HTML5 & RDFa – Unlocking the Semantic Web

The Semantic Web has been a topic of discussion on and off for some time now, since the original idea was brought about by Tim Berners-Lee in 1999.  I’m not sure if he considered the impact of his forecast and dream at the time, but the ripples are still being seen today as we move closer to the possibility of the Semantic Web as he defined it.

I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A ‘Semantic Web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The “Intelligent agent” people have touted for ages will finally materialize.

“Tim Berners-Lee” 1999

On one side, it’s a hell of a thought to imagine punching an extremely simply query or string of keywords into a search engine and have a computer process it to extract almost exactly what you want – we’re almost to that point when you consider the concept behind it.  Personally, I feel that the vision Berners-Lee had is a bit too similar to the SkyNet concept from the Terminator movies.  It’s a little creepy, but can lead us in amazing directions.

The concept is great, but we’re still a way off from getting to this point.  As a whole, people are making leaps and bounds to bring the web to this point.  When you consider the strength and growing popularity of social media and the massive databases that are being created for each, you start to  see how the 48 billion + sites on the net could eventually come together to form one universally read conglomerate where all the computers hug each other and read equally, lovingly and frequently.

It’s a data orgy, and your web server is invited.

One of the ways we’re moving closer toward a Semantic web is the use of rich snippets.  Yahoo has been including Rich Text Snippets for the better part of year at this point, Google has recently jumped on the band wagon as well.  By using RDFa (“Resource Description Framework in attributes”) we can apply information within the content of…content.  It’s a jar within a jar, within a jar..within a few more jars.  As long as there is more information to be discussed, further info can be added.

If we can provide rich, relevant snippets to, and for all, data that is commonly searched for, we can assure that the information is more accurately indexed, read and returned by computers.  When computers can take a search query and generate the perfect results based on info it reads from RDFA and rich snippets, we’re one step closer.

The major search engines are encouraging website designers to start implementing RDFa to help categorize data, with the end result and reward being an increase in SERP’s while users who perform searches around certain info will receive more accurate and useful data at a faster rate.  Both companies have been presenting rich text snippets for various items including major events, important people, major business and product reviews – there’s good reason to start utilizing RDFa.

While it may seem a bit obscure now, as it’s not a common practice, it will begin to gain more wide support as it runs parallel to and receives support within the new HTML5 framework.  With the use of both, users will be able to more appropriately categorize their data.

Some people have posed the question on how well we will be able to rely on data that is categorized specifically by people.  People, unfortunately, have been the primary issue with data corruption on the net for years – especially when it comes to issues of reliability.  If designers can lie in their meta information, and through links on site, what’s to stop them from misleading users within other frameworks to build SERP’s.  The answer, according to Semantic Web principles is in trust relationships with service based trust agents who will authenticate information.

Cool answer, but now you’re left with justifications on who can and cannot create content, and who decides what is authoritative.  If you said Wikipedia, you’re a bad monkey.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, and I will certainly be revisiting this topic later.  If I stick to it all now, you’ll have a 20 page manual on SkyNet framework and the rise of the machines.

There are a lot of other factors to consider with moves being made in the direction of HTML5 and RDFa.  The most obvious and important to business is the effect it will have on SEO.  Any change that will benefit indexing and ranking is something that all consultants should consider.  While not all browsers accept HTML5 tags (older versions of Explorer don’t… shocking) it’s still appropriate to began preparing for its implementation.

HTML will be introducing some fantastic new tags that will really boost SEO practices and what it means to have content on page.  The new article and section elements will play a large part of this on page SEO as correct use of these will help Google identify stolen or duplicated content.  These content tags will allow you to essentially highlight your optimized content for search engines to find and index.  It’s like throwing up a priority flag.  These tags will play a large part in the future of rich snippets within search results.

By identifying the navigation sections with the new <nav> element, you are creating a simpler method for generating sitelink inclusion.  If search engines like Google know with certainty that a specific list of links on your site is your top-level navigation, they’re more likely to be indexed with priority over other random links strewn about your site.

The different elements should also integrate well with RDFa and Dublin Core protocol giving us lots of opportunity to format toward the concept of the Semantic Web. Much discussion of microdata and HTML5 is still up in the air, so this is one to watch as it develops.  There’s a lot on the backend of this.  HTML5 is just a baby, and has a lot of growing to do.  We’ve only brushed the surface and will certainly be revisiting this topic.

The direction the semantic web is going will no doubt enhance the overall user experience of the web, even if the user is not consciously aware of it. It will help us create new business strategies and will change the way we look at SEO and SEM in the future.  Overall, this markup overhaul is set to help us create amazing new environments to display our web content and will make operations faster and far more.  With the focus returning to content and the engines that index it faster, it’s no surprise that we’re moving closer toward a real world Semantic Web.

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  • notorious D.I.C

    so, are you going to post any example HTML, or is this just a blog post talking about a process?

  • joerg_weishaupt

    This is geared more toward the concept and process than actually digging into the mud of the html. With HTML5 still in its infancy, I'm reserved about writing examples or tutorials on that use the actual tags. I'd hate to lead someone in the wrong direction should the actual tags change. I do intend on covering this topic in more detail over time. Thanks for reading!

  • eylerwerve

    Thanks for this – useful.

About Me


Joerg Weishaupt is a 49 year old entrepreneur, software architect, search engine optimization and social media expert. Joerg has been building a lot of profitable Internet businesses since he put his first website online in 1995. He is also one of the founders and partners of Social Media Science LLC, where he launched a content syndication network called SYNND.

Joerg resides in a small, quiet community about 100 miles outside of Munich, Germany. If you ever seek to find him, look for where the cows gather.

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