Microformats Role PlayAug 25, 2009 In Web Culture By Emily Lewis
Microformats have been getting a fair amount of attention these days. Between the new value class pattern, Google's Rich Snippets and the Associated Press's move to create hNews (though, technically not a microformat), not a day goes by that I don't see a blog post or article about microformats
And yet, despite all this coverage, I’m still regularly asked to explain what microformats really are. My generic, high-level explanation is always something along the lines of:
Microformats are simple, open design patterns based on existing standards that you use to describe and add meaning to common web content, such as that about people, places, events and links. These structured data patterns allow machines like computers, user agents and applications to extract that content for a wide range of uses.
And this usually results in eyes glazing over.
What people really want to know when they ask about microformats is “what do microformats mean to me?”
The answer to that question depends on the person asking. Is that person a user? A web designer? A content author? Depending on the person’s role with a web site, microformats can have different values. So, let’s explore microformats from those different perspectives.
One of the themes of microformats is that they are designed for humans first, machines second. What that means is that microformats are primarily for users; the people who are consuming web content. That’s you,me,your parents, the crazy cat lady living across the street, your college buddy on Facebook … anyone who is on the web.
Users don’t need (and usually don’t want) the details about how to implement microformats. They want to know how microformats benefit them. And one of the easiest benefits to explain is the enhanced user experiences some microformats offer.
User Experience Enhancements
Let’s take hCard, which is the microformat used for contact information about people, places and organizations. Sites that publish contact information with hCard can utilize an application — such as Oomph or Technorati’s Contacts Feed Service — to give their users a one-click download of that contact information directly to their computer address books, rather than having to manually copy or type the information.
Same holds true with hCalendar, the microformat used for information about events. If a site publishes event content with hCalendar and uses Oomph or Technorati’s Events Feed Service, users can download the event information directly to their calendar. Again, no need for them to manually enter any information on their own.
More technically-savvy users can install browser add-ons like Operator, Tails Export and the Safari Microformats plugin. These tools detect microformats and offer users a range of options for the microformatted content, from downloading event information to searching the web for a contact.
More Meaningful Search
A primary goal of microformats is to add meaning — semantics — to web content. And now that both Google and Yahoo! index microformats, their search results can be more meaningful. This is huge for users who have to sift through millions of pages in search of the information most useful to them.
Consider a user searching for Thai restaurants in a new town. The user turns to Google to find reviews. Google returns millions of search results and the user is immediately overwhelmed.
Enter Google’s Rich Snippets, which provide enhanced search results for content published with hCard and hReview. The user now sees some search results with review-specific information like rating, price and number of reviews. And, with just a glance, the user has more context about the search result.
Before users can actually enjoy these benefits, though, sites have to publish microformats. Which means the people behind those sites need to understand what microformats mean to them as web professionals.
One of the behind–the–scenes roles for a web site is the person who is leading and managing the project. At my job, this is a web manager. At yours, it could be the producer, the lead, the director. Regardless of job title, this is the person who knows the high-level details of the project; the person responsible for keeping the team members on task; the person who is the liaison between the team and higher-level executives.
So, what do microformats mean to a web manager?
Microformats are based on existing standards, specifically HTML. Further, microformats strongly encourage the use of valid, semantic markup known as POSH. The concept behind POSH is part of today’s web standards that encourage the separation of content from presentation. No more
<font> tags. No more
<b> tags. No more
<table>s for layout.
So, by encouraging his team to implement microformats, the web manager is taking steps to ensure that the site structure uses today’s web standards. This helps ensure future-proofing, universal access and scalability.
But more than these web standards, microformats give the web manager a basis for standardized development processes and workflows, which are particularly useful for large, distributed teams.
For example, if his team is using microformats and POSH, they don’t need to discuss how to mark up content. Everyone is on board with using proper semantic elements (
<p> for a paragraph,
<h2> for a heading and so on) to structure the content. And everyone knows the properties and subproperties of microformats (which most frequently are
class values) to apply to specific content.
This consistent markup and the standard set of class values microformats provide can lead to faster and more efficient development.
In my experience, web managers often have to “sell” technologies to higher-level executives and marketers, who want proof that a technology is worth implementing and investing in. Fortunately, microformats are easy to pitch.
Peer pressure can be a useful tool, so the web manager can reference sites already using microformats, including Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and LinkedIn. But these are just some of the more well-known names. He can also cite statistics on how pervasive microformats are. For example, according to Yahoo! SearchMonkey, there are 1,450,000,000 web pages that publish hCard and 36,200,000 pages marked up with hCalendar.
