Tuesday, March 28, 2006

TECH: Importance of Microformats


Do Microformats offer enough benefits to jump on the bandwagon at this time?

By now you’ve probably heard of microformats and wondered what they are, exactly. Officially, they’re a set of simple, open data formats built upon existing and widely adopted standards that allow web sites to be coded for humans first and machines second. Instead of throwing away what works today, microformats intend to solve simpler problems first by adapting to current behaviors and usage patterns (e.g. XHTML, blogging). Some call this movement the schematic web and its implications are potentially significant. The diagram above illustrates the technical components and layers of Micoformats.

Bill Gates and Tim O’Reilly speaking on this subject at Mix06.

While discussing “Web 2.0″, Tim O’Reilly just said:

…the semantic web is really taking off with the use of microformats.

And in response, Bill Gates said:

We need microformats and to get people to agree on them. It is going to bootstrap exchanging data on the Web…
…we need them for things like contact cards, events, directions…


I have been struggling with understanding microformats, those mysterious formats built in XHTML that several folks have been talking about passionately: promising everything from better search engine visibility to better structured code to a realization of true semantic markup. The reason for my struggles was that there were few actual examples of their utility, hCard, hCalendar, and Bud Gibson’s xFolk being interesting exceptions.

I do believe Microformats will become important because they involve all the same sorts of principles that make up Web 2.0. For example: if every web publishing tool wrapped reviews of books with certain kind of tagging information explaining that they were then people could build new tools that aggregate and provide information based on all the book reviews on the web. Imagine Amazon reviews pulled in and sorted from all over the internet. Or imagine being able to easily download any event on a website to your own calendar. Microformats open up opportunity for publicly displayed information to get into the places where it can do the most good for end users.

Microformats are about using the standards we all know and love to convey as much semantic meaning as possible. Think of them as semantic best practices. They use current XHTML tags such as address, cite, and blockquote and attributes such as rel, rev, and title to create semantically appropriate blocks of code. Microformats are great because they are both usable and elegant—and all you need to do to get started with them is familiarize yourself with the best ways to apply the tags and attributes you already use.

Brief Microformats Primer

A. Microformats Defined
  • A way of thinking about data
  • Design principles for formats
  • Adapted to current behaviors and usage patterns (“Pave the cow paths.”)
  • Highly correlated with semantic XHTML, AKA the real world semantics, AKA lowercase semantic web, AKA lossless XHTML
  • A set of simple open data format standards that many are actively developing and implementing for more/better structured blogging and web microcontent publishing in general.
  • An evolutionary revolution
  • All the above
B. Microformats Principles
  • Solve a specific problem
  • Start as simple as possible
  • Design for humans first, machines second
  • Reuse building blocks from widely adopted standards
  • Modularity / Embeddability
  • Enable and encourage decentralized development, content, services
C. Microformat Examples

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

As far as I can tell, microformats can be summed up as: “include information in your web pages in a specific way so that the information can be pulled out by scripts”.

It’s a very useful technique, but it doesn’t sell very well, so they are trumping it up with lots of marketing gobbledegook to try and get people on board. Unfortunately, that’s antithetical to your wish for somebody to speak plainly. If they spoke plainly, people might just say “is that all?” and lose interest.

“AJAX” is just a dumb buzzword, but it got people talking about remote scripting. Perhaps the microformats buzzword will do the same thing.

~ Alex

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