May 24

Marc Hedlund

Marc Hedlund

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.

tags: affordances  | comments: 46   | Sphere It

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Comments: 46

  Michael Bernstein [05.24.05 07:59 PM]

In principle I agree, but just as ubiquitious as the [RSS] buttons are the [XML] buttons (or they used to be anyway), so I'd sugest using those instead, as they can easily represent any of the formats under discussion without name collisions or mislabeling.

  Just Use RSS [05.24.05 08:16 PM]

OF course O'Reilly can stop its unnecessary fight against RSS and just support RSS 2.0.

  James [05.24.05 08:22 PM]

XML is more confusing to the average person than RSS is. Personally I think the buttons are of no value, much like the "old days" where people seems to always throw up those banners for what browser they liked (Netscape/IE/Cyberdog/Opera/etc). In reality if the webpage is done correctly, the feed should automatically be detected by the RSS reader and handled automatically. Many times just clicking on these RSS/XML buttons only gets you a XML page. Firefox detects the feeds, as do most RSS readers. Save the space and don't bother with buttons...

  Michael Bernstein [05.24.05 08:52 PM]

'Just Use RSS': your opinion would have more weight if you weren't hiding behind a pseudonym. Nevertheless...

While sometimes worse is better, other times worse is worse. Many people upon examining the RSS spec and the backward (and bugward) compatibility requirements shuddered at the thought of maintaining ever-growing masses of special-case code in order to support RSS consistently across heterogenous environments. For others, this seemed like less of a problem, and they balked at replacing a technology that was working well enough right now for something new with supposed future benefits.

Which side of that debate a particular user or developer chose frequently was as strongly influenced by personal history, installed base, and personality clashes as by technical merit.

In any case, we now have a situation with multiple RSS versions + Atom feeds 'in the wild' (many times the format was chosen for good reasons), and there is frequently no reason to provide more than one feed *format* (although there may be reasons for multiple feeds).

Given these facts on the ground, as it were, it is not unreasonable to want a single iconic representation for the general concept of 'here is a subscribeable feed' that is format neutral.

To describe this is as a 'fight against RSS' is disingenuous.

  James [05.24.05 09:00 PM]

So how close are we to just assuming that there is a feed and not worrying about a link?

I think you are correct in your opinion that the "format" doesn't really matter as much as the existance of the feed. The biggest issue I have with multiple feeds is I get worried that one might not be updated as much as other or it might be dropped without letting me know its changed. I think the best solution in your case it to just put the button up since at least currently people still need them and create the feed using "index.xml" rather than "atom.xml". I think index.xml is a much better default file than atom.xml is as we already assume a webpage will be at index.html by default. Sure, sometimes we have to play around and figure it (index.htm, default.htm, etc) but index.html is a good first guess.

Even better would be not having a link to a specific file (such as http://www.codezoo.com/rss/) so that you can change the rss feed to whatever you want an not have to worry about everyone's rss reader getting confused.

  Marc Hedlund [05.24.05 09:23 PM]

Okay, first, if O'Reilly has some fight with RSS, I didn't get the memo. This whole post is my own opinion only; I didn't ask anyone else at O'Reilly for their opinion.

I agree that auto-discovery should solve some problems with feed identification, but in our case we often have multiple feeds on a single page (and that's only going to get worse as we add some of our upcoming features). In that case auto-discovery can work, but it may not be obvious that some of the feeds are available if we don't mark them as being there. Auto-discovery works best for "subscribe to this page" feeds, and not for customized or segmented feeds (you can list ten auto-discovered feeds, but that confuses the people who really just want to "subscribe to this page"). In our current state, auto-discovery would in fact list our feeds, but many people aren't trying it to find them.

Finally, I agree that the "XML" button used to be more prevalent, but today it is not so prevalent. Look on the NY Times site, or on other "mainstream" sites -- other than Yahoo, almost all of them just use the RSS button. XML does make more sense, but so do plenty of the other buttons. They just aren't de facto standards as the RSS button is.

  Hashim [05.24.05 09:28 PM]

how about using an orange icon that just says "feed"

  Matt [05.24.05 10:43 PM]

Let's be honest here, if you're going to support One and Only One thing it should be RSS 2.0, which is by and far away the most widely adopted and used syndication format in the world. Atom is not RSS, and should not have an RSS button in front of it. (And yes, I know Atom has a much better spec.) You'll be in good company with people like Yahoo, CNET, NYTimes, and every other non-political player I've seen evaluate all the options and end up with RSS 2.0.

