Atom has a Branding Problem

I get feedback from CodeZoo users surprisingly often that looks like this:

Could you please add RSS feeds for your news postings? It would also be great to have a feed of new components added, and maybe a feed for every component. Thanks.

Why, sure, I respond. No problem. In fact, they’re already there — every one of those feeds is already on the site. The thing is, see, we used an icon that reads “Atom Feed” to mark them, and apparently lots of O’Reilly-site-reading, Java-programming, feedback-sending feed-requesters don’t know what an Atom feed is. And who can blame them?

I mean really. If you went around the web collecting up all the little icons people use to represent an RSS feed of some sort, you could probably find well over a hundred of them. Most sites that support RSS (including this one) seem to feel that they need to support a bunch of varieties of RSS (0.91, 1.0, 2.0, Atom….) even though nearly every feed reader supports every one of those formats. Even the link I provided above to what seems to be the definitive Atom site (#2 in the Google search results for the term Atom, after AtomFilms) doesn’t use the term RSS anywhere on the home page, despite the fact that most people who have heard of syndication formats know what RSS is and don’t know what Atom is. (Would it be so hard, folks, to say, “Atom is an improved type of RSS feed,” somewhere on the home page — like at the top?)

I thought we were avoiding some RSS-related damage when we chose one and only one format — Atom — for our feeds. I thought it was nice that we were using the same thing Blogger was, and that we used a big, prominent icon to label it. I thought we were making it easy for people. Nope. I was wrong.

Let me tell you what we should have done, and what we’re going to do real quick now:

  1. We’re going to use the ubiquitous, little, orange “RSS” “XML” [Note: I changed this after publication; see below.] icon everywhere we want to show people that we offer a feed.
  2. We will not be indicating whether said feed is Atom, RSS, 0.91, or 8.0. The user should not have to care — the format of the data is the feedreaders’ problem. The user’s problem is to find the feed, and to make that easier, we’re going to use the closest thing to a standard indicator.
  3. We’re going to provide a “What’s this?” help link right next to every RSS XML icon. Plenty of people don’t know what an RSS feed is, and we’re going to do our part to help them find out about RSS.
  4. We’re going to use feed auto-discovery wherever it makes sense to do so.

It’s definitely true that neither “RSS” nor “XML” is a helpful term to describe feeds to the world at large. Yet another acronym, spewed into the environment by the worst language polluters on the planet, the tech industry. But you know what? It’s already too late. Just like ‘http://‘, RSS these icons are a usability disaster that will be around for the long haul. The tools will have to route around the damage.

Look, I don’t like it, either. But it’s better than having people so confused by the latest little feed icon that they can’t even see the subscriptions you think are right in front of their face. Help them out. Use one and only one icon (the orange RSS XML icon) for one and only one feed format (whichever one suits your fancy) when you want to say, “There’s a feed here.”

Update: Lots of commenters have pointed out that the “XML” icon is often used and looks about the same to most users as the “RSS” icon. I did an informal survey and found that, for sites in my bookmarks that use either the little orange “RSS” or “XML” icons, the split was leaning towards “XML” between them (NY Times and Washington Post use XML, BBC uses RSS, etc.). Some people have misinterpreted my intent to be subverting the RSS overlords by hiding Atom behind an RSS icon, about which I don’t care at all. Using “XML” avoids that silly fight, and seems to be closer to the de facto standard than I’d originally thought. So, I’ve changed my recommendation above. For those who don’t like white-on-orange, on that I think we’re stuck.