Feed Confusion

I’ve been thinking about feeds lately. Partly because of my recent reshuffling of the feeds here on this site, and equally due to Molly’s recent Where is Your Feed? post.

I merely offer an outsider’s perspective. I don’t study the specs on the 3,749 versions of RSS, nor the newer Atom format, but rather like many of you, I’m a user of these formats.

I realize the debate has been going on for years, with the hopes of creating a single unified standard. But as it stands now, many sites offer a bevvy of formats for the same information: RSS .92, RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0, Atom, etc. Here at SimpleBits, I offer both RSS 2.0 and Atom. Movable Type and other publishing engines make it easy to auto-generate these flavors, but frankly I’d be much happier just offering one version and sticking to it. As simple as it is to create templates, it’s still easier to only have to deal with one.

XML/RSS/ATOMBut I’m wondering where this is all going? Will we forever continue to support multiple RSS formats as well as Atom? Is Atom succeding as a successor to RSS? Will this stop people from using the term “RSS” to describe an Atom feed? It’s all very confusing — and that’s coming from someone who actually understands some of this stuff. Orange XML buttons, RSS buttons, Feed buttons — there’s no one standard for naming it, not to mention what format it actually uses.

One could argue that it doesn’t matter — that the CMS does all the heavy lifting, and why should I care if I’m pumping out 20 different files with the same information in them? But that sounds awfully familiar. In the world of web design, we know that it doesn’t have to be that way — that a single lean, meaningful XHTML file can alleviate multi-version hell. We just need that single, lean, meaningful RSS/XMLfeed/Atom file as well. Maybe?

I know that plenty of smart folks are working hard on this stuff every day. I’m just noting the current state of XML feeds (I suppose the only safe name to call all this stuff) as seen by someone who isn’t an expert.


  1. Keith says:

    I don’t know the answer, but I do have the same questions. For now, with my new sites, I’m going to offer one or two feeds (Atom) that are “cleaned up” by Feedburner.
    There is just too damn much to keep track of out there and while I value my feeds, I need something easy. As well, multiple feeds are much more for me to keep track of in many ways. Statistically, template-wise, etc.
    I may be taking away some of the choice my readers have by going with one or two, but for me–and those who don’t know or care–I’m making things easier.

  2. Jeremy Boles says:

    I think we have all learned by now that standardization is a very good thing. Maybe with the release of Safari 2.0 with RSS capabilities, we’ll see RSS merge as the standard.

  3. I’m with you guys — I hate the confusion. I have no idea what the difference is between those feeds — I just know that WordPress takes care of it for me, and I just stick links out there. But I don’t want three different links — I want one shiny happy link.
    And when I go to a site, I want to know which one is best for me to subscribe to. I currently sign up for RSS 2.0, because, like, it’s version 2, so it must be better than 1.0 or .92, right? And Atom must be some non-standard craziness.
    Those conclusions are drawn purely from 5 seconds of thinking, and have no facts behind them — but I’m betting that’s a more common angle of choosing which feed to subscribe to than actual research.
    I’m going on strike until someone authoritative tells the world which feed format to use.

  4. Jeremy –
    That’d be great, but I think it’s a bit of wishful thinking. I use a Mac at home and I love it, but I have my doubts as to whether a Mac browser deciding which feed to use as its standard will have much of an impact on the overall feed scene and its 9 zillion Windows users.
    Things are already fractured enough that, as usual, we web developers are going to have to create various versions of things to keep everyone happy.
    Why can’t life be simple and be truly standard? WHY? *begins to cry giant tears of sadness*

  5. JD says:

    Agreed, it is very confusing.
    There was also talk about merging RSS and Atom. As of now, I don’t think there was any progress made on this topic.
    IMHO the BIGGER problem is to get not-so-techie users to adopt to syndication model.
    There was a debate about the same topic sometime back and Nick offers his thoughts here, which I tend to agree with.

  6. Dave says:

    I agree, there is too much rubbish offering the same content – I offer Atom & RSS, but to be honest every news reader thingy reads both, so why not just use one. I don’t even know the difference between the two!

  7. Alex King says:

    I think the best solution right now is FeedBurner’s SmartFeed. It might not solve the format war, but at least it doesn’t make the user choose between four or five different feed technologies.

  8. Oliver Roick says:

    I’m offering two feeds. One with summaries and another one with full posts.
    Because of all that trouble with the different versions I’m using FeedBurner. They translate the feed compatible to the feed reader of the visitor. Additionally you get some stats for every feed that you’re offering via FeedBurner.

