Tag Archives: intranets

hierarchies information-architecture microformats Papers pick-lists semantic-web social-bookmarking social software tagging trust web-development web standards WordPress

The power of microformats

Considering a Descent A few months ago I attended a really interesting talk by Eric Meyer where he touched on the use of microformats.  You might know Eric from his excellent O’Reilly Press CSS books.

What are microformats?  Before giving an example, I’ll give a little context.  When Tim Berners-Lee created the web, he tried to make HTML simple, flexible, and meaningful.  He succeeded on the first two counts but the third was quickly left by the wayside – many designers didn’t care what a particular tag meant, so long as it could be used for page layout.  The use of tables to arrange graphic elements instead of holding tabular data is a perfect example.

So Berners-Lee has been talking for years about the next step – the semantic web.  In the semantic web, tags are used to say what a particular piece of content is, with all styling done with stylesheets.  There is, of course, more to the semantic web than just separating content and presentation, after all you can work that way with HTML and CSS now.  One other key component is the web of trust, where people and web sites are able to describe relationships to each other so that search engines can help you find trustworthy content automatically.

Unfortunately, the semantic web has not really taken off.  There have been lots of meetings and XML schemas but it’s all too complicated, the process is too bureaucratic, and everything is being designed from the top down.

This is where microformats come in.  Let’s say you have a blog and you’ve tagged all your articles.  You’d like to let search engines and aggregators like Technorati know what your tags are.  But HTML doesn’t have anything like this:

<tag>semantic web<tag>

So what do you do?  Simple, use the rel-tag microformat:

<a href=”http://example.com/tag/semantic+web” rel=”tag”>semantic web</a>

The microformat makes use of existing html tags and attributes and just follows simple conventions.  But now that this little bit of meaning can be interpreted by spiders and other programs, we’ve actually added a pretty powerful bit of functionality to the web.

Most blog software, including WordPress, includes does microformatting for you.  If install my tag cloud plugin Altocumulous, and view source, you can see for yourself.

For intranet purposes, the hCard and hCalendar microformats look promising.  Take a look at microformats.org to see why I think so.  I’ll write more on it later.

Social software and the problem of trust

Although you don’t hear about it much, trust is an extremely important issue in the software world.  A common example is eBay – how could eBay stay in business if millions of anonymous buyers and sellers didn’t have a certain level of trust?

Andy Brice, a software developer, gives a really interesting example of the problem of trust in his blog.  He became concerned that his software products were getting a ridiculous number of awards and 5-star ratings from shareware download sites.  He devised an experiment: if you create a text file, change the file extension to .exe, and submit it to 700 download sites, how many award would you get?

It turns out you would get tons of awards.  A large percentage of these sites, which ostensibly provide users the service of evaluating shareware and freeware, are in reality just trying to skim adwords revenue.

Social software, if applied correctly with enough participation, can help to solve this problem.  It is much harder to fake 1000 del.icio.us bookmarks than it is to make an authoritative-looking award banner.

Many of us work on projects internal to companies where we don’t confront these issues directly on a day-to-day basis.  Large companies can generate billions of pages of documents and code each year.  Add to that the billions of external web pages we use as reference material.  Tools such as social bookmarking can help build up this network of trust and sift through the less useful resources even on intranets.

So now that we have the tools available, all we need is participation.  You’re reading this, so I’m probably already preaching to the choir.  Trust is a really interesting issue, though, so I’ll be writing about it here and there in the future.

Notes on “Creating a Controlled Vocabulary”

Creating a Controlled Vocabulary

 Fast, Karl, Fred Leise and Mike Steckel (2003)


This was a good rundown of the general process of creating a controlled vocabulary, but a lot of this seems pretty apparent to me. I guess I shouldn’t assume that this stuff is obvious, though, given how many companies make web sites or intranets without really bothering to find out how their users use vocabulary for their domain, or even establishing a vocabulary, for that matter.

The two most important points, to me, are number 5, “Establish a record of the rules you are using if you are creating a large thesaurus” and number 8, “Go back and refine. What can be improved?” In fact I think the whole notion of controlled vocabulary is misguided if there’s no clear rationale for it and attempts to update and maintain the terms at all times. Language in any field is constantly changing, and the pace of change is always accelerating. Anyone who was building a directory of Internet services would have left off the World Wide Web in 1989, and any list about self-publishing on the web would probably have left off the term “blog” in 1998. How useful would those pick lists be today?

Controlled vocabulary can be damaging if there’s no mechanism for change, or that mechanism is left unused. I don’t know why, but humanity seems to have some undying urge to compile things around ourselves into grand lists and hierarchies that are supposed to encompass all of what is or ever has been, ignoring our complete ignorance of what the future will bring. It’s not that classification in and of itself is bad, it’s that there’s a tendency to get to the “end” and say, “there, it’s done, and set in stone forever.”