Styling RSS Feeds

By Deane Barker on July 25, 2003

I’ve subscribed to a new RSS feed that’s injecting styles into posts — each post is surrounded by a FONT tag that makes the text Arial, instead of the default Times New Roman that Outlook (I use NewsGator) would render in if not for the tag.

I always felt that RSS allowed you to put forth content without context — pure content without an asthetic filter, so-to-speak. Styling feeds would seem to defeat that goal.

Should people style their RSS feeds? Should news aggregators give users the option to strip styles from posts when they’re displayed? What is too much style? If there’s an image with a post, it’s nice to let that wrap right or left as the author intended, but should you draw the line at font changes?



  1. While I generally prefer markup-free RSS descriptions, I’m not gonna be the one to tell people they shouldn’t do it. So I’d say that the best approach is to allow users to toggle it off within their apps.

  2. One should entirely be able to strip it.

    What ought not to be stripped, I think though, are the class and id tags that the user may have put on divs, spans, para’s and other, because those carry semantic meaning, and maybe in the future, with or without RSS namespaces, these will be useful. For example a span class=person could be used by a next generation aggregator to hook up to the address book.

  3. I’m all for stripping style from feeds, but there are a few cases where I do miss it. For example, I use a CSS class on my site to align images to the right. Since the CSS file they reference isn’t accessible from the RSS reader, they align very poorly.

    This is on top of the issue of relative URLs… Not sure what to do there.

  4. There is already some tension the other way on this issue — some site designers don’t like RSS and RSS readers because they don’t have control over presentation.

    This is a valid criticism.

    If newsreaders make it worse by stripping out the control they do have (markup in RSS items) then I think the situation is worse.

    That is to say, stripping styles is probably better as an option than as a default.

    But I’d rather look for ways (probably via CSS) to give site designers and readers some collaborative control over presentation.

  5. I think URLs in RSS must always be absolute. I hate it when I get a post in RSS that refers to an image that isn’t there because the SRC tag is relative.

    When people blog, sometimes they think only of the site, not the feed. Perhaps we should switch that around: think of the feed first and the site second, because the feed has more restrictions on it than the site does.

    I also agree with the comment that certain formatting imparts semantic meaning. But who decides what does and doesn’t? Could someone claim that their choice of typeface had some meaning to it, rather than just being aesthetic?

  6. I think some people would claim that it’s the aesthetics that matter, not just what typeface is used.

    It seems to me that people should mark up their feeds however they like. (just like the web) If you don’t like it have your reader of choice override (just like the web)

  7. On the relative URL thing, NewsGator 1.3 (to be released in a couple of weeks) finally handles relative URL’s in a way that works for most cases seen in the wild.

  8. My ideal in RSS is to publish platform-neutral, vendor-neutral, consumer-neutral text. I don’t know if my reader (or bot) is going to understand, correctly process or perhaps truncate markup. I strip everything from less-than to greater-than in scraping HTML to generate RSS at

  9. I think that RSS feeds should be style free. To me RSS represents a chance to get timely information without a whole bunch of extra stuff attached. Just give me the news. If I’m interested enough in the information, I’ll click through to the site and then you can hit me with whatever. I’m afraid that allowing style markup into RSS is a slippery slope that will lead to things like pop-ups, etc.
    I also feel that such markup should be explicitly disallowed in the spec. If somebody feels that they don’t want to publish an RSS feed unless they can control the way I see it, then I’m probably not iterested in what they have to say anyway.

  10. There are some bits of stylistic markup that I definitely want retained — bold, italic, and blockquote leap to mind — even though they don’t always matter semantically — and experienced Usenet or plain-text email users will know how to fake all three — but this prettifying of actual bold and italic and indented-quotation is one of the key reasons that HTML email and Blogging have surged in use relative to plain-text email and Usenet posting.

    I want hard paragraph and line breaks retained — where the original author put them — because these can have semantic meaning, and leaving them when they don’t causes less confusion than removing them when they do.

    Likewise, monospace vs proportional facestyles matter — when presenting columnar data, it often makes more sense to do with a bit of space-padding than with a full-scale HTML table, or even CSS markup. I want the author’s teletype text to come to me just so…

    Now, how does the engine decide whether the styles are semantically important, or just there for appearance/design? I can’t think of any viable test — no, saying no HTML, only CSS isn’t viable….

    So — I would prefer to get my RSS with markup, please, so I can actually read my subscriptions locally — without surfing to all 300 sites I want to watch — which is really what this whole Aggregation thing means to me….

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