how your blog is doing is to look at longer term trends. Plus, you’ll gain more time to write in your blog.

I hope this was a useful explanation and good luck to all our bloggers out there!