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Microformats vs. Schemas

Jun 03, 2011

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Yesterday, the three major search engines announced full support of a new "standard" for semantic, structured markup: Schema.org.

Now, as a microformats lover and semantic dork, this was big news for me. Big, exciting news. Of course I should write a blog post … Unfortunately, I'm busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest these days.

So, since I already wasted a few hours of time chatting and Twittering (twatting?) with folks yesterday about the topic, I'm going to recycle those thoughts and conversations for you here now (you're welcome).

Update: 06/04/2011

I've also updated this post with some additional thoughts in response to yet another conversation.

There Is No Versus

First, though, I want to stress that I actually don't believe it is about "microformats vs. Schema.org." Just like I've never believed it was about microformats vs. RDFa or microformats vs. microdata (which is what Schema.org uses).

I've said it over and over again, in writing and presentations: for me, the goal has always been semantics.

Yes, I love microformats. They are beautiful in their simplicity and ease–of–use. I dig the Open Web nature of the microformats process and community. And, most of all, they deliver that key machine-readability I love about semantic markup.

HTML5 microdata and RDFa do the same. They are, comparatively, more complex and verbose, but they, too, deliver that rockin' machine-readability. And all can happily exist together in the same universe, each filling their niche. Anyone who tells you otherwise is likely just in the mood for a "my semantic technology is better than yours" argument that won't get anyone anywhere.

Microformats, RDFa and microdata: three stones, one bird.

Keep Calm & Carry On

I first heard about Schema.org from Todd Barnard on Twitter:

I really need @t and @emilylewis to comment on Schema.org ... Wither @microformats? #HALP

In response, I twatted (yep, I've decided that's the correct term):

Will be interesting to see what happens. This could really give microdata a reason for adoption, which is good for semantics. Maybe not so good for microformats. Adoption is key.

I understand the immediate sense of alarm that many microformats devotees may feel upon hearing the news about Schema.org. I certainly had a moment's thought of "oh great, now my book is completely irrelevant," and "fuck, now I need to replace my microformats with microdata!?"

Even my friend Ian Pitts pinged me on IM yesterday: RuhRoh …Beginning of the end for MF?

But I really don't think all is lost.

If Schema.org proves to truly become a standard for consupmption by the search engines and other machines … If Schema.org proves to become a standard for publication that developers willingly adopt, then how awesome is that? I mean, seriously, think about it.

We will finally have a semantic technology that has a very real chance of gaining wide adoption. Search will get better. Content syndication could get better. New applications and other machines will arrive that make functional use of this new structured data (Did you see Watson on Jeopardy?)

That all sounds so good to me.

And if Schema.org proves to disappoint, then we are where we are today, with, hopefully, some valuable lessons learned. From my initial perspective, Schema.org is nothing more than well-organized and (I must say) well-documented HTML5 microdata. And HTML5 microdata will be around regardless of Schema.org.

Plus, in either scenario, I'm still an expert in structured markup and will have work and opportunities. As I twatted to Todd:

It's not 'lost' investment. You've got the semantic mindset. Just translate to a new pattern. The goal of semantics is the same

This idea of a "semantic mindset" is basically the gist of my In Control presentation earlier this year, How I Learned to Write POSH & Learn to Love the Semantic Web. My interest in standards led to my interest in POSH, which lead to my interest in microformats, which led to my passion for both the semantic web and The Semantic Web.

Thanks to microformats, I already think semantically in my development. My markup is more semantic than ever. I can analyze content quickly and easily to apply semantic vocabularies. The syntax I use is, frankly, moot.

I won't lie though. From a front-end standardista perspective, microdata is ugly and complex. RDFa is even more complex and more appropriate for uncommon content.

Microformats are so simple and borrow from already-understood conventions, so I do prefer them. But, as microformats has struggled to gain adoption — particularly of the consumption variety — these benefits don't really give developers much incentive to actually learn and use.

The problem with Microformats has never been the concept or implementation, it's been that nothing CONSUMES them.