  9. David Ely says:

    From my limited understanding, Atom fixes a few things about RSS, so it’s probably a little better, but then again only RSS allows for podcasting.
    Generally I think that publishers of feeds should just choose one and go with it. If the differences aren’t that profound, why confuse your readers with them?
    The bigger question, I think, is what to put in your feed. Should it include comments? Should it mark as new when a new comment goes up? Should there be a seperate feed for comments? Should each entry have its own comment feed? Should linklogs be included into main entry feeds? Should linklogs collect their entries into a daily digest, or publish as they go? These sorts of considerations, to me, are more interesting.

  10. David says:

    For my feeds for my sites I use Feedburner’s Smartfeed (I publish using the flavor of RSS2 as I like the information I can include).
    However, it still requires people to know what it is and they don’t usually want to read the little paragraphs of explanation. Instead, I found that when I added little buttons for “My Yahoo” and “My MSN”, etc. that people started to subscribe.
    This isn’t for my blogs, as blog readers generally have an ok understanding of rss/atom in comparison to the “average user” IMO. With my blogs, I just need a little link that says RSS/XML, etc. That alone didn’t help my much larger sites until I added some buttons for popular sites to act as readers. It’s gone well since, and obviously those users don’t care at all about what version of feed I’m putting out. Oh, and I just call them “feeds” to avoid acronym confusion.

  11. soxiam says:

    You may find this post by Tim Bray interesting.

  12. Kim Siever says:

    To make things worse, Blogger puts code in their user’s pages for both RSS and Atom, but only one ever works.

  13. Jason says:

    Right now I would say having your feed republished with Feedburner is the easiest solution for a publisher/developer. You can still offer your raw feeds (like WP which syndicates 2.0, rss, and atom) as a backup.
    Whichever you choose to do, I think an important consideration is education. Kind of like all the noise over the last five or so years with standards/css/table-less design (ALA, Zen Garden, Zeldman, Stopdesign, Simplebits, etc.) Seems like their was a lot more education about these browsers and standards issues which has finally bore some good fruit for us all (Firefox, IE 7). If you had a question about any of this stuff, you knew where to go to start looking for answers.
    Unless you have a CMS out-of-a-box that comes complete with site syndication, how does a novice publisher know about practical RSS administration: Like the auto-discover feature of linking their feed(s) in the header. Hey its one click, but for some, that may be the difference between subscribing to a feed or not. There just doesn’t seem to be as much of a centralized knowledge base (i.e. Big sites and big guru’s) about the subject that is guiding the RSS wave along right now. Seems like the debate is beginning though.

  14. Content syndication (subscription, whatever) via RSS and Atom is definitely a good thing, in that it’s helpful to almost anyone who reads on the web.
    Apart from the format problem (and that’s a big one), there is the issue of explaining this all to users and helping them figure out how to take advantage of the technology.
    I like sites that offer a Feeds page, with a short description about what they’re looking at and what to do with it. What else can we do?

  15. I only offer RSS 2 on my site, just to avoid confusion. Atom is still in early development, and I don’t know of any newsreaders out there that only read Atom but not RSS. So, I’m sticking with the more common format for now. I encourage others to do the same, for the sake of simplicity.

  16. ~bc says:

    XML, RSS, RDF, Atom, Feed, hello, is this the name Olympics? We offer 3 feeds on our site, same content. I know just a little and I too long for one format, but feeds are still reletively young (when it comes to being used/developed heavily) and competition will breed a better format, hopefully.
    Atom was introduced to solve issues with RSS, but aims adds API/upload functionality (if I recall correctly). They also have enclosures pending. I believe it will eventually be the best format. RSS has a better name (really simple syndication might be the best name for a tech since TWAIN, since it’s a name that defines itself), and more mindshare (for example, Safari 2 being aka Safari RSS [it reads Atom, too])
    So here’s hoping that RSS 3 is Atom… I mean, can’t XMLs just get along?

  17. I wouldn’t want to see only one format, simply because that would imply freezing time still, totalitarianism.
    As long as people are free to think and innovate, there will always be standards competition, and we should welcome that as the only authentic way for progress.
    My policy is to provide a single feed. The latest Atom for sites with technophile users, or an older RSS for sites visited by people who might have old readers. I can go with RSS 1, which is a safe choice for most situations, if I don’t want to think about it.

