Microformats had the reputation of being a philosophical plaything, rather than a practical tool. That’s changed in the last few years, though: it’s finally time to join the microformats bandwagon.
Demonstrate how mobile-friendly you are by making the “Contact” and “Event” information in your website flow easily into your end-users’ mobile devices. Improve the ranking of your webpages. Advertise (at no cost) your exact location to anyone with an interest in your area. There are plenty of reasons to use “microformats” now in your Webwork, and it’s almost falling-off-a-log easy to do so.
This hasn’t always been apparent. For much of its nearly decade-long history, microformats have been advocated by visionaries more involved in strategic theory about their potential than in making them effective for anything meaningful to civilians. But that’s changed.
A small example helps make it clear why this is a big deal. If you look at the contact page for the boutique consultancy for which I work during the day, you see a conventional-looking block:
Contact us: Phaseit, Inc. ... email@example.comDownload vCard
The vCard part is automatic. There’s no coding involved in its production, beyond use of standard tools. As I show in a moment, the human-readable HTML page itself encodes precise information about what appears in the machine-readable vCard.
Think what that means if you publish contact information for local sales and support contacts, or businesses of interest to particular customers. Your readers are only a click or two away from having that contact information in their own address books.
What’s the hold-up?
The hCard microformat makes this possible. In short: vCard is the standard for address information traded by address books and related applications; hCard is the standard for expressing such information in HTML and related documents.
Why haven’t you heard of hCard before? Four reasons pre-dominate:
- In an office setting, many people were accustomed to the clumsy but simple copy-and-pasting required to enter contact information into address books. With over half of many audiences now arriving through mobile handsets, the premium on seamless data-sharing that minimizes “mousing around” just jumped.
- All the actors who could have made hCard take off five or more years ago had mixed motives. There was never the coordinated push to move hCard from a demonstration to the mass-market necessity it deserves to be. Despite an abundance of hCard-aware tools and plugins, no popular browser builds them in by default, so they remain known by only the most zealous information-sharers.
- Google and Facebook, which dominate popular experience of the Web, have chosen to emphasize heuristic approaches over more formal semantics. No “killer app” yet requires microformats, so microformats continue to engage only early adopters.
- Existing advocates for microformats have been better at coding than speaking to others. Nearly all the explanations of microformats I’ve seen, including several nominally aimed at managers or strategists, quickly resort to developerspeak and lose track of “business value.”
Given this background, there are three easy steps you should take to be in command of microformat’s potential:
- Learn the theory of microformats at a high level.
- Scan the list of defined microformats for the ones likeliest to apply in your own situation.
- Decide on a pilot project for application of a microformat.
The essence of microformats
Webpages are built to be read by humans. Yet much of the information in webpages is also valuable to computers, that is, to automatic analysis and tabulation. Telephone numbers, sports scores, event announcements, comments on news stories, and merchandise prices are just a few of the items that people read, but that also make valuable raw material for indexing or computations by automated processes.
Computers can’t easily read webpages as we do, though. A lot of implicit assumptions go into the accurage recognition of a telephone number or when next Sunday’s concert starts. The crucial microformat insight is that a few small changes in the expression of HTML behind a human-readable webpage can make the meaning of that webpage more apparent to a computer program.
Return to the example contact page from the beginning of this introduction. An early form of it was written in HTML as:
<p>Contact us: <div>Phaseit, Inc. ...
The vCard standard says that the minor change to
<p>Contact us: <div class = "vcard"> <div class = "fn org">Phaseit, Inc. ...
identifies the information which follows as part of a vcard, and therefore appropriate for interpretation as an hcard. It also begins to fill out the hcard with the organization’s full name: “Phaseit, Inc.” Any vCard-aware browser, plugin, or application has this information immediately available, without guesswork. The vCard standard makes that possible.
HTML’s tags — the
<p> and so on — are called “markup.” One slogan of the microformat community is that microformats add semantics to markup so that HTML is not just machine-readable, but machine-understandable. That benefit comes at a small cost: All that’s required is that someone knowledgeable about markup update existing webpages with a few additional attributes.
Contact information isn’t the only kind that has been standardized. Other standards likely to interest you include:
- hAtom, which applies to the Atom syndication standard,
- hCalendar, for publication and exchange of event information. hCalendar can feed into your on-line calendar; it makes it feasible for a concert hall or government office or broadcaster to publish event schedules in a way which “plays nicely” with outside software. Jon Udell‘s elmcity project hints at what hCalendar can achieve.
- hNews encodes news items.
- hRecipe, a standard for food recipes. Recipes are simultaneously humble, and of importance to millions of readers. This combination of qualities makes for an intriguing standard.
- hResume standardizes another highly-specific domain which touches millions of lives.
- hReview is a young microformat for expression of reviews of products and services. Google’s apparent decision to use hReview in its published results has made this microformat intensely interesting to at least a few vendors.
- rel-license automates publication of intellectual property licenses. rel-license makes it possible, in principle, to search for software covered by an open-source license other than GPL, or only GPL.
- rel-nofollow is one of the oldest and simplest microformats. It simply adds a single
rel = "nofollow"attribute within an
<a href = "..."hyperlink. The effect is to tell search engines and other applications that the hyperlink is a reference to a page, not an endorsement of that page. Among other consequences, this helps reduce the incentive for spammers to produce spam. Nofollow has been the most successful microformat to this point, in that it is widely used, and generally believed to be effective against certain categories of spam.
- The topic of XFN is human relationships: “friend,” “colleague,” “neighbor,” and so on.
- XOXO is a standard for lists and outlines.
Adoption of microformats is just now starting to expand rapidly. An important upcoming milestone will occur when different applications and communities achieve critical mass and begin to interact. An exhaustively-marked-up resume, for instance, has the potential to include events, human relationships, contact information, and other standardized microformat content. Once a body of microformatted information is in place, it will be routine not just to follow up with references, but to check many of the facts — times, places, and so on — in a resume automatically.
One of the pleasantest features of microformats is their “miniaturization:” It’s easy to define low-cost microformat pilot projects. You can, for example, mark up a small part of a single page, and study the impact on search-engine ranking or usability. Run such a pilot project, evaluate the payoff, and decide for yourself whether it’s time to invest even more in microformats.