Ahead of Its Time

Perhaps Schema.org does herald the end of microformats as we've come to understand them. If that happens, though, won't that be the natural evolution that microformats, ultimately, wanted?

Microformats were, undeniably, ahead of their time. The founders wanted Sir Tim Berners Lee's Semantic Web, and they wanted it back in 2003. And so they embraced Open Web methodologies to come up with a semantic vocabularly for describing common web content using existing standards. It was (and still is) brilliant, forward-thinking and chock full of awesomesauce.

During my IM chat yesterday with Ian, I commented: [microformats] did good work getting people to understand the value of semantic markup and design patterns for machine readability … [but] adoption was always a challenge.

As everyone knows, microformats have remained a very niche subject. Awareness is comparatively limited. Machines, particularly native machines, that parse and consume microformats are definitely limited.

Publishing microformats has steadily increased over they years, but without consumption tools, most of that has been with the hope that "semantics are so awesome, of course the machines will come … someday." At least that's how I feel about microformats … and I happen to be someone who really digs them.

Is Schema.org the herald of that "someday" I've been waiting for? Frankly, I hope so. Even if that means changes for microformats.

Some Practical (and Pedantic) Thoughts

Schema.org does not validate and it uses an XHTML Transitional DOCTYPE.

I don't get this. I know that validation for validation's sake isn't the goal, but seriously? Fix your fucking markup (especially, if it is just a DOCTYPE change).

Speaking of DOCTYPES, if you are promoting microdata, why wouldn't you use the HTML5 DOCTYPE. Again, I don't get this. Fix your fucking DOCTYPE. This just scream laziness to me and isn't at all in the spirit of (lowercase) semantic web.

Schema.org could use some POSH

Just like the microformats wiki has been plagued with non-POSH and (frankly, pretty crappy) markup examples, Schema.org isn't that much better (well, a bit.) C'mon people. If we want to encourage broad adoption, let's provide good, practical and POSH examples of how to publish.

Schema.org syntax is valid markup and can be combined with microformats but

If you are using the HTML5 DOCTYPE, the microdata syntax that Schema.org is built on is completely valid. If you aren't using that DOCTYPE, your markup won't be valid.

Seems simple and straightfoward, but it is worth reiterating that just because a page/site doesn't validate, doesn't mean you don't have support for microdata. The search engines will parse, regardless of validity. Just like a modern browser will still render things like <audio> with an invalid DOCTYPE.

Microdata and microformats can existing in the same markup together and be completely valid and appropriate. However, if you are utilizing the microdata or microformats syntax for Google's Rich Snippets, beware!

Google warns:

If you’ve already done markup on your pages using microformats or RDFa, we’ll continue to support it. One caveat to watch out for: while it’s OK to use the new Schema.org markup or continue to use existing microformats or RDFa markup, you should avoid mixing the formats together on the same web page, as this can confuse our parsers.

I'm Excited

Like I said, I'm busy. So this entire post reflects my initial impressions of Schema.org, having not actually implemented, tested or experimented.

Also, while I've talked about and written about HTML5 microdata, I've never actually used it (instead, favoring microformats). So, I also have only superficial impressions about it, too.

But even with just superficial knowledge, I'm super psyched about Schema.org:

I dig microformats but I love semantics. So I'm kinda excited about a semantic search standard even tho its microdata

Update: 06/04/2011

A colleague of mine contacted me directly yesterday in response to this post, concerned that I was promoting misinformation. While I still stand behind the content of this post, in respect to my colleague, I do want to be sure to clarify:

Microformats Do Enjoy Wide Adoption

The tweet I referenced, which states that nothing consumes microformats was used to illustrate a point: that there is a wide perception that microformats lack support. This, in turn, has made adoption a challenge.

The truth of the matter is that microformats are widely adopted, particularly from a publishing perspective. There are billions of microformats published today. I've always stated this, from my book to every single presentation on microformats I've ever given.

