(Reading time: 8 – 13 minutes)
Have you heard of the semantic web? It’s the notion that all the data on the web can have meaning attached, providing readers and writers with a much richer experience and enabling machine-to-machine reasoning.
It’s not really new. The term “semantic web” has been bandied about for at least 10 years. Similar notions date back to Vannever Bush’s memex system proposed in the 1930s.
It’s just taken 70 years of computational innovation to implement a semantic web.
Sort of like Jules Verne’s submarines: imagination outruns implementation.
So what is the semantic web, really?
Actually, before we really get started… I’m setting the stage for explaining how you benefit from technology already being used on websites such as Amazon and Facebook. Technology YOU can use, right now, provided you’re willing to learn.
Let’s get to the learning then.
Here’s one point of view on the semantic web, from Tim Berners-Lee (he invented the World Wide Web, after all) as given to the Toronto Globe and Mail:
Globe: “What do you mean when you use the term ‘semantic Web?’”
TBL: “It’s a way of taking the data that is in lots and lots of different systems and connecting it together — for example, in a company or a database — and not just connecting it together, but realizing that it’s part of a community, that there are partners and suppliers and customers who all want to see and use this data in different ways…”
From our (blogger) point of view, the semantic web means two things:
- A way to present our data to search engines to get better search ranking.
- A way to present structured data to readers in an attractive form.
About right here, I expect you’re asking: “Yeah, so what, I like it; how do I make it happen on my blog?”
In a word: Microformats.
Microformats are one way to bring the semantic web straight to your blog.
There are other ways, but this is way we’re going to do it today.
For example, let’s examine a recipe for fish tacos given by Zerala Martinez’s Chef of the Month – Jackie Diaz. Go visit Zarela, and when you come back, we’ll discuss fish tacos using the (partial) screenshot just to the right.
With a lot of programming, the computer can classify at least some of the information given in a recipe for fish tacos as being a “recipe.”
But look, recipes many parts in common. Nearly all recipes have a title of some sort. Recipes have lists of ingredients, and instructions for combining those ingredients. Many recipes may also have suggested serving instructions, nutritional information, and so on.
Microformatting allows you to specify Jackie’s fish taco recipe as a recipe. It gives a sort of “electronic envelope” the computer can use for finding recipes, and displaying recipes. That is, when the search engine comes calling, it will grab up your web page as usual, but it will also take note of any semantic data you have available. In this case, a recipe for fish tacos.
What, exactly, is a microformat?
From the Microformats.org website:
Designed for humans first and machines second, microformats are a set of simple, open data formats built upon existing and widely adopted standards. Instead of throwing away what works today, microformats intend to solve simpler problems first by adapting to current behaviors and usage patterns (e.g. XHTML, blogging).
That’s a little pedantic for us. Let’s dial it down a bit: microformats provide an easy way for you, the blogger, to create content that is easy to find, share, distribute, syndicate and aggregate. The microformat provides a platform-independent way of describing your book review, your fish taco recipe, your resume, contact information, and many more subtle pieces of information such as how you might know someone you’re linking to. For example, you can describe your relationships with the “rel” attribute. Here’s what that looks like when linking to my friend Kelly Diels:
<a href="http://kellydiels.com" rel="friend">Kelly Diels</a>
Any type of discrete information which has a definite structure following well-understood rules is amenable to microformatting.
How do microformats work?
Microformats leverage CSS selectors and classes to provide both semantic information and styling information. Furthermore, using a “microformat,” the recipe can be presented any which way you please. In fact, Google can present microformated HTML as a “Rich Snippet” search result.
Since an investigation into the ineffable coolness of rich snippets would lengthen this article by another 1500 words, let’s take a look at five microformats you can use right now to enhance your search results. Perhaps we’ll discuss rich snippets in a future article.
5 microformats you can use right now
Here’s five of the most useful microformats for your blog, all which you can use right now. Some of these have WordPress plugins for helping you along. For others, various web-based tools allow you to enter your information, and copy the resulting microformatted HTML directly into your blog post.