  18. Jordan Moore says:

    Right now, I think the best thing we can do is educate our users. We can accomplish this by providing a “feeds” page with a description, or at least a link to a web page that contains a decent description of what feeds/RSS/Atom are.
    As far as the format issue, I don’t think we’ll ever have a universal format. Even if the W3C provides a recommendation, not everyone will adhere to it.

  19. Garrett says:

    I’m with you fellers. Keep it simple and offer just one type of feed. I, like many, don’t understand the details, but I can guarantee that if there was a unified and much more user-friendly “marketing” name, it would get more mainstream.
    Molly’s recent post on the inconsistencies of how different sites present and where they locate the links to their feeds supports the fact that this is all unecessarily confusing for the common person.

  20. I agree, this is all way too confusing. I’m confused, and I *know* the differences between RSS 1.0, RSS 2.0, and Atom.
    Every time I use the “Subscribe” bookmarklet for Bloglines, I’m presented with a list of feeds, at least three of which are the same content. Feedburner may be a solution, but if you keep your old feeds as well then I see even *more* choices in the list…

  21. Oliver says:

    This is like trying to unify Microsoft and Apple. Whoever made each feed will always push it to the edge, and all the feeds on the edge will be kept that way. That’s just the way some things are.

  22. RSS has one technically decent branch, which is the 1.x series (RDF Site Summary). That is, as the initialsm’s expansion says, based on RDF, however, which introduces baggage to the format. It also designed to be “modular,” which sucks insofar as that important parts of the spec have been put into modules. A RSS 1.x consumer can be conformant while lacking support for all of the modules. In practice, everyone necessarily implements every module, but of course then there’s no gain from the modularity, just bloat. And so for simple (and not-so-simple) uses, RSS 1.x is way more bulky and unwieldy than necessary.
    The RSS 2.0 spec sucks. It’s way underspecified, though at least not as badly as the 0.9x series. A lot of important minor points are not covered by the spec at all. You’ll see what I mean if you try to write code towards it.
    A problem that plagued all of the RSS specification efforts is that the space was filled with, shall we say, colourful personalities. So work on these specs has been closed. They are considered frozen and no longer subject to change.
    Atom sets out to clean up all this crap. The spec is thorough and clear, so that writing code to produce or consume Atom is a predictable business. Atom supports most of what RSS 1.x supports with all of its modules, in a single spec mandatory for implementation by all conformant Atom producers/consumers. The format is plain XML, not RDF-based, but you can transform it to RDF in standardized fashion if that’s your ticket. It adds support for unique identifies on items in order to solve the problem of seeing the same item appear in multiple aggregate feeds all as new, or appearing as new when the item gets updated. There is a bunch of well thought out details no version of RSS has addressed, like a built-in notion for summaries vs full-text entries (which you can mix to taste within the same feed) or multiple links other than the permalink with specified relationships (“this is a via link, this is a related link”).
    And besides then Atom format, there is also an Atom protocol, which sets out to do for the weblogging API space what the format does for the syndication format space.
    In short, Atom is syndication done right.
    RSS 2.0 will probably stay around with those who need no more than it offers, and RSS 1.x will stay around with those who prefer the RDF approach, but for all intents and purposes these things are dead.
    Atom is the future.

  23. Pasi says:

    At the moment I prefer RSS to Atom, and I provide only RSS. I’m currently updating my page completely and I’m thinking about providing also an Atom feed. But, I am a fan of simplicity and therefore would not like to provide multiple feeds.
    A W3C recommendation would be the thing for me.
    I can’t see FeedBurner as any kind of solution. I think that a webdeveloper shouldn’t use any external services. Of course it’s a different situation with a “common person”.

  24. Dean says:

    I think it will be a while until all this really matters to the general Internet browsing public. Most people don’t know what a “feed” is (believe it or not, there are some people who still don’t know what a “blog” is).
    My generalizing impression is that RSS and Atom feeds are still mostly used by the technically advanced geekery out there. Most people open up a web browser (…unfortunatly still IE6) and go to websites. Introducing a “newsreader” to their online experience seems unlikely in the near future.
    My site offers a link to RSS 2.0 in the footer only because WordPress made it easy for me. Call me old fashioned, but I like building websites and like having people visit them. I haven’t paid much attention to my feed – only making sure it worked. And excerpts only for me – I want you to come to the site – not just read the text in a “reader”.

