What Happens To RSS by Email If It’s Not Open?

RSS by Email is a great option to enable in FeedBurner if you’re trying to increase your RSS subscription base. If you haven’t turn this feature on already, you need to do it. Giving your readers more than one way to subscribe to your blog is never a bad thing.

In my post about my RSS competition with Shoemoney, I made the mistake of saying RSS by Email is always counted, even if the subscriber doesn’t check their email. I’ve since found out that this is not true. FeedBurner knows if a subscriber opens their email or not. They accomplish this by embedding a 1 pixel tracking image into the emails. If the subscriber doesn’t open the email by a set amount of time, the subscriber is removed from the RSS count.


The above is a screen shot of my RSS subscribers for yesterday. Out of the 15,424 subs, 4,646 of them access the feed via RSS by Email. However, when you look at my RSS by Email subscription management page, you’ll see I have a lot more subscribers.


In all, there are 5,357 people subscribed to my blog by RSS by Email. However, FeedBurner counted only 4,646 of them because 711 subscribers no longer check their emails and didn’t unsubscribed. By making sure subscribers open their email in order to be counted, FeedBurner gives a lot more accurate reading of the RSS count.

This is actually a very good thing because there was a service started a while back (when I wrote that RSS by Email was always counted) that offered to increase your RSS count for a fee. The service just subbed a bunch of fake emails to your feed so you can show a big number. However, that number will go right back down after a while because those emails are never opened.

39 thoughts on “What Happens To RSS by Email If It’s Not Open?”

  1. DAMN! that is a big difference 1k difference – strange – are you using aweber? I personally do not know how that works but I think they might have something to do with it since they have merged.

    Wow that I didnt know they track time on your emails? that is crazy – so RSS by email is similar to just clicking on a RSS link – all this time I thought email subscription is the way to go and increase your readers

    BTW it looks like you and shoe are neck and neck on RSS readers still

    1. ViralKing says:

      Aweber Now Reports Stats To Feedburner Too. I have written an Article on how to set it up today:


      I agree Email subscriptions is a MUST, although I don’t feel feedburner is the right choice of service to handle it

      1. RacerX says:

        If you are using Feedburner, it is important to make sure that you go ahead and remail those that haven’t signed-up and it is pending.

    2. Poker Sharks says:

      Hey John, youre being ‘reviewed’ over on the wicked fire forums – go to

        1. Seopher says:

          There’s some serious hate going on there…

  2. dcr says:

    What happens if an eMail subscriber has images set to not download in their eMail client? I would guess Feedburner would be unable to count them.

    Most spam messages have images embedded in them, so I keep images turned off in my eMail client. Most legitimate messages don’t have embedded images, so this is rarely a problem for me. But it would be for bloggers should I (or others like me) choose to subscribe to their feed by eMail.

    1. James says:

      This would be my question also.
      Even in the emails I read I often do not allow images to download simply because my default is no images.
      From what I understand, downloading an image in spam email would let them know they have a live email address. It is like bending over and screaming hit me some more.

      1. Yeah, or what happens if your readers use a webmail client that does not automatically show images.

        Good that they are taking this into account but perhaps it needs to be done in a different manner.

        1. Dustin says:

          I’m wondering the exact same thing. Outlook 2007 does not download images by default; you have to actively select to download images. If the RSS feed is simply being copied into the email, then unless there are graphic elements that are part of the story (as opposed to, say, a John Chow 250×250 ad) I wouldn’t see any reason to download the image content.

    2. Good point. There’s also a lot of proxy filtering software that blocks 1×1 pixel images.

  3. Will says:

    I need more blog exposure before this can even help me >.<

  4. Why isn’t this setting enabled by default?

  5. Willy says:

    Are you sure you’re not noticing the difference between verified and unverified subscribers? I have never noticed fluctuations of e-mail subscribers beyond the fluctuation in total verified subscribers. They may embed the image, but on my feed they don’t use the number of e-mails read from stats… that is unless all of my subscribers read my e-mails every day… doubtful.

    1. John Chow says:

      It is that but it is also the difference between active and inactive. An active subscriber will become inactive and not counted (along with the unverified) if they don’t check their email after a certain length of time.

      1. Jim Karter says:

        This is really a new point I have learned.

  6. randomguru says:

    informative and great post as always. thanks for the tip and i just now enabled my feedburner account to setup email subscriptions.

  7. ViralKing says:

    Will – it is good to have it setup right from the beginning though. I am just starting my blog too but it is ready now for growth.

  8. Mike says:

    I think it is the same for the rss readers such as bloglines and the likes. I think that if a reader doesn’t check their feeds that day it is not counted either.

  9. That’s good to hear. It will make gaming the system a little harder and less economical. Basically someone (or some script) still has to open all these emails, so there will be an ongoing cost. It’s not just an email account you can automatically empty.

