Microformats (Book review)

Ever since first hearing about microformats a couple of years ago, I’ve tried to find opportunities to use them in my projects. To be honest, I found it a little difficult to see the benefit of using microformats.

After seeing Tantek Çelik talk about microformats at @media 2006 in London, I kind of started seeing the point. But I still struggled, though I have started using microformats, both here and for client work. Maybe it’s just me, but I find the microformats syntax incredibly complex, confusing, and hard to understand. And that is a little odd since it’s supposed to be simple and easy to use.

Because of my failure to fully wrap my head around microformats I decided to buy Microformats – Empowering Your Markup for Web 2.0 by John Allsopp. I figured that the whole thing would be better explained in the book than on the website. And it is.

I’m not going to say that reading this book will open your eyes or make you understand every aspect of microformats. It didn’t work that way for me (though it might for you). But it will give you a better understanding of microformats. I’ll try to find time to read the book again to see if that makes things stick better.

I guess it all depends on how your brain is wired. I simply can’t get to grips with microformats, the same way I just cannot understand jQuery syntax. But this book is not to blame for that.

No, this book is very well-written and easy to read, so that is not the problem. It consists of five parts:

  1. Introducing microformats
  2. Using microformats
  3. Case studies
  4. Developing microformats
  5. Appendixes

It is pretty obvious what “Introducing microformats” is about, so I’m not going to spend any time on that. The second part, “Using microformats”, though, is where the real meat of this book is. It is split into eight chapters. The first chapter explains structural and semantic HTML, how it is limited, and how using microformats helps.

The other seven chapters each explain a specific type of microformat:

  • Link-based microformats
  • Relationship microformats
  • Location microformats
  • Contact information microformats
  • Event microformats
  • Review and resume microformats
  • Syndication microformats

Everything is accompanied by code examples, and John even shows how you can use CSS to style the markup used for each type of microformat.

The Case studies and Developing microformats parts of the book didn’t really catch my eye, but the Appendixes contain references and design patterns that are great to have.

It is a little unfortunate that the accessibility problem with the abbr-design-pattern that is discussed in hAccessibility isn’t mentioned in the book along with the workarounds that are suggested. One very simple explanation is that the book had already been printed when the problem was brought up.

All in all, this is a good book if you’re struggling with microformats, and a good reference if you already understand them. I think I will be able to use microformats better after reading the book, but like I said, my brain does not seem to be fully compatible.

Author: John Allsopp
ISBN-10: 1590598148
ISBN-13: 978-1590598146

Posted on August 13, 2007 in (X)HTML, Reviews


  1. August 13, 2007 by bill h

    I just finished it as well and I thought it was extremely well written and easy to follow.Before this book I never saw Microformats as anything but a geeky bloggers tool. I think, more than anything, the book offered plenty of practical reasons for using Microformats.

  2. In regards to the abbr design pattern, the book had already been published (As you said) before this debate began.

    Microformats aren’t always easy to grasp, but I felt this book covered them in a more cohesive manner than you would find at the wiki or other online resources (they all seem too technical for everyone to adapt or catch on to).

    Microformats have me very excited for an array of reasons - not just the simply ‘download the hcard’ (even though that is helpful). I think this, coupled with some other technologies will really help to bridge the gap of social websites.

  3. August 13, 2007 by Ryan

    I really don’t understand the point in Microformats, I can see the idea but is it really worth the effort? Also they look like one huge blob of tag soup. Maybe this book is for me.

  4. Microformats allow us to make machine-readable websites. Off-the-top-of-my-head benefits include single-click contact (hCard) and calendar event (hCalendar) adds and smarter web crawlers (and therefore better search results). Machine-readable data is undeniably more useful, and microformats offer a way to make common data descriptions in HTML/XHTML documents machine readable without introducing clunky new elements.

    Ryan, used correctly, no microformat should produce tag soup. The microformats I use actually result in some pretty useful CSS.

  5. I also cannot understand the point of Microformats so I may need to take a leaf out of your book and add it to my wish list and get it, so I can learn about them and use them.

  6. I bought this book about a month ago and have only had an opportunity to thumb through it (it’s in queue). It looks very interesting and I can’t wait to dig in. It sounds like we have about the same feeling towards microformats, so I’m interested to see how much will “sink in”. In any case, my quick glances through it left me with a very good impression.

  7. I wasn’t sold on the concept of microformats until I saw Dan Cederholm’s talk at @media 2007, Interface Design Juggling

    He in turn was inspired by a talk by Drew McLennan, Can Your Website be Your API?

    Now I realise their potential, and am implementing them on my new projects.

