Readers who follow the developments of China’s internet censorship efforts may have heard that the Google-owned syndication service Feedburner has been added to the list of sites usually blocked for users in China. There’s some dispute as to whether it’s nationwide or confined to one large ISP, but one way or another, it’s been blocked for me. This entry summarizes a problem and the solution I have implemented. Warning: This is a relatively technical post, but it’s nothing too complicated I think.
Background: Users in China can reach this site directly. They can also subscribe to my Feedburner-powered RSS feed via Google Reader, which is not blocked. Some other RSS aggregators have been reported to be blocked, but a classic aggregator, Bloglines, still seems to be accessible at the moment.
Source of the Problem: Feedburner has a useful feature for publishers. It can be set to track how many people click on specific links from inside a RSS reader. The result is that publishers who get most of their readership from RSS subscribers get the same type of feedback that’s available when people visit the site directly.
The way this works is that Feedburner creates a relay page for each link, and users stop momentarily on Feedburner’s very fast servers before being directed to the linked page. In my experience outside of China, the user does not even notice this process. The publisher then knows that the link has been clicked, and can plan future content with a better understanding of the audience.
The problem for Chinese users is that that momentary stopover at Feedburner happens on a blocked address, so following any link from a tracking-enabled feed results in a “reset connection” or “timeout” that really amounts to a virtual brick wall—popularly known as the “Great Firewall of China.”
Partial Solution: After an exchange last night with Feedburner’s Rick Klau on their very well-run support forum, we determined that the best I can do right now is to simply disable this extra level of tracking. Now, links in my syndicated posts go directly to their target. This means the system is seamless for users in China, but I learn nothing about what links are getting clicks. For me, that’s an acceptable sacrifice since I write from and about China.
Another issue we discussed was Feedburner’s “FeedFlare” feature, which adds links for “E-mail this article” and “Add to del.icio.us” and such to each post. Currently, they do not appear for users in China because they are constructed as dynamically-created images to reflect comment counts and other data. I proposed that the image code include the standard “alt” parameter to accommodate users in China (and visually-impaired users, on whose behalf the W3C suggests that we always include descriptive information about what’s in an image).
Thanks to Feedburner for giving this problem quick attention, and I hope we make progress. I have some ideas about how I might get this tracking information back, but I’ll leave that for another day, if it works.
[UPDATE 9/28/07: Danwei proposes another solution, which is to provide a feed through Feedsky, a similar service, for China-based users. I’m hesitant to split up the subscriber base, and I do look forward to the day Feedburner stats are integrated with Google Analytics. But I may consider this in the future.]