Adoption of microformats from a consumption perspective, however, is less wide. That is not to say, though, that nothing consumes them. There are dozens of plug-ins, add-ons and services that utilize microformats.

That said, I believe (and have always believed) the lack of adoption on the consumption end is what was microformats greatest challenge. I think it still is and I suspect is is the main reason why so many developers come up to me after my talks to ask me why use microformats when this is the case.

Impact on Open Web

The other concern my colleague expressed was the fact that Schema.org is a threat to the open web.

If you read my post, you will note that I never once addressed this aspect. There is a reason for that: I simply didn't think about because it is something I don't typically think about.

I did reference Open vs. Fast, Good vs. Evil, Google vs. Facebook, which I do recommend reading. But, to be honest, I'm not an expert in open web and it was the last thing that I thought about upon hearing of Schema.org.

I'm not against open web. It sounds great. I have Libertarian political views, so I do embrace community and openness in most all aspects of my life. However, it just isn't an area I feel particularly passionate about. And to pretend otherwise does a disservice to those who do; those who are more educated and versed in the topic.

This is nothing new. Never, from the very first thing I wrote about microformats, have I ever indicated my interest was based in anything other than semantics. I didn't get into microformats because of their open nature, I got into them because of their practical and technical implications.

That shouldn't take away from the concerns some in the microformats and open web community have about Schema.org. But it also doesn't mean that I'm somehow against microformats or open web. It means I'm a busy person trying to pay my bills and make a living as a freelancer. Which means, currently, I'm focused on the practical, day–to–day implications of Schema.org.

Discussion Affects Change

One thing that is clear to me after the past few days of conversations: there is a real conversation about semantics brewing. And this conversation is already prompting change, as the microformats community evaluates and responds.

I think that is the most exciting thing about this week's news.

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Share the Love

Jason Armstrong's Gravatar

Jason Armstrong opines:


Any more updates, thoughts or info since writing this? I’m in the early stages of building a web app and wondering which direction to take. I’m thinking that if Google, Yahoo and Bing have all expressed support then it looks like Schema.org is the way to go. Prior to learning of Schema.org, I had only known about Microformats and love semantics. Thanks for writing and sharing.

Emily's Gravatar

Emily responds:


@Jason - I haven’t done any formal writing about this topic yet, other than an opinion piece for <cite>.net magazine</cite> (Issue 219) that hasn’t yet been published. I also haven’t yet made the time to actually publish anything with Schema.org’s microdata schemas. Hope to, but not sure when.

As far as updates, I’ve been bookmarking a bunch of stuff you could check out.

It’s been a busy year, I hope to have time to do some solid writing on this topic for my blog soon…

Jason Armstrong's Gravatar

Jason Armstrong opines:


Great, thanks for following up and I’ll check out your bookmarks.

Ryan Butt's Gravatar

Ryan Butt opines:


Is there any tool to make Schema.org Miro Data for my company’s website & employers data & portfolio for search??

because i’m not a programmer or a web developer. i was able schema for format for my +snippets +1 for google+, But i want to make one for Web search also.

I need a Tools i which i just add the info & it makes the schema.org Codes Same at +snippets tools on +1 tool in google webmaster site.

Mary Bowling's Gravatar

Mary Bowling opines:


I’m a non-techie trying to understand schema.org and you do a great job of explaining it. Thanks. As Ryan says, it would be great if someone developed a simple tool for us to use to create them. Input data, out comes the code. That would be awesome!

Jeff McNeill's Gravatar

Jeff McNeill opines:


Happy to see a successor to Microformats (for this is what this is).

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.

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Emily Lewis

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I'm a freelance web designer of the standardista variety, which means I get excited about things like valid POSH, microformats and accessibility. I ply my trade from my one-person design studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico 87106 USA.

A Blog Not Limited is my personal blog where I pontificate about web design, web standards, semantics and whatever else strikes my fancy. Head on over to Emily Lewis Design if you'd like to see my work or, even better, hire me.


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