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Microformats: Toward a Semantic Web

In the beginning of the Internet revolution, being connected was all about the simple hyperlink. Like magic with one click a Web browser could be transported anywhere on the Internet that content lives.

But what about context? What about connecting related information and content in a semantic context? The hyperlink of the early era isn't enough.

Enter , which offer the promise of helping Web content owners enable users to connect the disparate dots that connect content in a semantic way. To be more precise and borrowing from the official Microformats.org definition, "Microformats are small bits of HTML that represent things like people, events, tags, etc. in Web pages."

Though the term "microformats" may not yet be mainstream, mainstream vendors have taken notice. Big names like Technorati, Mozilla, IBM, Microsoft, Google, Digg, and Yahoo among countless others are all at work trying to make microformats work. By some estimates there are already hundreds of millions of microformatted pieces of information online.

"At this point, nearly every Web designer that learns about microformats starts using them," Tantek Çelik, chief technologist at Technorati and co-founder of Microformats.org, told InternetNews.com. "Because microformats require only some HTML authoring ability, millions of Web authors and designers are able to use them immediately. This is a much lower barrier to entry than many previous Web technologies, such as XML and RSS, which require the skills of a programmer."

Where are microformats used today?

Technorati uses microformats throughout its products, including its main blog search portal. Technorati tags are built from the rel-tag microformat, which enables bloggers to "tag" their individual blog posts with categories/keywords relevant to the posts in a visible manner. Technorati also publishes microformats, like hCard on its contact page and on users' profile pages in support of social-network portability.

The new Digg user profiles support the hCard microformat, as do the new Google Sharing user profiles. Yahoo's Flickr photo-sharing site also extensively makes use of microformats, including hCard, as well as adr and geo specifications for locations.

Microformats.org currently recognizes nine specifications for microformats: hCalendar, hCard, rel-license, rel-nofollow, rel-tag, VoteLinks, XFN, XMDP and XOXO. There are drafts for 11 additional specifications, some of which are already in wide use: adr, geo hAtom, hResume, hReview, rel-directory, rel-enclosure, rel-home, rel-payment, robots exclusion and xFolk.

Though microformats enable semantic Web connections, Mozilla's User Experience Designer Alex Faaborg explained that microformats are sometimes referred to as the lower-case semantic Web, since they are not as complex or as expressive as RDF and OWL .

"While microformats are less formal, they are also easier to author, and the semantic information is human readable, in addition to being machine readable," Faaborg said. "But it isn't about one approach being better than the other, as much as each approach being useful in different situations."

Technically speaking, though microformats and the Semantic Web are now actually interoperable as the W3C has announced that (Gleaning Resource Descriptions from Dialects of Languages) now extracts data from microformats and make it part of the Semantic Web.

The browser vendors

There are two parts to the basic Web experience. There are the Web sites that have the content and then there are the Web browsers that provide a mechanism to view the content. Both parts have a role to play in the microformatted Web.

On the browser side, one of the most popular ways that Internet users are able to dig into microformats is the Operator extension for Mozilla's Firefox browser.

The Operator project is led by IBM employee Michael Kaply who explained that he has contributed the work to Mozilla as part of Mozilla Labs. Mozilla Labs is a way for people to try out new technology with the potential for that technology to become a part of Firefox or other Mozilla products. To date Kaply claims that Operator has had over 30,000 downloads.

"I think Operator is giving people a new way to interact with data on the Web," Kaply told InternetNews.com. "It's a variation on what some people call 'instant mashups.' The idea is that rather than having to rely on other people to integrate data on multiple Web sites via traditional mashups, tools like Operator can provide the end-user a way to instantly pass data between multiple Web sites."

Beyond the Operator extension, Mozilla is working on integrating microformats into the core browsing experience.