Microformats

As part of an investigation into HTML5, I stumbled across Microformats. While they are not a specific part of the HTML5 spec, Microformats are worth looking at in the same context as they add further meaning to (X)HTML markup. Essentially Microformats add attributes and values to web content, which can then be indexed, searched for, saved, cross-referenced or combined. As a concept the benefits are obvious: they enable the simple sharing and reusing of content, which benefits the end user, and they can also lead to more meangingful search results. Moreover there is not a lot to learn for those already familiar with HTML. Microformats use existing (X)HTML standards and emphasize semantics using POSH (Plain Old Semantic HTML). They promote more intelligent thinking about CSS as they encourage the separation of structure from presentation elements. Rather than adding unnecessary markup to your HTML as has sometimes been argued, Microformats like hCard and hCalendar in fact recycle attribute values from existing standards. Because of this there are no awkward complications with backwards compatibility in different browsers.

Microformats can also help with Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). Yahoo! Local have supported the hCalendar, hCard and hReview Microformats since 2006, but it appears Google have been rather slow on the uptake, only making this commitment in May 2009. These search engines parse the Microformats and use them to populte search results. From the point of view of the search engines this certainly makes sense: it makes displaying search results easier, and more coherent for users, and it can only be a positive step in the development of Microformats themselves as it makes them more visible to Average Joe.

With this in mind, the following Microformats could be useful:

  • Rel-Home: a simple Microformat indicating the destination of a hyperlink is the homepage of the site in which the current page appears. However even the use of this prompted some discussion. Taking the example of a Sky news article, is the homepage the Sky News site or the Sky.com homepage? Again this is left up to the developer.
  • hCalendar: Events can be exported into formats compatible with calendar utilities like MS Outlook.
  • hCard: For publishing the contact details of people, companies, organisations and places in (X)HTML, Atom, RSS, or arbitrary HTML.
  • Geo Microformat: Uses latitude and longitude coordinates and the location can be sent to applications such as Google Maps, or load them into a GPS device. Currently used by such companies as Wikipedia, Multimap, and Flikr.
  • hAtom: A draft Microformat used on blogs and other sites with similar chronological content (such as news sites) for marking up (X)HTML content, which can then be parsed as feeds in Atom.
  • hNews: A Microformat for news content which extends hAtom by introducing a number of fields relevant to journalism. Parsers and tools that don’t understand the hNews extensions can still parse the hAtom content.
  • hMedia: A single media publishing format for images, video and audio.

But is it worth using Microformats when you need specialist parsing programmes to make use of them? The Operator add-on for Firefox is all very well, but the chances of Average Joe using such an extension are pretty slim. Oomph is certainly a step in the right direction as it makes the presence of Microformats apparent to all users regardless of their browser and/or extensions. However until it is used by more developers it will have minimal impact. For a full list of tools that make use of Microformats see Emily Lewis’ blog.

For your average blogger who could potentially make use of Microformats, there are some additional usability issues surrounding their implementation. Specifically the Microformats wiki (which would surely be your first port of call, is difficult to navigate and not written with Average Joe in mind.

Then there is the issue of accessibility, which has still not been addressed. Some Microformats use the title attribute of the abbr element to conceal machine-readable data in the abbr design pattern. This is particularly the case with date-times and geographical coordinates. The plain text content is then inaccessible to some screen readers. As a result of this the BBC stopped using Microformats using the abbr design pattern in June 2008.

This then is the crux of the problem with Microformats. They are not used widely enough for someone at the top to want to commit the time and money that would be required to develop workarounds for these accessibility issues; but without a solution to this it is unlikely to come into popular usage. One to watch then, but Microformats will not be revolutionising the web any time soon.

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About RNewstead

I am learning every day. Sometimes I worry there are too many interesting things in the world and not enough time.
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