RDFa or Microformats – Which is Better?

Many siteowners and developers are unsure that rich snippets, in any form, offer sufficient ROI to make the effort worthwhile. Having to choose between RDFa and microformats as a medium just further complicates the decision.

Is it worthwhile to recode my site?

Let’s take a look first at the ROI question.

  • Either gives you the ability to make more information available to the search engines, in a format that is more easily understood, semantically. That’s a major plus, from a relevancy standpoint;
  • Either can be included in the SERPs, in the form of rich snippets, providing more information to entice the user to visit your site.

Both obviously can result in better SERPs ranking, higher CTR and more targeted visitors. To me, that translates into more conversions. So what was that question about ROI again?

Which one is better?

Now here, it gets a little stickier. Personal preferences, comfort level with coding, confidence in Google and W3C… they all can come into play. My personal preference is RDFa, partly because I think it is more versatile and partly because I think W3C, as the backer of the RDFa model, has approached the question with less self-interest. But that’s just me. I also think that RDFa will ultimately become the preferred medium, and I hate to have to do things twice.

 

Microformats

Essentially, microformats are simply a set of attribute tags… actually called entities, derived from HTML, to classify certain types of data. These hTags can describe a person, business, event, product or review, for instance. Each entity has properties, as well, such as name, address, email, company name, job title.

Here’s an example of a short HTML block showing sample basic contact information for some random idiot:

<div>
<img src="www.example.com/Doc_Sheldon.jpg" />
<strong>Doc Sheldon</strong>
Writer at Search News Central
200 Any St
Anytown, ZZ 12345
</div>

Here is the same HTML marked up with the hCard (Person) microformat.

<div class="vcard">
<img class="photo" src="www.example.com/Doc_Sheldon.jpg" />
<strong class="fn">Doc Sheldon</strong>
<span class="title">Writer</span> at <span class="org">Search News Central</span>
<span class="adr">
<span class="street-address">200 Any St</span>
<span class="locality">Anytown</span>, <span class="region">ZZ</span>
<span class="postal-code">12345</span>
</span>
</div>

You’ve probably heard that Google not long ago adopted the GoodRelations ontology for microformats. GoodRelations is a language developed by Martin Hepp, specifically for RDFa. By adopting it, Google has essentially accepted that language as being compatible with their version of microformats. (You can take a closer look at Martin’s schema on his GoodRelations Language Reference page.)

Therein is the key, I think… their version. While Google is certainly dominant in the search engine field, they’re NOT the only search engine. To offer such a means of assisting the trend toward a Semantic Web would be noble, were no such other offering on the table. But the W3C has already endorsed RDFa. That makes Google’s refusal to accept RDFa suspect, in my mind.

While microformats can be integrated well with HTML and CSS, I believe their lack of scalability make them impractical in the long run. At present, however, microformats will validate with HTML4 and XHTML 1.0, whereas RDFa validation with HTML4 is still under development. That is not to say that RDFa won’t work with HTML4, only that it won’t validate.

RDFa

RDFa uses some simple XHTML attributes to categorize data, to an extent not available with microformats. RDF triples convey much more information, in a format that is readily interpreted by search engines. This categorization is becoming increasingly helpful – even necessary – as the web becomes more semantic in nature.

An example, taken from W3.org’s website:

In her blog’s footer, Alice declares her content to be freely reusable, as long as she receives due credit when her articles are cited. The XHTML includes a link to a Creative Commons license:

All content on this site is licensed under
<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/">
a Creative Commons License
</a>.

However, using RDFa, a minor modification removes any uncertainty as to the meaning of that link:

All content on this site is licensed under
<a rel="license" href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/">
a Creative Commons License
</a>.

Now, the browsers can clearly understand that this link specifies the license of Alice’s blog.

Similarly, the blog post’s title and author can be clearly called out for the browser. In simple HTML, it would appear like this:

<div>
<h2>The trouble with Bob</h2>
<h3>Alice</h3>
...
</div>

Whereas in RDFa, it would be:

<div xmlns:dc="http://purl.org/dc/elements/1.1/">
<h2 property="dc:title">The trouble with Bob</h2>
<h3 property="dc:creator">Alice</h3>
...
</div>

Obviously, the user would see both identically, but the search engine will now recognize that “The trouble with Bob” is the post’s title, and that Alice is the author. Any semantic ambiguity that existed before has now been removed. For more on this concept and others, I highly recommend that you read the W3 RDFa Primer

Note: The terms used in RDFa markup are those specified in Dublin Core, which has been adopted by W3C as the recommended ontology for RDFa.

Summary

So which is better? It depends upon what you’re looking for. As I said earlier, I feel RDFa is the more appropriate choice. Yes, the coding modifications are slightly more intricate, but not much.

And it has the benefit of being more explicit, offering more versatility and I believe, greater longevity. Above all, it accomplishes far more, toward achieving semantic search capability.

To defer the task of learning RDFa and opt instead for the somewhat quicker microformats integration is certainly an option. But if you do so, it’s possible that you’ll find yourself doing it all over again later, to incorporate RDFa into your site’s design. My recommendation would be to either implement RDFa technology now, or make it a key part of your next redesign. Wouldn’t you rather lead your competition, than follow them?

