In the beginning of the Internet revolution, being connected was all about the simple hyperlink. Like magic with one click a Web browser could be transported anywhere on the Internet that content lives.
But what about context? What about connecting related information and content in a semantic context? The hyperlink of the early era isn't enough.
Enter Microformats, which offer the promise of helping Web content owners enable users to connect the disparate dots that connect content in a semantic way. To be more precise and borrowing from the official Microformats.org definition, "Microformats are small bits of HTML that represent things like people, events, tags, etc. in Web pages."
Though the term "microformats" may not yet be mainstream, mainstream vendors have taken notice. Big names like Technorati, Mozilla, IBM, Microsoft, Google, Digg, and Yahoo among countless others are all at work trying to make microformats work. By some estimates there are already hundreds of millions of microformatted pieces of information online.
"At this point, nearly every Web designer that learns about microformats starts using them," Tantek Çelik, chief technologist at Technorati and co-founder of Microformats.org, told InternetNews.com. "Because microformats require only some HTML authoring ability, millions of Web authors and designers are able to use them immediately. This is a much lower barrier to entry than many previous Web technologies, such as XML and RSS, which require the skills of a programmer."
Where are microformats used today?
Technorati uses microformats throughout its products, including its main blog search portal. Technorati tags are built from the rel-tag microformat, which enables bloggers to "tag" their individual blog posts with categories/keywords relevant to the posts in a visible manner. Technorati also publishes microformats, like hCard on its contact page and on users' profile pages in support of social-network portability.
The new Digg user profiles support the hCard microformat, as do the new Google Sharing user profiles. Yahoo's Flickr photo-sharing site also extensively makes use of microformats, including hCard, as well as adr and geo specifications for locations.
Microformats.org currently recognizes nine specifications for microformats: hCalendar, hCard, rel-license, rel-nofollow, rel-tag, VoteLinks, XFN, XMDP and XOXO. There are drafts for 11 additional specifications, some of which are already in wide use: adr, geo hAtom, hResume, hReview, rel-directory, rel-enclosure, rel-home, rel-payment, robots exclusion and xFolk.
Though microformats enable semantic Web connections, Mozilla's User Experience Designer Alex Faaborg explained that microformats are sometimes referred to as the lower-case semantic Web, since they are not as complex or as expressive as RDF (define) and OWL (define).
"While microformats are less formal, they are also easier to author, and the semantic information is human readable, in addition to being machine readable," Faaborg said. "But it isn't about one approach being better than the other, as much as each approach being useful in different situations."
Technically speaking, though microformats and the Semantic Web are now actually interoperable as the W3C has announced that GRDDL (Gleaning Resource Descriptions from Dialects of Languages) now extracts data from microformats and make it part of the Semantic Web.