More Notes to Web Developers: How NOT to do RSS

Way back in the dark ages of the Internet, I had a massive bookmarks file. And a few times a day I would go through bookmark by bookmark (this was before the heady days of ‘open all in tabs’) to see if those sites had updated. Then, people started generating feeds, and my whole life changed. Instead of laboriously checking for updates by hand, I could load those puppies into a feed reader and read at my leisure.

Massive time saver! Almost everyone I know these days uses a feed reader because it’s just not feasible to keep up with this stuff any other way. I heart my Google Reader very very ferociously (it’s in my quick access bar). There are numerous other RSS readers out there, of course, including desktop versions which look pretty neat. (I fear change so I will never adopt them, but I sure will comment about how purdy they are!)

But there are also some disability-centric reasons to want to use feed readers, like being able to control how content appears when it displays to make it readable. There are a lot of sites I just plain will not read because they are not just inaccessible, but they actively resist accessibility requests. Some people are less bullheaded than me and really want to be able to read what someone has to say even though that person says it in eight point dark purple font on a black background with random flashing animations. RSS makes that possible; you can adjust it to display however you like it best et voila, you’re happily reading again! The ability to file stuff to read later is also very handy for people with limited energy. Basically, RSS=accessibility win!

Which is why it really, really pisses me off when people intentionally break RSS feeds.

Perhaps the most obvious offender is truncation of feeds. I know a lot of sites that do this and I’ll tell you right now, when sites start truncating their feeds, I unsubscribe and stop reading. There are a lot of reasons why people truncate feeds and I understand the arguments behind it (it can prevent scraping, for one thing, and some people are worried about ads and pageviews), but I don’t support it. And in fact a lot of people argue against it, arguing that truncating feeds can actually cut down on traffic and make people feel like your site is not user friendly. I’d be interested to see some studies on traffic (and I suspect some commenters will have links for me!).

And, for some people with disabilities, truncated feeds means they can’t read your content. Not the stubborn people like me who won’t read you if you truncate, but the people who are using your RSS feed because they can’t access your site. If you’re going to make an inaccessible site, you might want to consider at least leaving your feeds whole so disabled people can read it. Unless you don’t give a shit.

Fixed fonts, images, and colours. One of the greatest things about an RSS reader is the ability to completely configure it. If you need white sans serif fonts on a black background, you can do that. If you need text magnification, you can do that too. Using RSS is awesome for this and it’s a terrific accessibility tool in that sense. That is, until people force specific fonts, colours, and sizes with HTML. I’d pull an example for you from my own RSS so you know what I’m talking about, except that I don’t subscribe to sites that do that. (I told you, I’m stubborn.)

A lot of people use HTML this way and it really pisses me off. They will often say pompous things about ‘artistic integrity’ and ‘thinking about design’ but, in fact, if you are a good web designer, you should be able to design a site that looks good at any magnification, not just in 10 point or what have you. In RSS, this is really frustrating, because your settings usually can’t override the imported text. Consequently, you end up with annoying things like vanishing text, etc.

Embedded ads. I understand why people feed ads to RSS. But I wish that a little bit more thought went into them, because, guess what, flashing ads in your RSS reader are as problematic as flashing ads on a website. So far I don’t think anyone has come up with a method for making interstitials that work in RSS, all thanks be to ice cream, but I suspect it’s coming. I use pretty aggressive ad blocking and even with that I encounter ads in RSS. One animated ad can shut down my brain for a surprisingly long period of time and I freely unsubscribe from sites that inflict them on me.

Images without alt tags, embedded videos lacking subtitles or transcripts. Guess what! They’re annoying on your website, and they are also annoying in your RSS feed! And by ‘annoying’ I mean ‘significant barriers to accessibility that inform disabled users they are not welcome on your website.’

RSS, as we know, stands for Really Simple Syndication. Make it simple for your disabled readers: Feed plain, full text, reject flashing ads, and commit to making image, video, and audio content accessible. This angry cripple, for one, will thank you.

7 Comments

  1. My RSS reader doesn’t show embedded Flash. So when people embed a video without also providing a direct link to the video, I see… a big blank space. Which is far from helpful.

    Not that the videos are captioned even when I do load the post in a Flash-capable browser either, of course…

  2. my own rss pet peeve:

    web comic sites or sites that put emphasis on images and then not including those images in the rss feed. thus requiring you to go to the page you were just notified is updated just to see the image, alt text or description, esp. if the only damned thing you’re given is a link to the update. if you’re using an rss reader because you can’t access the site but you want to be able to keep up on your web comics or everyday cute (coincidentally, everyday cute does not do this, though I wish they included image descriptions), having a blank rss update letting the person know the page updated is not helpful. period.

  3. Regarding truncating feeds… I started doing it on my sites because my pages were getting scraped really frequently. My popular posts were being plagiarized and showing up on splogs at a rate that was rather alarming, given that even when it was being regularly updated my blog wasn’t that popular. Switching my WP settings to summary (truncated feeds) was the only thing that stopped it.

    From this post I can see how not having the full text in the RSS is a problem, but being plagiarized when you have no recourse is also a problem. Where’s the balance? I do my best to make sure the themes that I use are accessible (although I still have a lot to learn in that regard) and I certainly don’t want to make my RSS feeds inaccessible, but I also don’t want to go back to when my posts were showing up in full on someone’s site or splog practically once a week.

  4. Depending on your own accessibility needs and your workflow, you might want to consider using Instapaper. It’s main purpose is to save articles for latter reading by stripping out all the extraneous images, ads and flash jazz. I’d imagine (though I don’t know for sure) that it’d be very easy to use with a screen reader or other accessibility program. It works quite nicely with google reader and other RSS readers. For instance, you could set it up so that every article in google reader you star automatically gets sent to Instapaper, where it’ll be much easier for you to customize to your needs.

  5. Another RSS mistake I see often: not giving the feed a descriptive title. I have two different feeds in my reader called “The Blog” and one just called “Home”.

  6. I HATE truncated feeds! Bitch started doing it, which just kills me. 🙁

  7. I just changed my feed from summary to full-text. Hopefully I won’t get splogged because hardly anyone knows of my blog’s existence.

    I also note that I need to be more careful to supply alt text for images and titles for links.

    I should know better, as I have problems with many sites myself: I find animated ads to be disastrous to the point I can’t read the page – they literally make me sick. I will never carry ads on my blogs if I can help it (it’s the main reason I jumped ship from LiveJournal to Dreamwidth), cuz I’m not in it for money or page views. I cannot read light text on dark backgrounds, or anything that’s low contrast (I have to tweak my own blog for that, I can hardly see the titles to my own articles), and I absolutely cannot stand sites that use a tiny font in a layout that breaks when you try to enlarge it in the browser.