1. hCard – contact information
hCard is for presenting contact detail for people, places, companies and similar organizations. It’s an easy format, almost anyone with even basic WordPress experience can implement hCard directly in a blog post or page. For example, follow this little tutorial on hCard.
Pretty easy, really. One would think there would be a WordPress plugin for hCard, but a fast search didn’t turn anything up on WordPress.org. There is one hCard plugin distributed via microformats.org which requires a minor theme modification to implement. Unfortunately, the server for that plugin appears to be offline. Opportunity knocks!
2. hCalendar – don’t be late for your date
hCalendar is an open, simple and distributed calendaring and events markup based on the well-established iCalendar format. In fact, you’re probably already using iCalendar in several applications without even knowing it. hCalendar simply makes it easy to put that event data on the web in way that’s fun, easy to understand and search-friendly.
Nate Ritter presented the WordPress Event Plugin which handles hCalendar as one of it’s formats.
3. hReview – review movies, books and more
hReview let’s you wrap your product, book or any other kind of review in a way that Google finds very friendly. According to Jeff Alsopp, the hReview standard was the first microformat that was developed through close examination of actual reviews found on websites. That is, the hReview team went out looking for the “cow paths,” finding existing clear examples of reviews already existing on the web.
In contrast, the hCard and hCalendar standards were adopted from existing, widely used standards.
WordPress bloggers are lucky, having the hReview Support for Editor plugin for inserting hReviews into blog posts.
4. hResume – strut your stuff
The WordPress LinkedIn hResume plugin allows you to snatch your resume from LinkedIn for display on your WordPress blog. There doesn’t seem to be a WordPress plugin making it easy to create a microformatted resume from scratch. More opportunity knocks!
5. hRecipe – everybody eats
Everyone loves to eat, even bloggers! hRecipe is great intersection of interests. The idea is that a recipe is composed of various parts, and those parts are easily described with keywords like “ingredients.” Same notion as the other microformats of course.
Any time you want to present cooking or creating meals, drinks or other food-based items, hRecipe is your ticket.
(Disclaimer: hRecipe plugin for WordPress is one of my projects.)
More microformat resources
We have barely scratched the surface; dig deeper into microformats with these resources:
- microformats.org is the canonical source for all information about microformats. If you’re serious about semantic web technology, and microformats in particular, be prepared to spend a significant amount of time reading the microformats website. Take a lot of notes, you will need them later.
- Microformats – Empowering Your Markup for Web 2.0 is an introductory book on microformats by John Allsop, who has been working in the web standards field since 1997. John also operates the Microformatique blog, which is packed with useful information.
- Microformats Made Simple by Emily Lewis (A Blog Not Limited) is another excellent resource. Emily also posted her Practical Microformats slide deck from the Voices That Matter conference. If you have any interest in microformats, this slide should be your next stop, it’s that good.
Opportunity, and call to action
Microformats give you an opportunity to raise the bar, very inexpensively. With easy-to-use tools available for blogging platforms such as WordPress, implementing a microformat may be no more difficult than downloading an appropriate plugin and filling in the blanks.
Microformats are information technology. And if there is one thing you should know by now, information technology evolves at an incredibly rapid pace. Semantic web efforts have been underway for over 10 years. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes; as bloggers, we’re simply the beneficiaries of what finally burbles up in an easy-to-use form. In this case, microformats are the tip of the “semantic web iceberg.”
The key is understanding that the technology is simply a means for communicating your message.
You have a killer fish taco recipe to share? That’s great. Right now, wrapping in a microformat gives your recipe leverage. In the future, there may be more effective ways to get your recipe out.
Your time spent learning simple microformatting will come back to you as technology evolves. You will be starting with a vast head start compared to people who are starting from scratch. Take action now, there’s no better time to get acquainted with the semantic web, and no better way than using simple microformats.
What about you? Are using any microformats format right? Will you consider adding this technology to your blog as a result of this article? If not, why not?