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  1. #1
    SitePoint Zealot somecallmejosh's Avatar
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    Semantic Web: Who's Responsible?

    I've been reading a new book on CSS that's both fascinating and concerning. The book is great, but I keep coming back to the business practicality of developing a semantic web. Who pays for this? I agree that semantics are important. But, there is a cost. Explaining to clients that microformats and RDFa are necessary due to the shortcomings of HTML is difficult. The idea of even presenting this to a client means that I am engaging in some sort of risk (see below)... From a business standpoint, who wins in this situation? Please understand that I am NOT suggesting that a semantic web is not important. In a business transaction, however, it seems risky for either party.

    Why do I believe it's risky?

    The developer who presents the topic either loses money educating the client on the additional expense associated with "proper" methods of development, or, codes to standard without getting paid for it. I realize this is a generalization, but I've found myself explaining other concepts (like accessibility, why full flash sites are not a great idea, etc.) until I'm blue in the face only to be met with "I don't need all those bells and whistles."

    On the other hand, if the client agrees to pay the developer to extend the semantics beyond the capabilities of HTML (either with microformats or RDFa), what do they gain? Outside of the good feeling of contributing to the movement (unlikely), what's the return on their investment? SEO? Most sources I've read suggest that microformats and RDFa don't contribute to SEO. Increased conversion? Unlikely, considering this to be more of a function of good content and design.

    Can clients be expected to maintain Semantics?

    Even if the client agrees, is it likely that they'll maintain the highly semantic nature of their website? In the situation where the client hires a developer to create or implement a content management system, what are the chances that the client will be willing to learn microformats, or RDFa and maintain it? Even if they see it in Wordpress, will they remember, or be confident enough to select the appropriate "rel" attributes when it's time for them to update content?

    In the case of a flat file, or basic SSI site, it seems as though the chances of maintaining the semantic integrity are even more slim.

    Is the Semantic Web More of a Business Issue than a Development Issue?
    Surely there are some really poorly constructed websites out there that convert really well. In the same regard, they do not contribute to the semantic web - no sharing of content... no relationship associations to other sites... they contribute to the community of the web in no way. As long as the site is making sales, why would a business owner care? Is it our job as web developers to make them care? Can we afford to make them care?

    Is the concept of a semantic web being targeted to the wrong audience? Sure, developers are responsible for being capable of performing the task. The problem is that developers build sites for people who don't know, or don't care about the future of the web. They build sites for people who care about the future of their business.

    As a front end developer, I feel compelled to do the right thing, but my hands are tied, because I cannot afford to freely educate each client on the future benefits of proper web development. I'd be thrilled to read the thoughts of those who agree and disagree with my sentiment... especially those who have found a way to be profitable building to this standard.
    Joshua K. Briley
    Website Design and Front End Development

  2. #2
    Follow: @AlexDawsonUK silver trophybronze trophy AlexDawson's Avatar
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    Firstly, would you mind saying what book you were reading, you never cited the source so we are all in the dark here!

    Next you claim that there is some sort of risky cost in developing using semantic code, it should be pointed out that there are no additional costs with coding properly to standards. In fact if you code valid semantic source code you actually reduce the amount of work you need to put into coding (fixing browser glitches), the site will load quicker, it has the potential for getting a higher SEO position organically and it is expected as a professional you should be coding to standards, otherwise your not really doing your job properly, your a cowboy builder. As for educating the client, you don't need to teach them a degree in computer science for them to be aware of it, by simply saying you will code to the latest industry standards it is self explaintary they are getting the best "bang for their buck".

    I know the fraustration with trying to detract from full flash sites but most people like hard facts, don't try to explain the concepts, say to them that if their not accessible, there are potential legal implications, if their site is entirely flash based, the amount of visitors they get may be hit severely and if their website design isn't usable, they will start haemoraging visitors and loose potential customers. Shock is the best way to get the attention of busy people who don't understand the nuts and bolts. Though I don't see a cost in explaining to the client, they are paying you for your professional advice and skills, if they don't listen to it, its their own fault if the result isn't doing its job.

    Google is one of the many search engines now taking advantage of microformats, it is a huge boost for social networking (especially as search engines can deliver prices, ratings for products and much more from this extracted data). While it doesn't directly contribute to SEO, it is a big feature for the social web and it does actually boost what search engines can work out about your sites contents.

    Client's aren't expected to keep up to date with the latest technologies, they come to you as a developer because they are ill equipped to do the job inhouse, RDF and microformats can easily be added into CMS packages and therefore could be automatically marked up (I don't know about examples in the wild however the nature of RDF and Microformats are META based, therefore fairly explicit in what they address). I know most forum software is able to use rel attributes already! As for static websites, it takes very little effort to add the required attribute (class or otherwise) to declare markup appropriately.

    Business owners should care because they are simple to implement, give the user more choice (as browsers adopt functionality based on them) and search engines and social networks start to tap into their power enhancing the social interaction which can be achieved. For example you could literally have price comparison websites spidering your site for price details using microformats and therefore you could compete with your rivals on a broad basis.

    Developers are responsible for doing their job properly, if you can add microformats in there is no reason why you should not, it is much in the same way as RSS feeds, while they are not required they are quickly becoming an expectation or something which could make a difference to the website (for those who can make use of them). I would rather state to the client that I will include microformats (and state that they simply make certain pieces of information more visible on the page for non-humans) than to avoid educating them (and doing a good job) on the basis of saving half an hour of explaining what they will get by working with you.

  3. #3
    SitePoint Zealot somecallmejosh's Avatar
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    Thanks for your reply. First I'd like to state that this isn't intended to be a discussion of whether or not Microformats are right and just. I clearly get that they bring benefit to the web in general. I'm suggesting that we're the only ones who care about it. And for it to advance, businesses need to embrace and understand the benefits before we (web guys) go broke trying to make it happen.

