Home Microcontent Design, Part 1

Microcontent Design, Part 1

This is the first post in a series in which I will explore microcontent design.

“…content will be more important than its container in this next phase.

That’s a big shift for old media to come to grips with. Killer apps, such as search,
RSS and video-capture software such as Tivo — to name just a few — have begun to unlock
content from any vessel we try to put it in.

Who needs to bookmark and surf a bunch of Web sites anymore, when you can search or
monitor several RSS “feeds” much more efficiently?”

When Associated Press CEO
Tom Curley spoke those
in a November 2004 keynote speech to the Online News Association Conference, he
also struck at the heart of a paradigm shift in web design – from designing for the page
to designing for microcontent. Put another way: when a Web ‘site’, or
‘container’ to use Curley’s lexicon, is no longer necessarily how users will experience
your content – what does that mean for web designers? It essentially means taking a
microcontent view of design. 

Photo: venegas

As I’ll outline in this series, microcontent design involves:
microchunking your content, taking advantage of open standards, employing microformats,
letting users subscribe to all kinds of RSS feeds, freeing your content via APIs and
other means, designing for re-use of information, monetizing it, and more.

Data sources and formats

“The Semantic Web is just the application of weblike design to data; it will be many
more decades before we will be able to say we have really implemented the Web idea in the
full, if ever we can.”
Berners-Lee, October 2004

While Sir Tim Berners-Lee was referring to the grand notion of the Semantic Web in the
above quote, in many ways his vision of applying “weblike design to data” is
already being implemented in the form of technologies like RSS, APIs, XML.

XML has largely lived up to its promise of being the data format of choice for the Web
2.0 era. And by far the most widely deployed format is RSS 2.0, which is a loosely structured
XML dialect. Sir Tim Berners-Lee would probably prefer that RDF, a much more rigorously
structured form of XML, were used instead. But that’s another story! 

Microsoft bullish for RSS, Google for Atom

Microsoft and Yahoo are two big Internet companies putting their weight behind RSS
2.0, as I’ve documented at length over the last couple of years. But there are also a lot
of advocates for Atom, an alternative RSS
format that is said to be more extensible. Indeed at the Microsoft Mix ’06 event yesterday,
Google employee Patrick Chanezon (an Adwords evangelist) said in an interview that Google is “very bullish” on Atom. Patrick said:

“Instead of taking Atom as the rich content model for feeds at the implementation
layer, you [Microsoft] took RSS 2.0 – which obliges you to do all kind of
translations.  […] I really think this [Atom] is the future of syndication. At
Google we’re very bullish for Atom.
[…] As Gates said in his speech, feeds usage
will skyrocket in the next few years – but Atom is a much more solid format for that kind
of growth.”

The Microsoft interviewer retorted that RSS has the same “good enough” attribute that
drove the adoption of MP3.

Pic: kathy

Either way you look at it, RSS (including Atom) and XML are the de-facto formats for
data in the Web 2.0 world. If you release your data in those formats, that’s step
one in the data design process.

Representing data and designing for re-use of information

Step two is standard ways of representing data, to enable people (and machines) to
find and consume it. In an era where a veritable glut of media is available online, from
both professional and amateur content sources, it’s become very important to make
sure your data is easy to find and use.

Structured Blogging and microformats are two relatively geeky topics at this point in
their evolution, but they are significant developments in terms of representing data.

Structured Blogging

Structured Blogging is an initiative
launched in December 2005 by small RSS-driven companies PubSub and Broadband Mechanics
(disclaimer: I work for the latter). Structured Blogging is a set of formats and plugins
that enable blogs to publish different kinds of information – like events, reviews and
classified ads – in a ‘structured’ format, so that aggregators can pick up the data from
all over the Web.

It’s that ‘re-use’ of blog content via aggregation that will be
where the real value lies in Structured Blogging. As of writing there are no Structured
Blogging aggregators available, but a hint at the value that it could provide in future
is the independent company edgeio – which was
launched in February 2006. Sellers can get their data listed on edgeio’s website,
simply by posting an item to sell on their own weblog and tagging it
“listings”. Buyers are able to search and find goods and services at the
edgeio website. How it works is that edgeio aggregates goods and services data by
scanning over 25 million RSS feeds, looking for the tag “listings”.

This is a great example of how data you publish on your own weblog, or at a specialist
service such as the jobs listing site SimplyHired.com, can be ‘re-used’ by a
service like edgeio – simply because of the way the data is marked up. Whether you
use Structured Blogging markup, or simple tagging that edgeio will
recognize and pick up, either way you are in a very real sense designing your
microcontent for re-use.


Microformats is the generic name given to
any format that builds on XML (X)HTML to provide additional metadata about web objects. This is the definition on the microformats.org website:

“Designed for humans first and machines second, microformats are a set of simple, open
data formats built upon existing and widely adopted standards.”

A good example of a microformat is hReview, a format that provides
a common markup for reviews (of products, services, etc). Check out Phil Pearson’s NZ Coffee Review site for an example of hReview in
action. Also it’s great to see Microsoft embracing
, as announced at Mix ’06.

It’s important to note that microformats and the Structured Blogging initiative
are both open standards and complement one another. The Structured Blogging
toolset outputs reviews in the hReview format, for example. So essentially Structured
Blogging provides tools to publish structured content, which formats it nicely for
users and marks it up with microformats.

To be continued…

Update: microformats actually build on (X)HTML, not XML as I originally wrote in the first sentence of the last section. Thanks Ryan King for correcting me and Phil Pearson for confirming it.

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