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.


“Firefox 3 will ship with an API for extracting microformatted content in a
Web page,” Mozilla’s Faaborg told InternetNews.com. “This will allow extension authors to focus on
creating a wide variety of innovative user experiences, while leveraging our
parser to extract the data.”


Faaborg added that Mozilla is also putting a lot of effort into determining
the best user interface for interacting with microformatted content, ranging
from mocking up different ideas to trying them out with the Operator
extension. However, exactly how users may interact with microformatted
content with Firefox 3 is still being determined.


It’s not clear whether microformat support will be integrated into
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8. A Microsoft spokesperson provided an
ambiguous answer noting that Microsoft is committed to Internet Explorer and
is actively working on the next version of the browser. The spokesperson
noted that Microsoft is not discussing specifics at this time for IE 8.


Whether the browser vendors need to support microformats in order for
microformats to become widely available may well be a chicken and egg
problem. Web designers wait for native support in browsers, and browser
vendors wait to see how the Web will evolve on its own.


“For instance, RSS became popular on the Web before Firefox added a Web feed
icon to the location bar,” Mozilla’s Faaborg explained. “With microformats
things are speeding up, and we are starting to see both the chicken and egg
appear at more or less the same time.

Ben West of Alexa estimates that there
are currently hundreds of millions of pieces of microformatted content on
the Web and native support in browsers will of course only drive adoption
further.”

Toward the mainstream


Making microformats pervasive across the landscape of the Internet will
involve overcoming a number of different adoption barriers for both browser
vendors and Web developers.


“For the browser, I think the primary barrier to entry is figuring out how
to present this new type of information to the user,” IBM’s Kaply said.
“Microformats are not pervasive on the Web, so it doesn’t make a lot of
sense to dedicate large portions of the browser UI to them. Operator
contains a lot of different UI elements for accessing microformats, but I
don’t think any of them is perfect.”


On the Web developer side Kaply thinks that the primary barriers are
knowledge and tools. To make it easier to implement, there needs to be
microformat creation as an integral part of all Web development tools. Kaply
noted that though there are some tools available today, including extensions
for Adobe’s Dreamweaver there is much more work to be done.


Even with the continued efforts of developers and browser vendors,
microformats might not ever become as mainstream and as common as basic
hyperlinking.


“It’s not clear that anything on the Web can become as common as basic
hyperlinking, since those are the fundamental connections on the Web,”
Technorati’s Çelik said. “Most microformats in fact make use of hyperlinks,
so even as microformats become ubiquitous, they add more hyperlinks to the
Web.”


As microformats continue to be built into publishing tools like blogs and as
more GUI/WYSIWYG editors support creating microformats for people, events,
etc. just as they support creating hyperlinks, Çelik expects that we’ll
see even more microformats in content.


“Every month, sometimes every week someone launches a new tool or open
source library that uses microformats,” Çelik said.


For example Çelik noted that last month both Plaxo and Pownce released open
source social network portability code and services that use and publish
microformats. This month an independent developer already launched a
microformat parsing service called Optimus.


With all that activity and if there is a move toward making it easier to
implement, microformats may well soon truly be everywhere online. “Once adding a microformat to your blog post or wiki is as easy as adding a
hyperlink, microformats may very well approach the ubiquity of hyperlinks.”

News Around the Web