Search Engines take on Structured Data

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Structured data on the web got a boost this week, with Google's announcement of Rich Snippets and Rich Snippets in Custom Search. Structured data at such a large scale raises at least three issues:

  1. Syntax
  2. Vocabulary
  3. Policy

Google's documentation shows support for both microformats and RDFa. It follows the hReview microformat syntax with small vocabulary changes (name vs fn). Support for RDFa syntax, in theory, means support for vocabularies that anyone makes; but in practice, Google is starting with a clean slate: That's a place to start, though it doesn't provide synergy with anyone who has uses FOAF or Dublin Core or the like to share their data.

The policy questions are perhaps the most difficult. Structured data is a pointy instrument; if anyone can say anything about anything, surely the system will be gamed and defrauded. Google's rollout is one step at a time, starting with some trusted sites and an application process to get your site added. The O'Reilly interview with Guha and Hansson is an interesting look at where they hope to go after this first step; if you're curious about how this fits in to HTML standards, see Sam Ruby's microdata.

While issues remain--there are syntactic i's to dot and t's to cross and even larger policy issues to work out--between Google's rollout and Yahoo's searchmonkey and the UK Central Office of Information rollout, it seems that the industry is ready to take on the challenges of using structured data in search engines.

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