Microformats for business owners

A few weeks ago, Jeremy and I were invited to a mini-conference in Austria. At the conference were owners of some leading businesses whose primary operations were online. I found myself trying to explain to one of these bosses why his developers should be using microformats on his website.

The boss in question was more business-inclined than technically-savvy so there was little point in me talking about ids and classes, or even HTML. I needed to explain what practical benefits microformats would bring to his customers and his business. This is the blog post I wish I could have pointed him towards.

What are microformats?

Microformats are a simple technology that enables computers to better understand web pages. Compared to computers, we humans are very good at reading. We can look at a web page and easily spot patterns such as addresses, lists and dates. Computers see a web page as little more than a jumble of letters and numbers. Microformats can help computers by telling them that, for example, a certain piece of text represents contact details, that another bit is an event schedule, or another is a classified ad.

So microformats help computers read web pages. This is important because, if a computer can understand parts of a web page, then it can do something useful with that information. For example, if a computer knew part of a page contained contact details, then it could enable users to export those contact details directly from the web page into their address book. Similarly if it knew parts of a web page contained classified ads, it could enable a search engine to specifically find those ads and index them as such.

What microformats enable your users to do

Currently only the Opera browser has built-in support for microformats, but there are free add-ons available for all browsers, including Firefox and Internet Explorer. There is also a general drive among all browser makers to include built-in support for microformats in future versions.

A popular add-on for Firefox is called Operator (over 100,000 people have downloaded it), and all other browsers can use the microformats bookmarklet (a special link you just add to your favourites). These browser extensions provide lots of utility, but in particular they perform two very useful functions. In microformatted web pages, they can detect full or partial contact details, including name, company, address, web page and phone numbers. They can also detect event details, including start and end dates, and times.

The detected data can be extracted and used in many ways. For example, users could add contact details straight into Outlook. Additionally they could automatically view an address on Google maps, Bluetooth the contact details to their phone, or add an event to their calendar. All this by simply enabling computers to better ‘read’ your web pages.

Internet Explorer 8 will be introducing a feature inspired by microformats, called Webslices. These enable your site to say that part of a web page will occasionally be updated. If a user wishes it, they can then have their computer notify them when that part of the page has changed. All it takes is a tiny bit of code in your website and the rest is taken care of without recourse to email or other notification services.

Microformats as an API

By enabling computers to understand and thereby extract information from your website, microformats effectively provide a read-only API to your data. (APIs enable websites to integrate technology such as Google maps). Because microformats are built directly into web pages, there is no need to maintain separate files or formats such as XML in order to provide machine-readable information or data exchange.

The main overhead of creating an API is providing documentation and support. Microformats are already well documented, with lots of grassroots support, so this removes a significant burden.

As well as contact details and events, there are many other types of data that can be specified with microformats. These include personal relationships (useful for social networks), classified listings, resumes, reviews and recipes. Some of these formats are still being developed, and many more are on the way, but they all enable your site to be understood by other computers which means your data can be much more easily be extracted, indexed, aggregated, found and otherwise used.

Integrating microformats into your site

The real beauty of microformats is that they don’t require your business to buy any special software or technology. They just rely on regular web pages being built using a few predefined conventions.

Depending on how well your website has been built, and how many different bits of data need to be formatted, retrofitting microformats should take no more than a day or so, and could take as little as an hour. If you are in the process of redesigning or building afresh, then the additional time needed to include microformats will be small to negligible.

How to get started

If microformats sound like something your business should have built into its website (even if it’s just the Contact Us page), then talk to your developers about it. Point them to this excellent set of tutorials by Emily Lewis, and to the official microformats.org site.