  25. Eddie Sowden says:

    As someone who has handcrafted my blog software I know only to well the differences. In the eyes of the end user I would say the following:
    RSS is usually used for post descriptions. Atom is used for full posts.
    RSS 2.0 – the simplest of the feeds to write. Only intended for descriptions not full posts. Hence the tag for your content is <description> If you hand write your feed this is the most likely one to use.
    Atom – For use by computer readers only. The newest of the feeds. Made to clean everything up but not for the faint hearted to understand how to use them. As Atom can handle descriptions and full posts it is the way forward. However, in my experience not many reader have the option for you to pick which one for it to display.

  26. You won’t have to worry about versions of Atom in the future. They took the version attribute out of Atom, so you won’t be able to tell one from the other. Ahhh!

  27. Wil says:

    I removed all feeds on my sites except for rss 2.0 then pumped em all through feedburner. I’ll never look back. Maintaining several different versions of feeds is akin to serving up seperate versions of a site, real pita.

  28. Phil Wilson says:

    Randy, whilst you’re right, you make a slightly disingenuous statement.
    Interested people (i.e. geeks) should read the reasons for removing the version attribute (which includes backwards compatibility for future versions).

  29. I’m offering three different versions of my news feed now: RSS 2.0, RSS/RDF 1.0, and Atom. They’re all generated by a PHP script via entries in a database.
    If a new format became popular tomorrow I could easily add a new feed type using the same data.
    As far as templatizing the feeds, I found RSS 2.0 to be the easiest to code, followed by Atom. RSS 1.0? It’s a beast for hand-coders. It’s not obvious what each part means when you’re reading the raw XML file, which is what people without a feed reader will see if they click on the link to your feeds. For most web sites, this means that most people will see your feeds as raw XML first.
    I know you can specify a style sheet to display the feeds and make them look prettier, but this seems antithetical to the idea of syndication feeds to me.
    Of course, I’m a publisher who doesn’t use feeds myself. I offer them because some visitors asked for them. I prefer to read web pages and look at designs. And I don’t offer full text *anything* in feeds because I want traffic to come to my web site.
    I’m less interested in the multiple formats of feeds as I am the purpose and content of them. What *should* be in a feed to make it most useful? Why does a web site need a feed at all?

  30. yafujifide says:

    I have only one feed, and it’s an Atom feed. I like to keep it simple.

  31. Erin says:

    For some odd reason, I think the Atom vs. RSS debate is eerily similar to discussion from about 8-10 years back: Design for Netscape or IE?

  32. Steven says:

    My preference is RDF, and thus RSS 1.0, my main reason is pretty pathetic, but I like the whole semantic web idea, at least in parts :)
    But in general I’ve no issues with whatever people want to publish there feeds in, if there all valid XML formats it’s not too dificult to change from one to another without loosing too much information.

  33. Adrian D. says:

    Erin —
    To extend your analogy further, I think it’s a bit like saving a graphic as a GIF of PNG. Could you imagine if we had to save our graphics in both formats to accomodate all users/browsers?
    Now that feedreaders support both formats, I think it’s time we provided feeds in a single format only.
    Bah, just thinking about it further… it’s not that unusual for us to provide multiple formats for other media types… documents (doc/pdf), video (wmv/qt/real) etc :(

  34. You’ll always have proponents and oponents of both styles of feed. Admittedly, ATOM is the better defined of the two, but RSS is kind of a defacto standard of the internets these days. It just is one of those developments of the web age.

  35. As others have suggested, there’s little need for having more than one type of feed. Pretty much every aggregator these days supports all flavors of RSS/Atom, so just pick one and stick with it. Otherwise, you risk confusing your visitors with arcane geek stuff they don’t need to care about.
    If later on you find that a different format offers something you need, switch to it and permanently redirect (HTTP 301) the old feed to the new one. Most aggregators will automatically update a feed’s stored URL when a permanent redirect is encountered.

  36. Nick – Thanks for the 301 permanent redirect tip. I’ve just simplified things, tossing out my Atom versions, pointing now to the RSS 2.0 ones. Feels good to just offer one format, where as you say, any decent aggregator will support.

  37. I had no idea there was such a debate on the different feeds. I always thought RSS 2.0 was better than 1.0 and so forth and Atom was something unknown to me. I just use whatever blogger puts for me and use firefox live bookmarks which work well for me…