  8. I don’t know if simple and easy-to-use were the dominating principles behind microformats. I think the dominant principle is “don’t re-invent the wheel”.

    Hence each microformat is basically the “Semantic XHTML Design Principles” repeated in each microformat spec, as applied to an existing data description spec (e.g. vCard).

    So each microformat is only as simple and easy-to-use, from a developer’s point of view, as the data description spec it’s based on.

  9. August 14, 2007 by chris Jangelov

    In many cases we struggle to spread the word about our products, books, conferences or whatever. Microformats make our data available for mashups, booklists, conference lists and even more advanced services we have yet to invent.

    That is real (business) value.

    Somewhere in the book John Allsopp says something like: “You don’t have to wait for the semantic web. Microformats lets you start reaping the benefits today.” I think he is pointing at something very important right there.

    If I make an API to a website, noone knows or cares (I am not Google). Microformats is for the rest of us (today).

    I too really recommend reading this book.

  10. Microformats are possibly misunderstood because they’re so simple. It’s mainly a matter of adding certain class names to tags that makes the data machine-readable. Admittedly, the microformats.org site can be a little confusing and lacks good real-world examples.

    Microformat-reading systems still need to be implemented in browser, PIM and other software. But when that happens (e.g. Firefox 3.0), they have huge potential.

    Taking the hCard as an example, I can publish my contact information on my website. Your browser would recognise the data and offer to add my details to your address book. The good part is that if I change my contact details on the web, your address book is updated automatically.

    It takes the semantic web to the next phase and, dare I say it, is likely to be a big part of Web3.0!

  11. I have yet to be impressed by microformats. I can see how they could be used but just haven’t been taken in by them yet.

  12. I bought the book right after it came out. I’m a huge fan of the book company (Friends of Ed) and they were really marketing it. I carried it around and read a little at a time at work. I started planning a new site using the hCard and hReview microformats. But honestly had a difficult time implementing it. The problem was the database structure. There was no real examples (that I could find) of everything that could be chosen as properties. Microformats.org had some great tools to assist. But how do I know I have built every possible option into the database design. I was hoping someone would have a structure they would share off of one of the sites. But after several forum posts there was no examples.

    So… I haven’t finished that site yet. But I have added static microformats in several of my sites and encouraged other programmers at the consulting company I work at, to do the same.

  13. I also find Microformats to be awfully complex for something purportedly so simple. This book looks like a good place to start though, can’t wait to check it out.

  14. August 14, 2007 by Brian

    My only issue with Microformats is wouldn’t they be abused by spam bots? It seems like having a website more machine-readable (especially contact information) would greatly help spiders collect contacts for spam mailings. Perhaps there is something that I’m still not understanding about the proposed use of microformats.

  15. In the beginning I thought: what’s the fuzz about microformats?

    But when you really think of it, it’s actually great. If everyone would implement this, it has great potential for exchanging information between websites and other applications.

    The good thing is: it’s easy. While it may look difficult to begin with, it’s only a form of conventions, and a simple cheat sheet can help remembering them.

    The book is sometimes a bit boring to go through as lots of things are repeated, but that’s inherent to microformats: they’re built on each other.

    I really recommend this to everyone, I find myself going back to it a lot…

  16. For me the following Alex Faaborg blog spot was a very good start to understand the basics of Microformats phenomenon.

    So try for yourself.

  17. August 15, 2007 by debaser

    But when you really think of it, it’s actually great. If everyone would implement this, it has great potential for exchanging information between websites and other applications.

    Yes, but that is assuming the implementation is the same :P

  18. I’ve managed to sprinkle hCard, hCalendar, geo and tag microformats around my site, and find them quite useful. I highly recommend installing the Operator extension in Firefox; it detects and displays microformatted content on the pages you visit.

    I haven’t really found a use, though, for other microformats such as XFN and XOXO.

  19. I forgot to add: VoteLinks also seem useful to me, as a way of assisting spiders and other people in sorting out the good stuff from the bad on the web. All the outbound links on my site now use them.

    Since microformats enrichen the semantic contents of a site, I suspect (but have no evidence of it) that search engines such as Google will tend to reward microformatted websites in their indexes. If they don’t, they should. ;-)

    Finally, it would seem to me that as interest in microformats grows, they will begin to be associated with a site’s usability ratings.

  20. September 8, 2007 by marcus
    1. Not an open standard, if search engines prioritize this stuff, then they’ve embraced the non-open web

    2. Overly zealous proponents

    3. Borderline useless (of course they are sometimes useful, but these people didn’t invent the vcard, lol)

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