If you haven’t heard of microformats yet, don’t worry. Initially I couldn’t get my head around the concept, but they’re a brilliantly simple idea which could have significant benefits in time. And there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t embrace them immediately, if you’re doing or commissioning any coding. Let me explain.
Modern webpage coding is based on CSS stylesheets and ‘classes’ in the HTML code. Classes are defined in a shared stylesheet file, and the HTML refers to the classes, rather than any specific formatting. So for example, you might have a class ‘subheading’, which is defined in the stylesheet as ‘big red and bold’. If you decide one day that red isn’t your thing any more, you change it to ‘blue’ in the stylesheet, and every subheading on the website now appears in blue. Fabulous.
Usually, designers make up the class names off the tops of their heads. With microformats, the idea is to use a standard set of class names for common things. So for example, the microformat ‘hCard’ is a way to mark up contact information. Following the standard, you use the class name ‘tel’ to identify a phone number, or ’email’ to identify an email address. (This online hCard creator is a great ‘worked example’ for those with some HTML knowledge.)
The plan is that software will be told to look for these standard class names, and will be able to recognise (for example) when a web page includes someone’s contact details. You will then be able to offer one-click exporting from the web page to your Outlook contacts. I’m consciously using the future tense here because, although Microsoft and Yahoo are doing some things with microformats, and although there are a couple of Firefox extensions which proves the concept, we’re still a long way away from the mainstream.
So why care now? Because, quite simply, it doesn’t cost you anything to start using the conventions now. So what if nobody spots that it’s a microformat? You will almost certainly be marking up your code using classes (er, won’t you?), so you might as well use these particular class names. It will cost you precisely zero, has absolutely no technical implications, and might pay off in the long run. And then how smug will you feel? 😉
I expect the microformats for ‘business cards‘ (also extended into a full CV microformat) and event calendars to be the ones most likely to take off, but there are quite a few others. If you fancy trying them out, the Tails extension for Firefox is less obtrusive, but Operator is maybe a bit slicker.