Friday, September 29, 2006

Web Feeds and the Long Tail

In my post yesterday I described a new feature we're working on at Voice Mobility called Spoken Web Feeds. When we were originally thinking about this feature one of the design questions we faced was: given 100,000 users, how many different feeds will we have to support?

When thinking about this we reasoned that nearly everyone is subscribed to either Boing Boing, SlashDot or one of the other top-ten Blogs/pages. We then figured that PodCasts like MSNBC news would likely have hundreds of subscribers as well. In the end we figured that the vast majority of Web Feeds would be subscribed to by multiple users, so the total number of feeds we'd need to support would be substantially less than 100,000 users * 9 feeds each. Probably something around 100,000 or so seemed like a reasonable number. Being the cautious types, we designed the system to handle much more than that, but expected our prediction to be correct.

In the past couple weeks I've been reading (actually, listening to the audio book on my iPod) Chris Anderson's book The Long Tail. I'm about halfway through the book and now I'm pretty sure our original thinking about Web Feed subscriptions is incorrect.

If 98% of all tracks at iTunes sell each year, then the Abundance Economy of the web would seem to imply that 98% of all Blogs and Web pages would have at least one reader. Assuming the subscribers to our Spoken Web Feeds feature are a reasonable cross-section of society (perhaps a poor assumption at first), then it is possible that every subscriber will have at least one Web Feed that nobody else has subscribed to. Possibly more than one.

Given this Long Tail thinking, we need to design Spoken Web Feeds to potentially support two or three hundred thousand subscriptions for every one hundred thousand users. That's a lot more than we originally figured (but fortunately, not more than we actually designed for. Remember, we're cautious around here.)

However, there is another side to this which might render Long Tail thinking moot. Are there 200,000 Web Feeds and Podcasts out there? Probably. But, are there 200,000 that are good enough that even a highly niched user would want to listen to them on their telephone? Who knows.

I look forward to the first 100,000 subscribers so I can update you on what we find.

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