And if there’s an industry buzzword that gets every executive and marketer I know drooling, it’s SEO. The web manager can illustrate how structured, semantic markup and microformats can lead to more relevant search results, which potentially leads to higher click-through rates. And more click-through can lead to more profit. (Mix Online Editorial note: See Molly Holzschlag’s article Web Standards: Where the ROI Is for more on this topic.)
Last, but certainly not least, the web manager can focus on the bottom line. Publishing microformats has no additional cost and requires very minimal development effort.
Web developers are the programming folks; the people who code PHP, ASP, Ruby … whatever language is used for the site backend. And what the developer needs to understand is how microformats can help her do her job.
Faster & More Efficient
The standardized workflows that microformats can help create for a team has a tremendous impact on the web developer. She knows in advance what the markup conventions for contact information, events or products on the site are. She knows in advance the properties and subproperties that will be used to publish microformats.
With this, there is less time spent accounting for different data formats. Less time spent going back–and–forth with a designer on markup issues.
Extensible Data Publishing
With microformats, the web developer also gets the benefit of content that is available for a potentially infinite number of uses, without a need for custom development. This is where the machines part of the “designed for humans first, machines second” theme comes into play.
Basically, microformats transform the site into a read-only API. Content is published to the site once, and then it can be converted into any other format the web developer might need. The web developer doesn’t need to create or maintain separate data files for machine data or exchange. She can simply utilize the myriad of parsers and extractors that can convert microformatted content into XML, JSON, RSS and so on.
For example, if the site has a conference calendar published with hCalendar, the data can be extracted and used for other purposes. Maybe one of the conference sponsors wants to add the calendar to their web site. They can use a tool like the Optimus Microformats Transformer to extract the hCalendar data, transform it into XML and then import it into their own data structure. Meanwhile, the web developer doesn’t have to lift a finger.
Leverage the Machines
In addition to the tools already available that extract, parse and transform microformats, the web developer can create custom applications. And developing applications for microformats is faster and easier thanks to the inherent data structure of microformats.
The web developer doesn’t need to account for dozens (or hundreds) of different formats of the site’s data. She knows that when you are dealing with contact information published with hCard, for example, there are a fixed set of properties and subproperties she can target.
Now, let’s talk about the person who designs the markup structure for the site, the HTML. Like the web developer, the web designer wants to know how microformats help him do his job.
Microformats are ridiculously simple to implement. As the person responsible for the markup, the web designer only needs to know the fixed set of properties and subproperties that each microformat requires. And these properties and subproperites are nothing more than HTML attributes (most often
classes) with specific values.
That’s it. The web developer doesn’t have to learn a new technology. He doesn’t need any fancy software. And adding an attribute value here and there is comparatively minimal work.
Because many of the properties and subproperties of microformats are
class values, the web designer doesn’t need to create new
classes for styling the content with CSS. He simply uses the ones defined in by microformats. Less time is required to think about (semantic)
class names, leaving him more time to focus on the styles themselves.
But that doesn’t mean the web designer is restricted to only the
classes from microformats. Multiple
class values are as valid with microformats as they are with basic HTML. And if the web designer likes to define CSS rules based on elements, rather than declaring rules for specific
classes, microformats don’t prohibit him from doing so.
Microformats encourage the use of POSH and, by extension, web standards. And following standards is, at least in my opinion, the benchmark of a true professional who cares about the quality of his work.
Most often, the content author doesn’t know much about the frontend or backend structure of the site. As the job title suggests, she focuses on the content, which is, arguably, the most important part of any site. So, what benefit do microformats offer the content author?
Microformats make content more meaningful, especially to machines which don’t always understand the human-readable content. Computers care about the data and information on the page, and being able to meaningfully identify that data. Microformats and POSH help with that identification.
So the content author who works to ensure her content meets the needs of human users can simultaneously meet the needs of the machines. Machines like search engines. Which means that carefully crafted content is potentially more findable.
And all the content author needs to know is what the different microformats are. Not the properties and subproperties. Not the markup. Just which microformat is best suited for her content. So if she has product reviews, for example, then she knows that hReview would be useful and can make sure that the other members of the team are aware the content should be published with hReview.
Microformats for All
It really doesn’t matter what you do on the web. Microformats benefit everyone. Whether you care about SEO, user experience or web standards, microformats offers it all.