Emily Lewis on the future of microformats

Author and designer Emily Lewis answers your questions about microformats, designing for mobile, going freelance full-time, and getting involved in the speaker circuit

@Kevooo: Which is the best HTML5 validator out there? Is W3 still the best choice?

EL: The W3C Markup Validation Service is still my validator of choice, even with HTML5 documents. However, the W3C recently released the Nu Markup Validation Service, which I’m trying to use more often simply to evaluate whether it’s better for my development goals.

Like the original, the Nu service integrates the html5.validator.nu engine for HTML5 support. The Nu validator, though, is non-DTD based and has a number of options to also check conformance of other technologies such as RDFa and SVG. I also particularly like that the W3C Nu validator offers the ‘Show Source’ option, which displays validation errors inline with your source markup.

@stinogle: What’s the best way to measure the SEO benefits of microformats on your site?

EL: The truth about SEO and microformats is that structured data doesn’t currently have any impact whatsoever on SERP rankings. Period. No matter what the SEO snakeoil salesman is pitching.

Now, I'm not an SEO expert. In fact, I rarely worry about it, because I know the power of great content and great markup. That said, I do understand the desire to have a measurable result for an investment in semantic markup and structured data. For that discussion, I focus on the notion of "findability". How easy is it for users to find your content?

A high page rank certainly makes a huge impact on exposing your site and content to searchers. But have you noticed how search engines are displaying results lately? Increasingly, contextual information accompanies search results. On Google, for instance, you can see which results have been "promoted" by people in your social network, which could encourage click-thrus.

Similarly, Google's Rich Snippets takes the machine-readable content from microformats (as well as microdata and RDFa) to make more contextual search results listings.

A review marked up with hReview, for example, can display in the SERPs with pricing information and star icons to indicate ratings. This type of snippet not only visually stands out from surrounding results, but displays additional information that could be relevant to the user. In turn, that user may be more inclined to click through.

As far as I know, there is no "measurement" for this right now, but it is fairly easy to demonstrate to a client and equally easy to explain the low cost of entry to achieving those rich snippets. I would simply suggest that you make sure your microformats are valid and meet Google's requirements.

@jbokkers: Are browser/plug-in vendors warming up to microformats?

EL: The lack of tools that consume microformats is one of my greatest frustrations. Authors seem to have few problems publishing them: billions of pages on the web contain microformats. Yet browsers and plugin developers haven't joined the bandwagon at a comparable pace.

Since I wrote Microformats Made Simple (two years ago), I haven’t seen any new consumption tools developed. Nor have I heard of any browser natively consuming microformats. Which continues to surprise me, especially with the growth of mobile, and how useful microformats like hCard and hCalendar could be in a mobile experience.

Despite this frustration, I don’t believe microformats (or any structured data technology) are useless. Perhaps I’m idealistic, but I believe we haven’t yet reached the point where the value of structured data has been fully realised or recognised.

I don't think we are far off. Semantics and natural language processing are becoming more important to everything from search engines to mobile devices. At some point in the not-too-distant future, I believe the kind of native support we want for microformats will emerge in force.

Until then, I focus on educating my clients and colleagues about the importance of structure data and the tools that are available to consume.

@TheDamianHdez: What do you recommend for a basic mobile HTML5 website?

EL: It depends entirely upon the project, its complexity and needs:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What is the context for the site?
  • How will the audience use the site?
  • What are the business goals for the site?

A dedicated mobile experience versus a responsive design isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Responsive techniques can be (and, perhaps, should be) incorporated into any mobile experience. But not every mobile experience requires a dedicated site.

Josh Clark does a fantastic job of gathering the various opinions and arguments on this very topic.

@bartka Tell us about making the jump to full-time freelancing. How did it feel, before and after?

EL: Before deciding to leave my full-time job, I never thought I would work full-time for myself. I simply didn't believe I had the business acumen or the ability to handle the "sales" aspect of running my own business.

My decision to go freelance wasn't planned, either. It was more of a "I've had enough of this soul-sucking job and can't work here another day" decision. In retrospect, I don't regret it. But, it would've been nice (as in, less stressful) if I'd set aside some money to support the freelance adventure, as well as had a client or two lined up.

The immediate experience once I quit my job was quite overwhelming, probably because of the aforementioned lack of planning. It took several months before I secured my first web site client, and those months were scary and full of second-guessing. During those months, though, I focused on finding resources: accountant, lawyer, project management tools and invoicing tools. This turned out to be a good move because, when I did get that first client, I was prepared from a business perspective to manage the client and project.

Now, almost two years later, I have no regrets about going freelance. But it hasn't been easy. The actual day-to-day of freelancing has been the biggest challenge for me. Dealing with the lulls that are inevitably followed by a deluge of work. Managing my time so that I actually have a personal life. Taking time to recognize that, for me, stress is a constant and I need daily routines to deal with it in a healthy fashion. Realizing that clients can be just as frustrating as an employer.

Along with the challenges, freelancing has been an ongoing lesson in who I am as a person. I discovered I didn't need "business acumen." I simply needed to hire people who were good at what I'm not. I also realized I didn't need to be a salesperson. I just needed to develop and maintain good relationships with colleagues and my community. Integrity, good work and trustworthiness is all the "sales pitch" I've needed (so far).

Right now, my plan is to continue freelancing. But I won't lie. I still look at job boards. I still crave the stability of a bi-weekly paycheck. I'd kill for non-catastrophic health insurance that I can afford. I miss the camaraderie of working on a team. At the same time, though, few things feel as good as 100% control over my professional life.

@andy_wickes: What’s the best way to get started on the speaking circuit?

EL: First, you have to make sure that people know you want to speak. Reach out to the people who are organizing events and conferences. Let them know you are interested in speaking and find out what they need in terms of speakers.

Second, have a topic that people want to learn about. And be prepared to submit proposals, which means you need to not only know your topic, but what a particular event needs and expects.

Third, keep your expectations reasonable. If you've never spoken in public before, don't expect your first opportunity to be paid. And don't expect your first opportunity to be a major event. If you are tenacious and focus on constant improvement, you'll eventually get to those big conferences and paid gigs. Just be patient.

For me, I started by finding local opportunities to speak, primarily because I had zero public speaking experience and needed places to practice. BarCamps, university events, local association workshops and user group meetings are great (and friendly) places to build your experience.

I highly recommend Derek Featherstone's new blog, Seize the Room . A seasoned public speaker, Derek offers information about everything from getting the gig to fine-tuning your presentations. I learn something new or get inspired every time he publishes a new post.