  Matt [05.24.05 10:44 PM]

And whatever you end up doing, please use better headers than this:

Content-Type: text/html; charset=ISO-8859-1

(From http://www.codezoo.com/recent.csp )

  Marc Hedlund [05.24.05 10:55 PM]

Hashim, my point was to use an icon people already see everywhere -- not to create yet another one.

Matt, I really don't think it matters which syndication format we use (and you'll notice I suggested that people use "whichever [feed format] suits your fancy"), since nearly all the feedreaders support all the formats. That's what matters. Will the user have a good experience if we put out Atom? or RSS 2.0? Yup. So why does it matter? I don't care about the politics of feed formats. What I care about is CodeZoo users being able to find the feeds we publish as quickly and easily as possible, and RSS 2.0 offers no advantages over any other format in that regard. You're absolutely right about the content-type headers on our site, though.

  Anne [05.24.05 11:49 PM]

Would this be the right time to say Atom isn't finished yet?

  Tomas Jogin [05.25.05 12:26 AM]

That orange RSS icon was preceded by its more humble twin: the orange XML icon. Why not use that? It's almost as ubiquitous as the RSS icon and it makes so much more sense to label it XML.

  Dave Winer [05.25.05 01:00 AM]

BTW, the reason I chose XML over RSS for the icon initially is because the term XML was already getting so much publicity, with industry execs falling all over themselves proclaiming every year the year that XML would change everything. Well, here was XML, not necessarily changing everything, but doing something useful.

So rather than add to the already overloaded lexicon, I said let's call this stuff XML, which had a nice additional bennie in that the same symbol could be used when the format behind the HTML was something other than RSS (I was thinking OPML, but it could be any other format).

That's why I ask, please please, can we just use the XML icon and get rid of yet another techie religious battle, and leave the users less confused instead of more.

  Sencer [05.25.05 01:02 AM]

Does anybody else find it a little bit ironic, that the title of the post states a problem, and the "solution" in the post will make it worse.

If you're going to stick a "What is this?"-Link there anyhow... I mean, even Firefox dropped the three Letters "RSS" and relied on a generic orange icon, which IMHO works well...

I agree with Tomas: The XML icon came first, and people were complaining, why a thing that's called RSS was labeled XML ("too confusing"), now people are starting to label Atom as RSS?

  Anne [05.25.05 01:09 AM]

It does so much more not, actually. RSS is so not equal to XML.

  Peter Nixey [05.25.05 01:36 AM]

Call a feed a feed

The purpose of the exercise is to make the technology understandable to people who don't know what it is.

In my humble choosing between RSS, XML, ATOM or any other acronym is just a choice of which particular uphill battle you want to fight and which hill you want to get stuck on.

Instead of labelling the button with its technology which is not only developing but also divergent why not describe the function?

Call the button a FEED and you not only free yourself up to use whatever protocol you chose but you actually describe its functionality to the user.


  Don Park [05.25.05 03:01 AM]

Speaking strickly from UI design perspective, I think users will 'get it' if the atom icon was redesigned to use orange background and white uppercase text.

Blue for HTML and orange for XML. Simple enough for users to educate each other.

  Simon Proctor [05.25.05 03:23 AM]

This is basicaly the route we took with the Atom feeds on our most recent site http://www.s1jobs.com/ up to and including not confuing the CEO about the difference between RSS and ATOM. As far as he is concerned we have RSS feeds, I'm not going to even think about explaining the difference.

One thought it to put the "What is this?" text as boilerplate in the XSLT transformed version of the ATOM feed. This way if someone follows the link as well as getting a pretty version of the data they also get some info on it.

  Danny [05.25.05 04:52 AM]

I didn't even notice the icon - I subscribed to your feed using Bloglines by clicking on a bookmarklet. Solutions to simple subscription that don't impose anything on the publisher (ugly icon) or end user (hunt the ugly icon) are surely to be preferred. The white-on-orange [XML] is well-known amongst *existing* aggregator users, but isn't exactly informative to newcomers. It isn't too bad as a fallback (or just colour-coding as a compromise), but we really ought to have moved to something friendlier by now...

(You know the sleeve of the Beatle's White Album? Now imagine it with an orange icon in the corner).

  a.ndy [05.25.05 05:01 AM]

For the average user, formats do not matter whatsoever. Aks my mum she doesnt know or care what html is and neither should she. The same is true for feeds. Why not calling a feed a FEED? in white on orange if you like ..