    Again it will still be possible to game, but at least not as economically easy as before. That’s a good thing.

  10. Simon Lau says:

    That’s a very interesting find. It makes sense to have that feature, I bet it was implemented shortly after sites were dumping fake emails into their system.
    If the pixel is loaded up as an image, what if you only have plain text emails? The image therefore does not load, does that mess with the stats?
    John: I believe there is a slight typo in your post:
    “They accomplish this by embedding a 1 pixel tracking imagine into the emails. ” I think you mean image

  11. I really never knew how much of an impact having this feature can have on a blogs RSS readership. I imagine if images are disabled in the person’s email, it wouldn’t load… and therefore not show as a reader… but I don’t see too many people not allowing imagines to load from Feedburner, since many blogs contain images within their feeds.

    Great post!

  12. Josh Stein says:

    Hi John,
    I found your site from reading Entrepreneur magazine. I started a real estate blog documenting my experiences deep in the forests of Northern Michigan. I really like your site and hope you check out mine sometime. Thanks! http://www.joshsteinland.com

  13. niko says:

    How come my bloglines shows that you have 69 subscribers through it ?
    Is feedburner over-estimating RSS feed ? This is something I actually noticed in the past with some other blogs.
    Anyway, keep up.

  14. Ilina Ewen says:

    Hi John,
    I read about you in Entrepreneur magazine and am amazed at what you’ve accomplished. I just started my blog and look forward to learning more about driving traffic and making this a viable venture. I’m loving it so far. Check it out at dirtandnoise.blogspot.com. Cheers!

  15. I didn’t know that about email subscriptions. I’ll have a look at my Feedburner stats and see what it says.

  16. Willy says:

    Thanks for clearing that up John. Now I remember having some subscribers go inactive, but I think there was an action that allowed me to make them active, which I clicked (not knowing what exactly it meant). My observation is that almost all of my subscribers are active, but about 20% never verify. I’ve tried e-mailing them and asking them to verify, but I had a pretty low success rate. It’s probably time to try again with the people who have signed up but not activated since I last did that.

  17. Everything abused and exposed gets fixed. It is a good question about the image blocking emails as James pointed out, what happens then.

  18. Martin says:

    Are you sure that’s the reason John?

    Embedding the tracking pixel in an email *used* to be a popular method of tracking when an email was opened, but ever since about 2005 (or was it earlier), most new email clients disabled images by default and that effectively killed off the usefulness of the metric.

    I would be rather surprised if the number of email subscribers in such a big list that either a) have images turned off, or b) no longer open the emails to read only represent 20%? I would expect it to be at least double that, probably more… just doesn’t seem right to me, I would think there must be a different explanation.

    Could it be that those emails were underliverable? Either the email address no longer exists, their inbox was full, or was caught in one of those spam filters that either needs the sender to take an action or rejected by the mail server (AOL addresses especially can sometimes be bad for this) before the email is delivered? That would make more sense to me… but I could be wrong 🙂

  19. Johnny Cash says:

    I have been out from the blogosphere for 6 months. Finally, I am able to read a post written by John Chow in John Chow dot com. There were so many guest bloggers in John Chow dot com now.

  20. Terry Tay says:

    Great post John! I think you got this post idea from one of the comment your reader made on the previous post? Like you say it in your ebook guide that comments can be a great place to find new things to write on your blog. Thanks.

  21. Mike Huang says:

    Hmm, is this feature on every feedburner account? It’s either everyone that subscribed to my e-mail feed reads it or it doesn’t work that way…


  22. Jim Karter says:

    Useful post. I never knew this happens with feedburner.
    So all those “contest based” subscribers who rarely check their mails may not that that good of an idea afteral.

  23. Wow, definitely did not know that!

  24. James says:

    My outlook disables all images, and I very rarely enable them, however I know many companies do still use this, As I recieve duplicate emails, and after a few days, I ask them to stop, they explain its because thier tracking image wasnt displayed..

    On a kind of related subject, I have outlook 2003, and find it almost impossible to “1-click” subsribe through feedburner.. Its a matter of findout the the feed address, and adding manually.. which I usually cant be bothered, so many blogs have lost my potential subscribe.

    However, I suppose it just shows the the ones I am REALLY interested in, I have made the effort to add the subscriptions manually, so Its likely I WILL read them regular, as opposed to just having them there for the occasional read.

    Hmmm ramble over

  25. I never knew that. Thanks for the clarification.

  26. Yes its a good point alot of people have realised. They like to keep their database as small as possible this feature helps them achieve this 😉

  27. Syed Balkhi says:

    yeah i saw that one … before i thought it would be included but the number fluctuating every day i wondered whats going on as my email subscribers stayed the same but the ones it was showing was lower… I read more and found out that it doesn’t count it if the subscriber didn’t open the email.

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