Back in the relative old days of 2003-2004 when orange RSS icons started appearing in the sidebars of websites, very few users knew what to do with them. Jeff Veen said,
“…The vast majority [of users] aren’t even aware of what RSS is…why are we peppering our pages with little orange icons that link to garbled-looking XML markup?”
Showing a bit more foresight than other developers, Veen chose to link the RSS icons to a page which educated users about feeds and what they offered:
But, what does that icon do? Here’s where we struggled with convention. Typically, people either click on the icons or drag them to an aggregator. Some folks right-click and copy the feed’s URL. We decided not to link feeds directly from the icon, but instead offer up a page that shows all the feeds a user can subscribe to.
In 2005, the Microsoft/IE team made the surprising decision to adopt Firefox’s orange feed icon which became a major step in standardizing its appearance. Designers like Matt Bratt offered downloads of the vector image which soon appeared on thousands of blogs.
Fast-forward to the present day — many millions of more users are consuming content via RSS. That orange icon is more recognizable each day. But I still wonder: what’s the best way for a site to advertise its feed address?
This process contains many constituents: from high-quality content, such as good reflective journal papers, to correctly customized theme.
I’ve been seeing more designs lately with prominent RSS cues in the masthead, as with Adii’s Premium News line. Then there’s Pat Dryburgh’s site which takes the idea to comical extremes. Recently WPDesigner commented:
“…Blog readers expect to find the RSS subscribe button at the top right hand corner or at the top of the right sidebar. Why is that? No one said that’s the best spot, but it’s ‘what-works’ because many popular blogs place the subscribe button there.”
My personal opinion? Prominent RSS info can be an abuse of screen real estate and an almost outdated notion. Modern feedreaders (Bloglines, Google Reader, Netvibes) allow you simply enter a site URL which it uses to auto-detect any/all available feeds, even giving you the option of choosing RSS2 versus Atom. Firefox users can tell if a site offers feeds simply by looking in the locator bar. For that matter, anyone savvy enough to use RSS already knows that certain sites (those which run WP or Movable Type, for example) always provides syndication anyway.
So do we need to actively advertise feeds? If so, how prominently and in what format?
(Regarding the gratuitous use of space, I have similar issues with a lot of WordPress/blog data. Not every excerpt needs a Category listed, and depending on the context, some don’t even need date info. It’s in single-post view when that info is most relevant — on the homepage, most users just want headlines to click. Don’t even get me started on prominent ‘tag clouds’, but we’ll save that for another post