  Randy Charles Morin [05.25.05 05:17 AM]

Dave, what happens when I have an OPML, RSS and FOAF XML file for a given page. Do I put an XML icon for each. That's confusing. I think we need an RSS button, an OPML button and a FOAF button. And it would be great if they were all the same orange stupid little buttons, just with different text.

Danny, it's true that newbies don't get the white-no-orange thing. But would a visitor from another planet understand the giant yellow arches of McDonalds? Of course not, it's called branding. But for this to work, we have to work together.

  Dan Downs [05.25.05 05:18 AM]

The existing aggregator users are the ones who teach the new ones how to find the thing to subscribe to, which is commonly called RSS. In the button, either RSS or XML, it doesn't matter, as long as the size, shape and color are right. But don't go putting new words in there. Users don't care, and the more choices there are the more confusion, and the point of Marc's post in case you haven't figured it out yet, is to help out the poor users who are confused by all the choices you people keep throwing at them.

  Michael Pate [05.25.05 07:38 AM]

I don't even look at the buttons anymore. I just look to see if the Firefox Live Bookmark is down in the corner. On my own site, even though I only advertise the Atom Feed, there is an rss feed available if you can figure out where to look. And, judging from my stats, some people have.

  Marc Hedlund [05.25.05 08:16 AM]

Three cheers for Dan Downs, and I second what he says. My point is not that I have some choice to make of which icon I like best; my point is that we all need to figure out which description or indicator will work for the greatest number of users. Everyone who is responding, "But I do this and it works for me" is completely missing the point.

To restate: my prescription is to use the same icon for the same "feed" concept, everywhere, regardless of the particular spec you support, regardless of the aggregator you think is best, and regardless of the design you think would be more appealing. Consistency and simplicity are much more useful.

  Hadley Stern [05.25.05 08:55 AM]

I am happy to say I am quite ignorant about the advantages or disadvantages or atom vs rss. I also don't really care, as a publisher, or as a user of newsreaders. I just want to push a button that say feed and have it appear in a newsreader.

With applematters 95 percent of people use my RSS feed, but I think that's because I've never advertised my atom feed, just because I didn't (and don't) see the need.

I agree with a previous comment that the end user doesn't care. I also think that RSS is far more widely known than Atom (note Safari's integration of RSS, not XML or Atom to describe a feed)

  Rogers Cadenhead [05.25.05 08:55 AM]

I have experimented with different ways to link to a syndicated feed. The ones that have attracted the most new subscribers are to use the term RSS (as in "Subscribe to RSS Feed") or no format name at all (as in "Subscribe to This Site with Bloglines").

As Marc noted, calling something an Atom feed is a tough sell. It took a long time for the term "RSS" to become something known and marketable among web users.

I suspect that Atom will have trouble achieving the same mindshare, and will be viewed by many as simply a flavor of RSS.

  Chaim Krause [05.25.05 09:06 AM]

XML? RSS? Atom? This discussion shouldn't even be happening. These are all technologies. "Users", "Consumers", "Listeners", "Viewers", "Readers", "Subscribers" are the audience. They are NOT "XMLers", "RSSmen", "Atomites". The button should say "Subscribe". There should be one button, one click. All the technology should happed automatically behind the scenes. Let software developers worry about Atom vs RSS.

Second, don't discuss News Readers vs. Podcatchers vs next-new-thing. When the visitor clicks on the "Subscribe" button the browser should take a meta-data file and pass it to *every* installed/registered software package that takes this stuff as input. Then the visitor wants to listen to a podcast, the podcatching software has parsed the ONE metadata file and grabbed the relevant stuff. When the visitor wants to check the latest headlines from the same website, they start up their news reader and that piece of software parses the ONE meta data file and grabs the textual information for the news feed.

Users don't give a crap about tech. They talk in terms of verbs. The watch TV. They read a book. The listen to music. They DON'T RSS, XML, or Atom.

  Philipp Lenssen [05.25.05 09:10 AM]

You can call it "site feed" or similar to avoid any RSS vs Atom debates. Agreed one feed per site should be enough -- feedreaders that want to be a success need to parse all kinds of formats (probably not really simple, in the end).

  Marc Hedlund [05.25.05 10:37 AM]

I changed my recommendation from the "RSS" icon to the "XML" icon after reading comments and looking around at more sites. See note at the bottom of the post, above.

  Danny [05.25.05 10:39 AM]

Chaim's right about the end-user point of view. I don't think the same icon can be used for the "feed" concept, because it's possible to have lots of different kinds of machine-readable data associated with a site.

But I don't think there's a need for a separate data file, or a button for each.

