Microformats and the Semantic Web
I keep waiting for the semantic web to materialize, but it seems like microformats aren't being adopted as quickly as I hoped. I listened to a podcast on microformats that got me thinking about this topic again. I first heard about the semantic web at the 2006 Tri-XML conference in a keynote address by Salim Ismail, who asserted that the semantic web could free the data trapped in sites like ebay, personals sites, classifieds, amazon, and others. Microformats would decentralize these databases so that the information could be aggregated by microformat web searches and other tools instead.
Let me unravel the concepts a little. The semantic web refers to a web where things are tagged with what they are. So if you post an event, the tagging contains semantic content that identifies the thing as an event. Or if you post a review, the tagging contains semantic content that identifies the stuff as a review. The semantic tag makes it easy for users to find the content, because it not only defines keywords, but also the type of content.
To better understand the power of microformats, go to kitchen.technorati.com and do a microformats search for contacts, events, or reviews.
Type "WordPress" and then select "in events." You'll see all events related to WordPress. You no longer have to go to sites like meetup.com to find events. Nor do you have to google phrases like "WordPress events and conferences." By semantically tagging your content, you can make search engines smarter, help people find information faster, and aggregate and share that information more easily.
One writer explains the semantic benefits of microformats as follows:
By including the additional microformat markup, web pages go from merely presenting the visual display of content to embodying its meaning. When a traditional web page contains information about an event, for example, the HTML markup conveys little more than the formatting of the text describing the event. But the addition of microformatting can unambiguously identify the date, start time, end time, and venue for the event. With microformat extensions added to the HTML tags, software can add the event to a personal datebook, aggregate content from different web pages into a comprehensive calendar, or let people "mash up" the content in new ways such as adding events to online maps or other web pages
hCal (events), hReview (reviews), and hListing (classifieds) are several established microformats. If you use the Structured Blogging plugins for WordPress or Typepad, you can automate publishing in these microformats. You just complete form fields and the tagging is generated. Structured blogging provides the tools to publish in microformats.
However, if you upload the structured blogging plugin for WordPress, you might be a little frustrated that the plugin hasn't been updated in a while. It's not compatible with WordPress 2.1 unless you delete line 25 from the sb-post file inside wp-admin. There's nothing on the site indicating an issue with WordPress 2.1. You have to search for the issue on Google. But after you delete the line and activate the plugin, you'll see more options under your write menu.
The idea of microformats and the semantic web sound cool. And I'm looking forward to the day when microformats are widely adopted. But if microformats are so useful, why hasn't Google come out with a microformats search yet? Why aren't microformats being baked into the core structure of WordPress and other blogging platforms?
Not many people are using the structured blogging plugins, and those that do use it mainly to autoformat their posts. I even heard in a recent interview with Matt Mullenweg, the WordPress lead, that there are no current plans to develop structured blogging microformats into the WordPress code.
I may be wrong about my perceptions here, but why isn't structured blogging taking off faster? The idea is awesome. Say you want a review of a restaurant. Rather than googling a phrase like "Durangos + Tampa + review" you can just do a microformat review search for Durangos.
And taking it a step further, let's say you want to sell your car or home. Rather than list it on sites that are walled gardens or that require you to search within their proprietary database of content, you can post it on your own blog, and the content will be aggregated into a global collection of other cars or homes being sold. It's a truly revolutionary concept.
Scott Abel even has plans to develop a DITA plugin for the structured blogging movement. This plugin will enable help content to be aggregated in the same fashion. So theoretically if you have questions about configuring your wireless Belkin router, rather than googling "Belkin wireless router tutorial + help + instructions + setup" you could just do a microformat search for "Belkin wireless router" and find help content about it.
But until software begins to invisibly integrate microformats into its core code, I don't think microformats will take off.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.