Are There Real Benefits To microFormats?

I keep up on developments in web design and semantic data structuring, so when I saw the rss version of http://www.thinkvitamin.com/features/design/how-to-use-microformats, I went and read the whole thing outside of my feed reader. I was hoping the article would clear up a few bothersome questions I’ve got about micro formats, but alas, disappointment.

It’s a decent article on why micro formats should exist. And it’s well written. Except for a couple snafus in the examples, I have no problem with it. But it’s not convincing me.

So I’m writing out my pessimistic but honest questions in hopes of garnering some discussion. I have to admit at the outset that I’m leaning toward using microFormats where applicable, but I’m in no hurry to recode anything to add them. I want more benefit than just the web-cred from other snobby coders who’d recognize that they’re present. I don’t care much for web-cred.

So… why?
I understand what they are: unobtrusive, machine and human readable formats for data that allow organization of information such that it can be intelligently parsed automatically. A block of text that shows an address can be accurately parsed by a computer for city, state, postal code, etc. The semantic seraphim will smile down upon the author. Halos and glory for everyone. yadda2.

I see the merit to that… IF there are systems that capitalize on it. But as far as I know, there aren’t. And in the case of hCard (the address micro format), I don’t see why there should be. I’ll explain.

Google already does a pretty accurate job of parsing out addresses from web sites. If it’s spidered my local pizza place’s web site (heh, ok… I’m surprised they even have one), poof! They’re Google findable, with address and phone number.. Look at the source code on Pizza Bucket’s web page. No hCard. In fact, it’s pretty freaking ugly source code. But Google got it perfectly.

There’s not an address search aspiring web idea that doesn’t have to compete with Google. So they’ll have to pay for the data, or parse the same nasty code Google does. hCards should would make that easier… but they already have to go the extra mile because most addresses on the web don’t use hCard, so it doesn’t matter, does it?
(er, okay… mea culpa: Google probably contracted an address service to get that data instead of parsing the address from the web page itself. But the example still applies.)

What’s in it for me?
Ah, my pessimism shines through. If I had one address block of information to maintain, the geek honor of having used an hCard would be reward enough. But I have about 30 I can think of, and more that I can’t remember. Why should I go update them? They’ve already been found. They’re already available. What value does my company derive from paying me to alter — not how their addresses are shown, but how they’re coded?

I’ve seen the case for good urls made: SEO benefits, semantic benefits, etc. I’ve seen the argument for semantic markup made: Displays well out of style/js browsers, easier to migrate to mobile, etc.
I haven’t seen the case for micro formats effectively argued yet, other than the notion of breaking out of walled gardens. And I like that argument… but nobody will pay for it because there’s no value to it yet.

Convince me
So I’m a pessimist. And lazy. I don’t want to talk anyone else out of using semantic markup, and if they want to use microFormats, good for them. But I won’t go out of my way until someone can convince me of why I should – I’m perfectly ready to be convinced.

2 thoughts on “Are There Real Benefits To microFormats?

  1. The benefit on machine-readable html isn’t simply that google would be able to know that something is an address more easily — although that, in and of itself, could be an interesting mashup with google maps. Its that they have the potential to be ported to anything that already supports the standards that already exist. Take hCard. You can easily convert that to a vCard, which means you can import it into your address book. This is currently possible through browser extensions, like Tails Export for Firefox, and existing email software, like Outlook or Thunderbird.

    Tails Export: http://blog.codeeg.com/tails-firefox-extension-03/

  2. In John Allsopp’s article he mentioned a “recent” Digital Web article that I was hoping would focus more on building a case for use of Micro Formats… but he provided no link to it. And I searched Digital Web that day, but couldn’t find such an article.

    Today it’s out: The Big Picture on Microformats. It does a better job than the Vitamin article at making the case I was hoping to find.

    Thanks for your insight, Brad… I’d really not given interoperability enough consideration. My immediate thought was to wonder if there was an “hComment” microformat blogs could agree to that would make it easy to universally search for a single user’s comments.

    The application I have in mind would be to let a single site (say, your own) to aggregate all the comments you’ve made at other sites. Not such a treasure trove in my own case, but imagine you could see all the comments, with links to their discussions, that someone like John Allsopp has made on the topic of MicroFormats.

    The benefit is two-fold: individual users could point at their contributions to discussions elsewhere, and community leaders (e.g. John Allsopp on microformats) could be universally searched or aggregated so their contributions to ongoing, multi-homed discussions on a topic could be used as learning material by someone just coming into it later.

    That’s just about as convincing as I can make myself.

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