This is the celebrated journal of Mr. Simon Collison A.K.A Colly

The business benefits of Microformats

22nd November 2006

Phew! I’ve got a right sweat on down at the pixel face this month. My axe is almost blunt, and my torch is dimming, but I’ve just enough energy to share a snippet from the field.

Assorted business cards

Figure 1: A few of the real-world business cards on my desk.

Specifically, I have only recently realised that Microformats are something that Mr. Client (or Mrs. Client) not only understands, but also loves, needs, wants and will tell his/her associates about. This is a cast-iron business benefit and a serious commodity.

It is simple. Use Microformats and you can seriously wow your partners, and win new work!

I recently demonstrated the “click on this person’s name… wait… and now add to address book” approach of hcards to a potential client and his eyes just lit up. He instantly understood the benefits of this to his database of suppliers and almost hugged me. We got the job.

Obviously, Microformats are a business benefit, and it is about time we were more vocal about them to clients - they do get it if you demonstrate it. In my limited experience of discussing Microformats with clients, it is the doing and not the talking that sells them as a benefit. Under no circumstances do I assume using the word “Microformat” will get them turned on, but a quick demo certainly will.

It can be hard to “sell” web standards without going into all sorts of detail or firing up the Web Developer Toolbar and running through all sorts of Firefox extension demos, but Microformats are a different commodity. There is a visible, understandable process that strikes a chord with the client.

Microformats re-used across a site with targeted CSS based upon a <body> ID are a wonderful thing to work with. For the EE folks out there, just create a hcard for each person as a new embed (or even as a “weblog” using custom form fields), and then sprinkle them around the site, displaying what you need when you need it with cunning CSS.

Be sure to make the hcard downloadable by creating a link to the page it is on through Technorati. Something like will do it. I’ll cover all this in more detail soon.

“This is old news”, you wail - but it isn’t to your clients. I’m working on a full-length article about all this stuff, centred around a huge new site I just launched (more next week), which I’ll post soon. In the meantime, I’d be interested to know how you lot are using Microformats, and if you know of any cool implementations not listed on the wiki. If you are using them, drop a link below.

Back to my cave.


# Florian responded on 22nd November 2006 with...

what i don’t get is how this is superior to just putting a downloadable .vcf file on my website. ok, technorati can’t read my .vcf file, but maybe i don’t want it to.

# Olly responded on 22nd November 2006 with...

Florian - That’s fine if you want to a) duplicate your data (that’s an extra thing you have to remember to update when it changes). Converting the data into vCards isn’t the only thing you can do with it, either :)

# John Oxton responded on 22nd November 2006 with...

So, Olly you are saying that with Mircorformats there is no data duplication, is that correct? I don’t believe you!

And give examples of what else can be done with the data here and now in 2006.

# James John Malcolm responded on 22nd November 2006 with...

Given that “our client” doesn’t know what a microformat is before you show them, “their clients”, by implication, won’t know either.

Thus the benefit to “their clients” and thus “our clients”, without telling each and everyone individually, is zero.

Also, very few UA’s can do something with microformats out of the box. Until that changes - and people are then shown how to use it - it’s still a gamble if there will be any future benefit to “our client”.

What word do you have on the UA front?

# Simon Collison responded on 22nd November 2006 with...

James John Malcolm: I disagree with you. The benefit is certainly not “zero”. That is very dismissive and short-sighted in my opinion.

We’ll be providing “Download this contact to your address book software” links (or words to that affect), which I think are pretty obvious to new users (especially as they’ll be trade suppliers who look for contact info first of all).

Plus, we’ll be using a “favourites” tool to allow trade suppliers to check a box to store contacts in their member area (within the site - no downloading), and this will make use of Microformats.

I’m sorry, but I think it will be obvious to other users as it is the same principle I outlined above. Use the term “Microformats” and you lose them. Just make it work - with plain English - and you win them over.

I agree that some UAs (User Agents to those that don’t know) handle Vcards in odd ways, and yes - the technology might be a bit green here. I discovered this testing a site I launched recently. Macs just get it straight away, whereas Windows goes through a bit of a creaky process. It does need to be clear that something will be happening outside of the browser when you opt to download a Vcard file.

My first downloadable Vcards implementation was a bit “shallow”, and I did get a little negative feedback, bu that only fuelled a more sensible approach for the new sites.

Still, I’m not just talking about downloading here. The benefits for sharing information within a site and across sections is important. Microformats are not just about downloading compatible files.

Or maybe you think I am too naive?

Nice site you have, by the way. Everybody go look at James’ site...

# Josh Hughes responded on 23rd November 2006 with...

My impression reading this is that you “wowed” the client with downloadable VCF files. Realistically, the client could care less if it’s done with microformats. It’s simply an implementation detail.

If browsers could automatically detect microformats out of the box, it might be a different story.

And even if we’re just talking about the benefit of microformats to developers, the list of ready-made tools for exposing the data to regular users seems pretty small. I personally wouldn’t want to rely on Technorati or any other third-party service, and as a result I would most likely have to program something myself.

# Simon Collison responded on 23rd November 2006 with...

Josh: As the VCF files are based upon member profiles with data submitted as part of a sign-up process, they remain editable AT ALL TIMES by the member, or an administrator. Up to date data is taken from the database and is automatically updated when someone downloads the VCF generated from it. THAT is the difference - and it is a big one. Ask a non-techy administrator to update VCFs another way and they’ll get all flustered.

Anyway, like I said earlier, Microformats are not just about downloads, it is about organising data semantically, keeping it editable by non-techy people, and using it wisely across an entire site. Downloadable Vcards are a happy bonus.

If it helps, forget anything that uses anything but a browser and just think of it as markup - cleverly organised markup that happens to be organised with a mind to the future, when real support for this format will be everywhere. We’re just getting ready…

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