Microformats and RDF, is this the right time?
Search Engine Optimisation

Microformats and RDF, is this the right time?

3rd March 2010

A low-level buzz in SEO that’s steadily becoming louder is the use of microformats. A brief primer: microformats, also known as ‘structured data’, is extra markup that surrounds your content, containing metadata that give search engine crawlers extra information about the content.

There are many different types of microformats, each with their own unique schema and rules, and each useful for a different type of data. A few examples:

  • hCard – the microformat version of vCard, useful for content describing people, places, and organisations.
  • hReview – the microformat for reviews of products, services, events, etc.
  • hCalendar – the microformat version of iCalendar.
  • XFN – a microformat for quantifying human relationships in links.

This is a very short and incomplete list. The microformats.org site has a comprehensive overview of current microformats in their various stages of development and acceptance.

And that’s where the problem lies. There’s no one overarching standard, no baseline schema that every microformat uses. Every format has its own rules, its own code to use. Yes there are a lot of commonalities between them, but in essence every microformat is its own thing.

A big rival to microformats is RDF – Resource Description Framework. Originating from the W3C, RDF does everything that microformats do, and then some more. RDF is an attempt to bring the Semantic Web to life by making computers capable of understanding the context of data.

That’s also what RDF’s biggest problem is. Its scope is so ambitious and vast that the RDF code is necessarily complex and bloated, making it much harder to implement. To make matters worse, RDF also lacks a single markup standard.

Just reading the Wikipedia pages for microformats and RDF emphasises the differences between them. Microformats are quick, easy fixes for marking up data to give it proper context, where RDF seems a mostly academic exercise. I dare say it’s impossible to fully understand the RDF Wikipedia page without a thorough scientific education, while every HTML codemonkey can easily grasp the microformats explanation.

The semantic web is that holy grail of search – unfailingly and unambiguously understanding the context of any given search query. That’s where structured data comes in, telling search engines what that content actually means.

Microformats and RDF are both steps in the right direction. But the fragmented nature of microformats may prove to be the decisive barrier against widespread implementation, just as RDF’s complexity hinders its adoption.

And while search engines are increasingly supporting micoformats and RDF for a variety of purposes (rich snippets to name but one), it’s unclear what the benefit is for other types of semantic coding, leaving SEOs and web developers wondering what to do.

Are we going for microformats, implementing different markup for different types of content? Or do we go for the complexities of RDF, harder to implement but more coherent?

What do you think? Is now the time to jump on the structured data bandwagon, or are we better off waiting for a bit until things become clearer? (HTML5?)

If we wait, will we miss out on a potentially powerful competitive advantage? But if we implement the wrong type of structured data, do we risk losing the fight?


Written By
Barry Adams is the chief editor of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant delivering specialised technical SEO services to clients worldwide.
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