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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Microformats : The Next Big Thing on the Web

(Via Knowledge@wharton) For a long time, attempts have been made to extend the web's basic presentation format to create a richer, more meaningful network of information. Internet users have envisioned a web that presents information that can not only be read by humans but also be understood by computers. This could usher in entirely new ways of doing business. The web could evolve from a collection of loosely linked pages to an enormous database that could be searched and filtered and re-assembled in new ways.
HTML tags used to display these items on the web don't describe what they mean. If one web site links to another, the link doesn't carry any information about why the sites are linked. But what if it did? And what if every event listed on a web page could also be read by software that could understand its date, time and location? Sites like LinkedIn and Friendster let their users explore social networks, but the users have to enter the information about the people they know at each web site. Why can't a search tool automatically build a social network from those links? The "Semantic Web." is supposed to provide an answer for this. A grassroots movement has emerged that seeks to attach intelligent data to web pages by using simple extensions of the standard tags currently used for web formatting - HTML (or XHTML, its more formally-structured cousin). These so-called "microformats" may change the way the web works. Tantek Çelik, senior technologist at Technorati, elaborates:
With microformats the emphasis is on visible data, instead of invisible metadata. The difference between a visible data system like hyperlinks and an invisible data system like meta-keywords is that with the visible system, there's this great feedback loop. There's also a penalty built in for people who abuse the system. One of the basic principles of a microformat design is to reuse rather than re-invent. And when you can't find a microformat to use for whatever purpose you want, you look at established standards - interoperably implemented standards. The basic concept of the Semantic Web that Tim talks about - about publishing more semantic information on the Web - is something anyone involved with microformats agrees with 100. The goal is to put as much semantic information as possible on the Web. Microformats are, in many ways, such a lightweight thing, that it's not clear that they need months or years in a standards body to make them work. In part, all this is still something of an open experiment on the Web. The community site - microformats.org is an attempt to showcase this. The next thing that needs to happen is to see an increase in the diversity of the participants, the kinds of microformats that are being developed, and an increase in the adoption.

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