What Role Will Web Designers Play in an RSS World?

    August 11, 2005

Right now the number of Internet users who subscribe to RSS feeds is tiny. Have no fear, it will rise dramatically in the years ahead.

As I told Debbie Weil today, I think RSS is the second coming of the web. But what will web design look like on that fateful day when more people subscribe rather than browse sites? The final answer to this open question has huge implications not only for the design community, but for toolmakers like Adobe and advertisers too.

According to a new study from Glamorgan University Business School in Wales men and women view web design as differently as Mars and Venus. If there’s anything important to take away from this survey it’s this – web design matters and it will continue to matter in an RSS world. But how will web designers differentiate their branded feeds if the aggregators are large and in charge?

Today way too much of a feed’s style sheet is left up to the aggregator – and the user. That’s not their fault. My understanding is that it’s the RSS spec (correct me if I am wrong). It wasn’t made for design. Minus a few embedded photos and colored/styled text, there’s not a lot a designer can do now to control how their feed looks in an reader. As RSS takes off I suspect the designers will demand greater control over the look and feel of their feed and some basic style extensions will be added to RSS 3.0 and beyond.

At the same time, I think you’re going to see the aggregators try to exert even greater control in owning your design experience. They already do this on the desktop. Using FeedDemon or NetNewswire you can add a custom stylesheet to any of your feeds. The web readers like Bloglines will add this as well. Just look at Microsoft’s skinable Start aggregator to get a taste. The designers aren’t going to sit back and let the distributors own their branded image. How come no one’s crowing about this yet? Will readers revolt against over-designed feeds? Time will tell.

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Steve Rubel is a PR strategist with nearly 16 years of public relations, marketing, journalism and communications experience. He currently serves as a Senior Vice President with Edelman, the largest independent global PR firm.

He authors the Micro Persuasion weblog, which tracks how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the public relations practice.