How does this sound instead - ok, you have your standard icon on the page (if you must!). But on clicking it the client tool does autodiscovery on the (X)HTML page itself, pulling out all references to RSS, Atom, FOAF, DOAP whatever.

The user experience may vary - the opportunity will be there to single-click, but I'll continue to use a bookmarklet, other Firefox users will use the little icon in the corner. Aggregator tools might provide other means of letting the user know what's available.

  Danny [05.25.05 10:43 AM]

Nearly forgot - the on-page button/link would need to point to something of a different mime type. Could be done as application/rdf+xml, but that would require server-side processing. Maybe a manifest file would be the easiest...

  Matt Round [05.25.05 11:25 AM]

I recently switched from direct links to RSS & Atom feeds (plus links to subscribe in Bloglines etc.) to a single "Subscribe to this weblog" link. That leads to a page which includes links to the web-based aggregators, a feed: link, and links to the feeds.

Auto-discovery caters for the feed-savvy users and the page offers a gentler introduction for novices, so there's no need for me to mention technical terms such as RSS and Atom elsewhere.

  anon [05.25.05 12:17 PM]

I have been invoved with RSS for 7 years. If everyone is now in agreement that it would be better to put Atom behind the xml button, then everyone should also be in agreement to rename atom, RSS 3.0 - cos that's what it is and was designed to be, it was called atom to avoid argument in the same way that I am posting this using the name 'anon'.

  Anil [05.25.05 01:42 PM]

"RSS 2.0, which is by and far away the most widely adopted and used syndication format in the world."

Actually, RSS 2.0 is about equal to Atom 0.3 in deployment, with RSS 0.9x more popular than either.

  Lucas Gonze [05.25.05 01:55 PM]

I use an orange RSS button for the Atom on Webjay, since I think of RSS as a trade name which is equivalent to "feed".

Hey Dave? How come you headlined the pointer to this story on your blog as being about an end to disagreement over feed formats? That's dishonest, since this story is about using the same ol' icon for all feeds regardless of format, not about using the same format.

  Will [05.25.05 02:59 PM]

I prefer to not use an eye catching, and possibly misleading, image at all. A simple hyperlink that explicitly states the format and version number (RSS 2.0 and Atom 0.3) suffices.

I know that on many busy websites it's still difficult for me to locate the orange image sometimes. I'd much rather that we standardize on placement instead. Like at the bottom of the main column on a page, which would hopefully be at the bottom of the page itself. Having to locate the image at some point on a variable height outer column is particularly irritating. It's often quicker to view source and spot "application/rss+xml" near the top of the source.

  Rogers Cadenhead [05.25.05 04:36 PM]

Where are you getting your numbers, Anil? According to Syndic8 stats, 63 percent of RSS feeds are version 2.0. This is a dramatic change from two years ago, when 1.0 was ahead of 2.0 and 0.91 was still the big leader.

  Dan Downs [05.25.05 05:19 PM]

Lucas Gonzo wants to keep fighting over the best format and who's dishonest and Roger and Anal want to argue about which format has the most feeds. The problem is confused users, not your sense of right and wrong, and which numbers are better. That's the problem with your gear-heds, you don't care about anyone but yourselves.

  Rogers Cadenhead [05.25.05 05:50 PM]

If you're seeing some heat from me, Dan, you're misreading my comment. I just want to know what stats Anil's looking at, because Syndic8's the only feed-usage metric I check.

As for user confusion, I disagree with your point that XML and RSS are interchangeable terms when describing the availability of a feed. From my own experimentation, I feel like RSS is the only term that registers with non-technical users. But we'll see.

  James [05.25.05 06:25 PM]

Maybe we can get Brian Bell to design a new icon?


  Anil [05.26.05 03:34 PM]

Dan called me Anal! That's genius!

Rogers, I was referring to stats that one of the aggregator apps published relatively recently, I'll see if I can dig up a cite. I will note that, for example, Syndic8's numbers don't include Atom feeds for Gmail accounts or Google Groups.

  David Evans [05.26.05 04:25 PM]

I like how Feedburner has an interstial page with various. and I imagine, extedable list of chicklets to subscribe to various feed flavors. And what's up with autodiscovery in page headers? Most blog systems have .3 paragraphs devoted to a solid autodiscovery plan of action for new bloggers. I vote for a single "Subscribe" button that links to this type of page, instead of having 23 different chicklets, which looks so amaterish and confusing. The split between Atom and RSS, yikes that was like 1993 all over again.

  Jeff Fassnacht [05.27.05 02:20 PM]

This article below by Jeffrey Veen may be of interest. Bridge the usablility gap!

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