Microformats – Part 0: Introduction

Have you been over hearing people talk about microformats and thought to yourself “what are those?” In this post I provide a quick introduction, and discuss the various ways that microformats are changing the Web.

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What are microformats?

Microformats can be explained in a number of ways, but the easiest way to explain them is to just show an example.

Here is my contact information in HTML:

<div class=”vcard”>
<span class=”fn”>Alex Faaborg</span>
<div class=”org”>Mozilla</div>
<div class=”adr”>
<div class=”street-address”>1981 Landings Drive, Building K</div>
<span class=”locality”>Mountain View</span>,
<span class=”region”>CA</span>,
<span class=”postal-code”>94043</span>
<span class=”country-name”>United States</span>
</div>
<div class=”tel”>617-899-5064</div>

But this isn’t just normal HTML, it is semantic HTML:

<div class=”vcard”>
<span class=”fn”>Alex Faaborg</span>
<div class=”org”>Mozilla</div>
<div class=”adr”>
<div class=”street-address”>1981 Landings Drive, Building K</div>
<span class=”locality”>Mountain View</span>,
<span class=”region”>CA</span>,
<span class=”postal-code”> 94043</span>
<span class=”country-name”>United States</span>
</div>
<div class=”tel”>617-899-5064</div>

This additional semantic information in the HTML is an example of the hCard microformat. That’s what microformats are, adding semantics to markup to take it from being machine readable to being machine understandable.

There are lots of different microformats, ranging from very fundamental types of information like contacts, locations, and events, to the slightly more domain specific, like reviews and resumes, to the very domain specific, like wines.

Why are microformats important?

Microformats are going to change (and are currently changing) the Web in a variety of different ways:

1. Aggregation Sites

Right now if you want to sell something, you go to a site like craigslist. If you want to review something, you go to a site like epinions. And if you want to manage your social network, you go to a site like Facebook. The general model is the user travels to a particular site, and then proceeds to enter data (classified add, review, list of friends) for a particular purpose. Your information is scattered all over the Web, and you have to pick which sites you want to use.

The combination of blogging and microformats is now reversing this model. Now, your information remains in your blog, and the Web sites come to you. For instance, if you want to sell something, you can blog about it using an hListing, and a site like edgeio will find it when it aggregates classified advertisements across the Web. Similarly, the microformat hReview allows the creation of review aggregation sites, and XFN (XHTML Friends Network) allows the creation of social network aggregation sites.

2. Sharing Information with a Specific Community

Let’s say you enjoy mountain biking, and would like to share various trails with other people who also enjoy mountain biking. If you posted this information to your blog, you could geocast (RSS with a payload of geo), the locations of the mountain bike trails, and other people in the community could subscribe to this feed using an application like Google Earth.

3. Targeted Search

Let’s say you are creating a web comic, and you want other people to be able to find it. By posting your comic with a microformat agreed upon by the web comic community, the rest of the community will be able to easily find your work using a search engine.

What sites are currently using microformats?

The Microformats Wiki has information about which sites are currently displaying different types of microformated content. The notable examples are Flickr, which lets users geotag photos (5 million geos), Yahoo! Local, which encodes each search result with an hCard (15 million hCards), and Upcoming.org, with encodes events with hCalendar (not sure how many).

Why are these sites using microformats?

Honestly, I don’t know. One possibility is that they are adding microformated content to their sites because it is the right thing to do, but that is kind of like answering “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” with “the egg came first, because it was the right thing to do.” Another possibility is these sites are marking up their content using microformats as a means of making the site itself an API. But whatever their motivation is, it’s really great that they are bootstrapping innovation on the Web.

Learning more about microformats

Press
Podcasts
Presentations
Screencasts

Getting involved with the microformat community

Blog
Wiki
Email list
IRC

Coming soon…

All of the user scenarios above are interesting, but they don’t necessarily impact the Web browser, which is after all the whole point of this blog. But that brings us to to the fourth way microformats are going to change the Web.

4. The Web Browser as an Information Broker (Firefox 3?)

Much in the same way that operating systems currently associate particular file types with specific applications, future Web browsers are likely going to associate semantically marked up data you encounter on the Web with specific applications, either on your system or online. This means the contact information you see on a Web site will be associated with your favorite contacts application, events will be associated with your favorite calendar application, locations will be associated with your favorite mapping application, phone numbers will be associated with your favorite VOIP application, etc.

