When is semantic html not important?

For many web developers semantic markup is very important. It makes your javascript and css code more maintainable, increases accessibility, helps search engines rank you better, and especially if you use microformats or RDFa, makes your data machine-readable.

What if you are transforming to html from a more semantic markup language like TEI? In this circumstance, isn’t HTML your presentation layer? How concerned with semantics should you be at this stage, when you are trying to prepare the material for human usage? Well, it is still easier to maintain CSS files than changing inline styles, font tags and misused tags in your XSL files. And you still get the accessibility benefits of using semantic html.

But should you care about machine readability if you are also publishing the more-semantic TEI source? Should you bother about putting RDFa into your html? Well, arguably you should. As I see it, TEI is for describing the elements of a document; transforming to HTML with RDFa can add a meaningful interpretative layer, stating what the document is saying about the external world. In addition, the semantics of RDF and HTML microformats are more widely understood by machines than the semantics of TEI.

But what about if you are providing the information in a (linked) RDF document as well? Is it still a beneficial thing to add these extra semantics to your html document? After all, why give machines the trouble of extracting RDF from your html if you are giving it to them pure and free anyway? Are, or will there be, user agents (for example, browser plugins, screenreaders) that will find these inline semantic statements more useful than pure RDF in a separate document?

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7 Comments »

  1. Got said

    If you are interrested by this problem, you should look GRDDL (http://www.w3.org/TeamSubmission/grddl/). It’s a system to generate an RDF separate file from HTML document. Another solution is appearing with semantic mediawiki (http://ontoworld.org/wiki/Main_Page). I wrote a post about this subject too, it’s in french (sorry !) but it may interrest you : http://lespetitescases.net/semantique-et-xhtml

  2. Thanks for that – a great blog. GRDDL is indeed interesting (I put a link to the specs somewhere in the sidebar a while ago).

    What I was wondering here though was: if you are publishing dynamically (from a database or XML) and it is easy to output RDF as well as XHTML, should you put microformats in your XHTML (so they can be extracted to RDF via GRDDL), if you are also already providing the same information in RDF. Is it bad, confusing, or just unnecessary to do the same thing twice? Are microformats/RDFa more useful to some user-agents than pure RDF?

    When you have several ways of semantically publishing information (microformats, RDFa, eRDF, RDF+HTML in separate documents), which should you choose (or not choose) and why?

  3. Got said

    I think it’s better for historical information if we make directly a separate RDF file. Microformats was not invented for research information and they are not interresting for us. Moreover, for instant, no tools use microformats and I don’t believe it’s interresting for historical research to develop specific tools for that. On the other hand, I think it’s more interresting if we develop tools to work RDF files.

  4. You are right: if you have to choose, pure RDF is the most flexible and best supported. It’s also the area that deserves the most attention and work.

    It’s true that the potential of microformats isn’t matched by the tools yet, but support and usage is growing, and I think more tools will be developed.
    I also think it would be a smart move for digital-humanists to take advantage of popular technologies and trends where they can.

    Microformats weren’t specifically designed for historical research, but there are places where I think we can make use of them.
    Microformats emerged from blogging, which is after all just a technological medium for topical discourse, which isn’t anything completely new (see Ben Hammersley’s comparison of blogging to Enlightenment coffee shop culture).

    Take the Vote links microformat for instance, used to indicate whether the link to another article is in agreement, disagreement, or neutral. Used in digital editions of polemical works (eg: 17thC pamphlet wars in Britain), it could add real value to interlinking references. You could retrieve lists of who agrees and disagrees with whom, and even visualise it in one of those pretty network graphs that I like so much.

  5. Jim said

    I posted some thoughts about TEI and tagging recently on the microformats-discuss mailing list, then sat down and wrote them up as a blog post. I think rel-tag has potential for representing TEI referencing strings in HTML.

  6. […] Find more about it all here […]

  7. You should always care about semantics.

    Each technology you are using or converting to should be used in the most optimal way possible.

    This is in order to increase accessibility and provide as much backwards compatibility and general compatibility as possible.

    This is why I am writing Semantic User Interfaces – The Best Practices.

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