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About Doc Sheldon

Doc Sheldon has been providing SEO consulting services for 14 years. His passions are technical on-page SEO and the Semantic Web. Fluent in Spanish, he has also provided consulting services to several large clients, specializing in cross-border operations in Latin America.

Early on, he saw exciting potential for those who could figure out what the search engines might do next, and were willing to work within the guidelines set by the search engines. To that end, he first founded his content strategy agency, and later launched his SEO agency, now serving clients on four continents with content, WP website customization and SEO services.

13 Comments

  1. Hi,
    Thanks for this valuable post!

    Here are a few reasons why GoodRelations in RDFa is a much better choice than either microformats or the Google-specific microdata markup:

    1. With GoodRelations, you can feed Google, Yahoo, and a wealth of novel mobile applications and browser extensions in one turn. One markup for all.

    2. GoodRelations is pretty simple to apply yet almost endlessly extensible to use RDFa for articulating your individual value proposition.

    a) Simple: http://www.ebusiness-unibw.org/wiki/GoodRelationsQuickstart

    b) Powerful:
    – Sophisticated pricing: http://www.ebusiness-unibw.org/wiki/GoodRelationsPricing
    – Tickets extension: http://www.heppnetz.de/ontologies/tio/ns.html
    – Automotive extension: http://www.heppnetz.de/ontologies/vso/ns.html

    Just look at the pricing options to grasp what you will be able to do with GoodRelations.

    With microformats, you are limited to a fixed amount of data, while GoodRelations allows you to expose prices, product features, opening hours, payment options, warranty, etc. And you serve both immediate SEO needs for Google and Yahoo on in turn plus be visible in novel Web 3.0 services.

    Best wishes

    Martin Hepp

  2. Doc,
    Very well done. This has become a buzz topic recently.

    I don’t think there is a question about ROI either. It does take a small effort, but when you combine dozens of small efforts they add up to big returns.

  3. Martin-
    Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I’m sure everyone here knows that you’re the “Father” of GoodRelations.
    I was reading up on your new Tickets extension yesterday… great stuff… keep ’em coming!
    I completely agree that RDFa has a lot more to offer than microformats. I think more people are beginning to realize that, and RDFa will be changing the face of the SERPs, little by little.
    Hope to see you around here more often! 😉

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Corey.

    True – implementing takes a little effort, but not really that much, once one gets the hang of it. And the payoff can be immense, particularly for those that get on-board before their competitors.

  5. But… but… but… RDFa makes my brain hurt!

  6. It only hurts for a little while, Barry! 😛

  7. [quote name=”Barry Adams”]But… but… but… RDFa makes my brain hurt![/quote]

    check out the RDFa themes for wordpress, full optional, zero headache 🙂

  8. Good write up Doc.

    Know of any good tutorials or introductions to RDFa?

    And is anybody seeing any impact in the serp’s with this yet?

  9. Dan, I apologize for taking so long to respond to your question.
    Obviously, W3 is a great place to start. Their [URL=”http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml-rdfa-primer/”]basic primer[/URL], for instance.

    There’s also plenty of good info to be had at [url=”http://rdfa.info”]RDFa Info[/url], including specifications and several case studies.

    If you’d like to see what it looks like in practice, you could also visit the Best Buy site.

    And finally, if you’d like to learn a little about the ontology, you can visit Dr. Martin Hepp’s site, [url]http://www.heppnetz.de/projects/goodrelations/[/url], especially his GoodRelations ontology recently adopted by Google.

  10. Why not do both?

    It’s not that hard to mark-up the same content in both microformat, RDFa and any other format, and keep everyone happy.

    They are not mutually exclusive! In fact, they are designed to cooperate and work together.

    p.s. SNC needs a readable CAPTCHA

  11. Christopher Regan

    I wrote a recent blog post (edited by Matt Funk) that collects a lot of the current RDFa resources in one spot: http://blog.tkcarsites.com/2011/07/tk-carsites-elite-seo-always-in-overdrive-automotive-rdfa/

  12. [quote name=”Dan Cruz”]Good write up Doc.

    Know of any good tutorials or introductions to RDFa?

    And is anybody seeing any impact in the serp’s with this yet?[/quote]
    Impact seen is usually a CTR lift up in the SERPs, you better have decent ranking before.

    See the well know Best Buy example which resulted in a 30% increase in search traffic. http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/how_best_buy_is_using_the_semantic_web.php

  13. [quote name=”Samuel Lavoie”]
    Impact seen is usually a CTR lift up in the SERPs, you better have decent ranking before.

    See the well know Best Buy example which resulted in a 30% increase in search traffic. http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/how_best_buy_is_using_the_semantic_web.php%5B/quote%5D

    You can also read my interview of Jay Myers here on Search News Central, for some more insights directly from the horse’s mouth: http://searchnewscentral.com/20110207129/Technical/rdfa-the-inside-story-from-best-buy.html

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