RSS Good Practices: Pick a Format (Any Format)

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a verrryyyy long time, so long that it should be outdated by now (but, unfortunately, it’s not). Here’s the deal: I keep running across sites that offer the same exact content as an RSS feed and an Atom feed.

What’s the point of this? Making readers choose a feed format is like asking them to choose between an HTML and XHTML version of your site – technically there are differences, but end users shouldn’t have to care about this. They just want to subscribe to your words of wisdom without having to deal with the plumbing.

Even worse, I often see RSS and Atom feeds which contain the same content yet identify posts differently (i.e.: the GUID for a post in the RSS feed is different from the ID of the same post in the Atom feed). As a result, feed search engines show posts from both feeds as though they were different, which to end users looks like duplication.

So, if you currently offer multiple feed formats, may I suggest that you stop doing this? Just pick a format – any format. If RSS does what you need, stick with it and dump your Atom feed. If you need the extra features that the Atom format offers, dump your RSS feed. Either way you’ll be fine, and your readers will be happier.

And if you’re just starting out, pick one format and forget about the other one. It doesn’t matter to your readers which one you choose, so there’s no need to agonize over the decision (and you can always switch to the other format later on).

27 thoughts on “RSS Good Practices: Pick a Format (Any Format)

  1. Thanks for the post, I agree 100%.
    this is especially true for aggregators like Bloglines, which presents the user with a list of all the feeds it discovered for a given site, even though they all have exactly the same content and have no discernable difference between the different format options.
    my own site is guilty of this, and I think a large part of this is because wordpress is capable of spitting a lot of the different formats by default.
    I would like to consolidate the different feed options in bloglines for my own site, but I have no idea to go about doing that… especially without breaking service to existing subscribers.

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  2. As a data point, my site offers both because it originally had an RSS feed (before Atom came around) and cool URLs don’t change. So I added an Atom feed but I’m hesitant to just shut off the RSS because I’m not really confident in the ability of clients to handle redirects properly. As I add new, special purpose feeds (comment feeds, tag feeds, etc), I only create Atom feeds though.

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  3. Anders, there is nothing wrong with putting a permanent redirect in place. I used to support quite a different number of RSS formats, Atom, ScriptingNews, OPML, and even CDF.
    Now all of those URIs redirect to one feed.
    And as Nick says, should I ever change my mind, all I need to do is change my feed and/or redirects.

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  4. Nick, I agree, and have been saying this whenever possible to whoever will listen.
    It’s not a new idea, btw, it’s the first half of Postel’s Law, “be conservative in what you do.”

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  5. The big problem, as Joe says above, is that software packages like WordPress are preconfigured to offer as many different feeds as possible, all at once.
    Using Blogline’s Subscribe bookmarklet on my WordPress weblog gives me a choice of four feeds (Atom, RSS 1, RSS 2, and ?) all containing exactly the same content.
    I’m sure there’s a way to fix WordPress to have only one feed, and I intend to, but it would sure be nice if this was a checkbox in the administration interface (and checked by default).

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  6. To take it a step further Nick. Why do you say that you have an “RSS Feed” on your sidebar?
    You have a feedburner feed, and if you have your ‘smart feed’ setting enabled, your format is decided based on the preference of the reader.
    Just a thought……….

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  7. Hi Nick, while I don’t disagree, I don’t really understand why you consider this an issue. What if I do offer two feeds, then surely the client tool is capable of picking one? e.g. Bloglines just picks the format it prefers, doesn’t list all 25.
    I can see how different IDs in feeds for the same entry could cause problems, but isn’t the fix for that to follow general good practice and identify things consistently?
    I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with offering the same data in different representations. After all, the stuff in the feed is usually just a cut down version of what’s available in (X)HTML. If I wanted to offer my site data in RDF/XML and OPML too, would that be a problem? I would hope not.

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  8. Danny: Bloglines *does* offer all feeds it can find at an URL, so the user may be given 3 or more feeds, all of which have the same content.
    At one time I had 4 feeds (RSS 0.91, 1.0, 2.0 and Atom 0.3) all offering the same content – now I just have an Atom 1.0 feed, and all other feeds on the site use Atom 1.0 and a consistent GUID scheme.
    When closing the RSS feed, I posted a warning to it saying that it was to redirect to the Atom feed in a couple of months and that users should ensure their readers supported Atom. I only had one email about that, and that was solved by telling the user to upgrade to the latest version of his client.

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  9. Danny, the problem is that some sites offer different feeds that *should* be displayed by the aggregator. For example, some sites have a main feed and a comment feed, and an aggregator like FeedDemon needs to include both of them in its feed auto-discovery list.

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  10. I think Rory Blyth of Neopolean.com had the best take on the ATOM/RSS wars. He was going to create, I believe, a composite of the two, and call it “Another Simple Syndication” – the acronym speaks volumes.

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  11. Nick, I realise that. Say a site has :
    RSS 1.0 main feed
    RSS 2.0 main feed
    Atom main feed
    RSS 1.0 comments feed
    RSS 2.0 comments feed
    Atom comments feed
    – all linked for autodiscovery.
    Client prefers Atom, discounts the others, offers the user:
    Subscribe to Main Feed
    Subscribe to Comments Feed
    Clicking on either would subscribe to the corresponding Atom feed.
    If the site didn’t have an Atom feed, then this client could fall back on its second preference, say RSS 2.0. Again it offers the user:
    Subscribe to Main Feed
    Subscribe to Comments Feed
    Clicking on either would subscribe to the corresponding RSS 2.0 feed.

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  12. PS. All popular syndication formats have a “title” element through which it should be possible to tell e.g. “main” from “comments”.

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  13. there are a number of useful web services that don’t take atom (feedboxes, feedmixers, feed converters, etc). If you only offer one type, then you’re shutting users off from many of these services.

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  14. what`s wrong with multiple formats?just comb the feeds.sooner or later a big fish`s gonna come with a new format anyway.

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  15. Nick: Thank you for the clarification on different feed and syndication formats. As an end-user, I had thought there were some complicated and compelling reasons information consumers should be given different choices.
    I believe RSS 2.0 has the upper hand just from what I have seen around the world. I cannot see any difference between RSS 1.0 (0.9) and 2.0. The only difference I see between RSS and Atom is that Atom usually contains the whole post, whereas RSS contains an excerpt.
    Much like the Beta vs. VHS and Plasma vs. HD vs. LCD debates, I will take whatever becomes the standard — if there is one. I see how this can be akin to ‘religious extremism.’ ;-)
    Thanks again.
    Dayhawk Kim

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  16. Pick a format (Any Format)

    After reading Nick Bradburys post on choosing a format, I have decided to do exactly that.
    I have had only one choice visible, but my head links have contain 3 choices. Today I have removed all but one choice, and that choice is Atom. I am n…

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  17. Blog Usability: Too many RSS feeds

    After reading Pick a Format (Any Format) by Nick Bradbury (tip by: Jeremy Voorhis on Octoblog) we must say that we totally agree. The point in the post is simple:
    I keep running across sites that offer the same exact content as an RSS fee…

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  18. Pick a format any format

    So it seems everyone is saying it now, christ, people are even meta saying it pick one feed format and stick with it. All the aggregators worth their salt support all of them so it really doesnt matter. I know when I add a feed to Bloglines I ha…

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  19. Competing Standards Suck

    Nick Bradbury:It would also be nice if publishers would stop offering the same content in multiple feed formats.
    Yes it would.  It would also be nice if movie studios would pick an HD format for discs.I understand patent dollars are behind the HD-DVD …

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