    The book is Advanced CSS by Joseph Lewis - I purposefully did not include the title in the first post, as I found it irrelevant.

    Next you claim that there is some sort of risky cost in developing using semantic code, it should be pointed out that there are no additional costs with coding properly to standards.
    I thought that my post would get misinterpreted. I didn't mean to suggest there is an additional cost to code to standard. I meant that there is an additional cost to code beyond the capabilities of HTML/XHTML. There is a HUGE difference between the following two lines of perfectly semantic markup (taken directly from the book):

    Code:
    <p>Tim Berners Lee is the director of the World Wide Web Consortium</p>
    and
    Code:
    <p class="vcard">
      <a class="fn url" href="http"http://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/">
         Tim Berners Lee
       </a>
    is the <span class="role">Director</span> of the
    <span class="org">World Wide Web Consortium</span>.
    </p>
    Start combining RDFa with that, and you can see that the time to code increases considerably.

    Developers are responsible for doing their job properly, if you can add microformats in there is no reason why you should not, it is much in the same way as RSS feeds, while they are not required they are quickly becoming an expectation or something which could make a difference to the website (for those who can make use of them). I would rather state to the client that I will include microformats (and state that they simply make certain pieces of information more visible on the page for non-humans) than to avoid educating them (and doing a good job) on the basis of saving half an hour of explaining what they will get by working with you.
    OK, I understand this, but when you're competing for work, and your quote is X&#37; higher, how do you explain the value?
    Joshua K. Briley
    Website Design and Front End Development

  4. #4
    Follow: @AlexDawsonUK silver trophybronze trophy AlexDawson's Avatar
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    Well we clearly can't be the only ones that care about them, search engines (like Google) like them, social networks like them, and browsers (with support for them) like them, those are three good reasons to use them to extend functionality when applicable, why miss out on an opportunity to better aid your visitors.

    I don't really see it as coding beyond the capabilities of HTML/XHTML, do you charge more if the client wants CSS with IE6 support (as it needs more coding)? Adding a couple of extra elements with class attributes isn't really extra work, charging for that extra code would be like charging by the byte or element. As a professional your job is to do your job to the best extent you can, in terms of (x)HTML this means semantic accessible markup, and as microformats better state the semantics (and give some forward compatibility for when browsers do start directly embedding microformats) it just makes sense.

  5. #5
    SitePoint Zealot somecallmejosh's Avatar
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    Alex, I think we're talking about different things. You're arguing for Semantics. I'm not arguing against them. Consider me the choir in this discussion. I hear your preachings, and don't disagree with them, at least from a theoretical point of reference. From a business point of view, I would challenge that we must draw the line at some point. Seriously, Mercedes Benz quality shouldn't be acquired at Ford Festiva prices.

    This is a discussion about value. Like Sitepoint's Brenden Sinclair, I'm in the business of making money. I'm not a martyr. Although I believe that things should be done properly, I also agree that "proper," for most business is a luxury.

    Regarding IE6: Dean Edwards has helped our community considerably with his IE7 fix for small, low traffic sites. But to answer your questions, successful business models (those supporting enterprise level clients) do charge for this service. Just like they'd charge to support IE5, 4, etc. It's not our fault as developers that IE interprets standards at their leisure, and we shouldn't be responsible for fixing their issues for free.

    Can you demonstrate some large scale sites you've developed that consistently use microformats to the level I've demonstrated earlier? Would you care to explain how your clients have benefited from the extra effort you put in?
    Joshua K. Briley
    Website Design and Front End Development

  6. #6
    Follow: @AlexDawsonUK silver trophybronze trophy AlexDawson's Avatar
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    somecallmejosh, have you checked out the sitepoint homepage? that is a great example of microformat's in use which may benefit business, they use the hSlice microformat which has active support within IE8, granted its propretory but it's still a perfect example... it produces the equilivent of a live widget which takes a "slice" of a website, very useful for news websites, stock market tickers, or other businesses who need to give visitors live data.

  7. #7
    SitePoint Zealot somecallmejosh's Avatar
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    Thanks for pointing this out. I have not looked at this, but most certainly will. Can you also recommend any websites that don't target web developers/designers/etc.?
    Joshua K. Briley
    Website Design and Front End Development

  8. #8
    Follow: @AlexDawsonUK silver trophybronze trophy AlexDawson's Avatar
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    CNET download's uses microformats, if you google a product listed in CNET's catalog it displays prices and product ratings inline without needing to load the page

    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q....cnet.com+GIMP <<< GIMP has a product rating becides it (example).

  9. #9
    SitePoint Wizard
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    websites commissioned by a company (which are in any way aimed at people outside their business; prospective/current customers) will only be successful for the company if they are useful/interesting/helpful/entertaining/or-some-other-posative-or-combination-of for the users (users as in prospective/current customers). the website in question is not for the company, but their customers. if you (and probably more importantly the people who commission websites) really swallow that, in a gut kind of way as opposed to a lip service way then, with the given resources, you/they'll make a website which is as useful/interesting/help.... as possible for the company in question's potential/current customers. the user's needs will be put up front (after allowing the context to be set by what the company does, who would benefit from that), second to none. all out being useful/interesting/h... etc.

    does semantics stuff provide potential customers with something more useful/inter... than without semantics stuff. yes? do it (if resources available allow and there's nothing of a higher priority which semantics resources would take away). no? don't. i guess semantics stuff is useful to people. it's seems a similar arguement, back in the day, to making your site accessible not just to IE but to others including search engine bots. then people can find and use you. it's useful to them, in turn useful to site owner.


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