Jay Myers, lead web development engineer at Best Buy, acknowledged that he had to make some last-minute alterations to the presentation he gave yesterday at SemTech on the practical business uses of RDFa for search engines and beyond. They were required in light of the schema.org announcement that came at the end of last week. Myers worked the new standard for creating and supporting a common vocabulary for structured data markup on web pages in microdata into a slide that showed how the Semantic Web can bring equilibrium to the pendulum that tends to swing between the shiny-ball stuff of the web that’s tailored for human consumption and the back-end keyword- and metadata-stuffing that's done for the benefits of machine-reading.
But RDFa still takes top billing.
schema.org, Myers told the audience, is “search-centric and what I believe what the Semantic Web really entails is knowledge and insight,” he said.
“That’s where RDFa can still play a part…to provide a rich representation of objects on the web that I don’t think we can achieve with other formats.” Myers, of course, has been doing some cool things with RDFa and the GoodRelations web vocabulary for e-commerce on the Best Buy site (see story here and here) to add greater expressivity and detail around the retailer’s product offerings. Products, he said, are extremely complex objects, marked by a plethora of different types of attributes (UPCs, ratings, SKUs), and it remains to be seen how well schema.org can be extended to accommodate all that complexity.
Meanwhile, if a machine were to extract RDFa data around, say, a wireless meat thermometer, it actually gets URIs in return—“results you can link to, which is more than you can say for a lot of other formats,” he says.”It’s giving the opportunity for machines to parse that data, open it up online and be able to access through a simple URI. The beauty of structured data and the beauty of RDFa with vocabularies like GoodRelations and other established vocabularies is that we are able to do this.” There’s a huge opportunity using these standards and vocabularies to get very granular, to the point where you can go to a search engine, and say you need a refrigerator with French doors, a bottom-loading freezer and get relevant results out, he says.
And the case for RDFa gets stronger: “Eventually your web site utilizing this rich markup becomes the API. All these pages are accessible by URIs,” he said. “I don’t think with any other format that you can make your web site an API, and that is very powerful.” It opens a huge opportunity to share data on the web in open formats, he said, with partners and search engines that can scrape the data for however they’d like to use it. He doesn’t have a problem with that concept – it’s happening anyway, he said, “so let’s give them a structured format.” Best Buy currently has an open data API called Remix, and in Myers’ opinion it’s a competitive advantage to make the information even more freely and easily available.
schema.org is serving one important purpose already – getting the community to start showing the output that RDFa makes possible, not the plumbing that enables it, especially to SEOs. “They don’t care about the plumbing. They want to get more search traffic, to have machines understand them better,” he said. “And schema.org may engage people as they haven’t been before to maybe start encoding objects in a simpler format, and then maybe move on to encoding them in a more complete format like RDFa. That is an opportunity."