Microformats

I just attended a session about microformats at Northern Voice. Following an explanation about what, there were a great deal of questions about why – and I don’t think they found the answers compelling. Let me explain why I am excited about microformats1.

This technology could enable more intelligent searches – e.g. a search for music reviews that actually found reviews, not just sites selling the CD. They could make it possible to click on an event (like Northern Voice) on a web page and have it added to your calendar automatically, to copy a full address and phone number to your desktop address book, to forward a forum posting to an email or wiki with one or two mouse clicks2.

The technology to do all of these things is straightforward. What’s needed is standards. There must be a simple, common method for indicating on a web page what’s a review, what’s a calendar event, what’s an address. With that information, it’s not very hard to add these kinds of capabilities to web browsers, search engines, or email clients.

I imagine that my annotation system, Marginalia, would not need to be integrated into a web service like Moodle. It could be used to add highlighting and margin notes to individual blog or forum posts, regardless of what site those posts are on. All that would be needed is a link on your browser’s bookmark bar to activate annotation. Or, something like my smartcopy feature could be enable automatically. Whenever you copy a quote from a blog or forum post, the title, author, and URL of that post would be included automatically.

In fact, microformats.org has standards for many of these things today. We have the technology, we have the standards, we just need people to use them.

As the group at Northern Voice recognized, that’s the key problem. It’s very difficult to persuade web page and blog authors to include the extra bit of structure needed to make microformats work. They don’t see what’s in it for them. The consensus was that the tools need to help out. I hope my examples above show that there is a benefit to authors; that once the technology gains a foothold the benefits of making that little extra effort will make it compelling.

My examples should also confirm that there is an important role for tool makers today. Much of this microformat structure information is already present in the tools. There’s no need for authors to specify the title, author, and date of blog or forum posts: the information is already there. It’s just not structured in a standard way.

While I think my examples are valid, I don’t think they touch on the real benefit of microformats. My predictions are like the advertising for the early personal computers, which claimed the machine would help organize recipes. Like personal computers and the web before, we won’t know the power of the technology until people start playing with it and having ideas. How many people thought the hyperlink would be so powerful, the basis for accurate searches, challenges to hierarchy, and citizen journalism?

Notes

1 Here’s a brief explanation of microformat technology. Web pages are already structured: they have titles, paragraphs, lists, links, and so on. This information is useful – for example, when you create a bookmark, your browser uses the title of the web page as the bookmark text. When you click on a link, the browser knows where to take you. Search engines follow links in order to figure out how popular pages are. But the structure of standard web pages can only take you so far. For example, there’s no way of indicating that a web page contains a movie review, or the title of the movie being reviewed. Similarly, there’s no way to indicate a calendar event or a blog post. Microformats are a way of adding this kind of structure to a page. This is semantic web technology, and there are other standards that could be applied. The advantage of microformats is that they are simple: they require nothing more than HTML, i.e. no no changes to the existing technological infrastructure.

2 What these examples have in common is that they give power and choice to people, rather than to central organizations. (There is no guarantee that this will remain the case; people may still choose to develop or use centralized applications. But at least there is no requirement to do this.)

2006-02-10

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