This is going to change the way we interact with data on the Web, and it’s something that I am going to be blogging about all this week, stay tuned.

Next: Structured Data Chaos

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27 comments

  1. For anyone who tried to write a comment, my apologies for the overzealous spam blocking on the server.

    Please comment in this thread: http://groups.google.com/group/mozilla.dev.apps.firefox/browse_frm/thread/bca5a231d634f87a/4361d223cc01b53f#4361d223cc01b53f

  2. Or below, problem solved. Note that you will have to solve a simple math problem after submitting your comment.

  3. Alex,
    I like what you have written about here regarding microformats and I am truly excited about the direction that Firefox is headed in regarding content aggregation and publication. However, I can not help but think about one thing here: Standardization. Aren’t these microformats essentially another attempt to prove that standardization solves a ton of problems (i.e. like Web services are essentially Corba redux)?

  4. Alex,

    I like the article. I always wondered what Microformats are :).
    Do you know how do Microformats plan to fight with Spam? It seems like we already start getting Spammy microformats (http://groups.drupal.org/node/1918)

  5. Wow, i saw thoose tags before, but i never tough they would become a microformat, shame if mf’s are used to spam. very bad thing!

  6. Aren’t these microformats essentially another attempt to prove that standardization solves a ton of problems

    In many ways it is not another attempt, but in fact the same attempt. This is because some of the fundamental microformats are based on existing standards. For instance, hCard is based on the vCard standard (RFC2426).

    Trying to get everyone to agree on a particular standard isn’t in itself enough of a motivation for people to agree. However, when you can actually accomplish something with a standard (like making it easier for your customers to interact with data on your Web site), that will hopefully start to drive adoption.

  7. Do you know how do Microformats plan to fight with Spam?

    Unfortunately, microformats are likely going to enable a new generation of structured spam. Microformats don’t really offer any solutions to solving the spam problem, but also hopefully (at least in terms of Web browsing) things won’t get that much worse than they already are.

    If you are viewing a Web page that contains spam, it might also contain some microformated spam in the future. Your browser will display some type of icon to indicate that it located microformated content (more on this in future posts), but you are not likely to want to add any of this content to your address book, calendar or map. So hopefully it won’t really matter that it is there, since most people will just ignore it. How search engines are going to deal with microformat spam is of course a whole different problem, and thankfully not something that I have to personally worry about.

  8. I love the idea of microformats, but I’m nervous about the spam / data harvesting implications. I don’t think that microformats can offer any type of defense against spam – I think that the email (SMTP) specifications will need to change. If / when that does happen, I think it would be a tremendous boon for semantic contact data.

  9. I am off to the party tonight and will update this post after. Tomorrow hopefully will be better?

  10. That is very good! I support you!

  11. It´s a very interesting Blog and simple answer of many questions.

  12. Enjoyed browsing through the site. Keep up the good work.
    Greetings from Poland

  13. It’s a interesting to see into the matter “Microformats”. Very nice viewing.

  14. Great and excellent article t’s realy helpful. Thanks again.

  15. I don’t know. One possibility is that they are adding microformated content to their sites because it is the right thing to do, but that is kind of like answering “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” with “the egg came first, because it was the right thing to do.”

  16. Or below, problem solved. Note that you will have to solve a simple math problem after submitting your comment.

  17. I like the article. I always wondered what Microformats are :).
    Do you know how do Microformats plan to fight with Spam?

  18. Wow, i saw thoose tags before, but i never tough they would become a microformat, shame if mf’s are used to spam. very bad thing!

  19. Fantastic article covering some points I really needed some good usability info for.

  20. Very interesting article. Microformats is a very interesting topic.
    Greetings,
    gutschein

  21. I think these blog about microformats is really useful for new comers and Excellent resource list.

    Best Regards to ALex

  22. On personal opinion, I find this very helpful.
    Guys, I have also posted some more relevant info further on this, not sure if you find it useful: http://www.bidmaxhost.com/forum/

  23. Hi Alex,
    do you now more sites, which have much informations about microformats like this site?
    Why you not delete the spam on the site?

    Greets
    Ali

  24. I always wondered what Microformats are :)

  25. well, first of all i apologise if my english weren’t very accurate. I have a doubt, couldn’t this be a new avenue of malware, like somebody saying “Hey, firefox, please exploit that application on my behalf, if you don’t mind”, making exploits that are eminently local, to be reborn as network aware ones. we`d need some kind of security fence or sandbox to the content.
    thx,
    Platano

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