By Alex Walker

Have Microformats finally arrived?

By Alex Walker

I must admit, when the concept of Microformats first starting frothing on the conference circuit, I was a little bit underwhelmed. Sure, I can see the potential value in the idea — making it easy transfer useful data (event times, contact details, etc) from the web to other devices. Sounds peachy.

Incorporating them into a site was never a big issue. The markup does tend towards the mind-numbing, but all the most popular formats now have push button generators (hCard, hCalendar, hReview) that do most of the grunt work for you.

No, for me the question was ‘Great! But what have they done for me lately?

Mostly this was met with an extended ‘Well…….once upon a time, in a galaxy, far, far away…‘ and some concentrated carpet scuffing. While I spent some time coding microformats into my pages, for me it felt a bit like buying carbon offset credits — the ‘honorable’ thing to do, but part of me couldn’t shake the idea I was getting scammed.

Perhaps that’s beginning to change.

Google Maps this week joined Yahoo Maps in natively reading and writing the hCard microformat — the microformat dedicated to describing people and organizations. Now, while this adds some handy functionality to the Google maps service, it’s really how this effects your pages that’s starting to make Microformats look useful in a day-to-day kind of way.

Firstly, the bad bit. Currently no browser can usefully use Microformats natively, although it is apparently slated for Firefox 3.0. To appreciate their value you’re going to have to either install one of the two available Firefox extensions (Tails or Operator) or settle for a Bookmarklet. I’m going to use Operator here.

Dreamweaver's Microformats extension

This morning it took me about 30 minutes ‘Microformatize’ our contact page details using the online hCard creator, although there is also a Microformats extension available for Dreamweaver users.

The growing benefits of this relatively quick, simple, and otherwise invisible markup change are starting to become clearer — as shown below.

Operator in action

Anyone visiting the SitePoint contact page with Operator installed now see two contacts available, each with a range of options available via a dropdown.

On the Win versions these currently include:

  • Find Location in Google Maps or Yahoo Maps
  • Export Contact (vCard format — A little clumbsy perhaps)
  • Bookmark the associated URL
  • Add to Yahoo Contacts
  • Export to Live Clipboard (an inter-site interchange format)

No doubt this range of options will expand quickly over the next year or two as more companies embrace Microformats. It’s true that today the total number of users able to access them would number in the thousands, but it’s also true that native Firefox support will skyrocket those numbers almost overnight. Users lacking access to Microformat support see no change in their experience, meaning it’s hard to think of a disincentive — other than perhaps laziness — for not beginning to implement them in future projects.

Perhaps we’re finally at a time where the theoretical advantages of Microformats are beginning to be matched by their application.

  • I have to admit, I felt exactly the same until I read this. Sure, microformats can be read… but who cares?

    Now, I feel quite the opposite. If companies like Google and Yahoo are utilising the MicroFormats, then what am I waiting for? I’m going to use them! It actually makes me wonder why these things have taken so long to get on the web.

  • These developments are all good, and Microformats are great; but I still can’t get away from the feeling that XMDP is a bit like building on sand, and optimisations will cause more long term hassle than good.

  • Django

    I’m still underwhelmed by microformats, mostly because of some of the design decisions that they decided when specifying the technical details. For instance, why did they choose to use the CLASS attribute to identify the pieces of data? Why not use another microformat specific attribute that wouldn’t interrupt existing functionality (and that browsers would just ignore if they didn’t recognize it)? As it is, if you want to embed microformats into existing pages of content that already have a class defined on the data objects, then you have to re-work the styling of your page just to accommodate a data identifier that isn’t even visible to the user. Using CLASS seems shortsighted when the attribute clearly already has a display use within the DOM.

  • @Django:

    Why not use class though, after all the use of class here is pretty much what the class attribute is there for (that class is just available for CSS is a common misapprehension). Also I can’t see how / where use of class would interrupt existing functionality by design (I do appreciate that there may be specific instances on a site where the class selector in the microformat may be used by a sites CSS).

    The trouble with having custom microformat attributes is to do this correctly would involve adding another namespace in XHTML or not using valid HTML; in each instance it involves adding something new for the sakes of adding something new when there are perfectly valid methods available.

  • Sorccu

    The benefit isn’t just in being “MF enabled”, you get a standard set of CSS classes to use in styling, too :)

  • Carl Edwards

    MapQuest had hCard support last year.

  • Dylanfm

    Don’t forget, you can separate a class attribute’s values by spaces ie. class=”url fn yadda”.

  • keviin6

    why is that, Tail FF ext doesnt show up any MF in sitepoint contact page?

  • malikyte

    At the moment, Operator and Tails both show noticeable slowdowns on page loads for me, so I have it disabled unless I’m testing whether or not my sites have proper Microformat code. Until it becomes part of the browser(s) and therefore doesn’t force a secondary traversal of the DOM with slower scripting, I don’t think it will become very mainstream. However, for services that may have webcrawlers, such as Google, Yahoo, and others, it’s still useful and it’s the only reason (other than early adoption of something with a huge backing) I’ve been incorporating it.

    So…it’s still worthwhile, but not much to the first party (site visitors), only through third-parties.

  • Andy Mabbett

    Unfortunately, Google Maps’ deployment of microformat is seriously broken. The few that are not invalid contain junk data.

    They are aware of this.

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