Structured Blogging: Who is Benefitting and How?

Structured blogging is an initiative to add structure to blog posts of similar content. For example, let’s say that I write a review of a piece of software on my WordPress blog and someone else writes a review in their Movable Type blog. Not only are these two posts structured differently, with the blogging platforms […]

Structured blogging is an initiative to add structure to blog posts of similar content. For example, let’s say that I write a review of a piece of software on my WordPress blog and someone else writes a review in their Movable Type blog. Not only are these two posts structured differently, with the blogging platforms writing different code, but each tool has customizable templates so that the blogger can write any code they want. So even though the content is nearly the same, the probability that the code in the end results looks anything similiar is very small.

Why is Structured Blogging Important?

Disimilar things cannot be compared. Take a look at some of the recent software reviews out there: The Best Web 2.0 Software of 2005 by Dion Hinchcliffe and Year in Review: AJAX Desktops and Homepages by Steven Bryant. Both of these reviews are interesting, as they compare current software offerings with each other.

Unfortunately, there is no way to aggregate the reviews together to get a summarized view of what the industry thinks of the software, unless we do it manually, which is incredibly time-consuming. It’s good to know what Dion and Steven think individually, but I would also like to know whether they agree or disagree. If both like it or both hate it, I know much more than if the reviews were mixed, which doesn’t help me make a decision. So, if we could compare Dion’s and Steven’s and the thousands of other reviews, we could get a good measure of how the world at large is reviewing a certain piece of software.

With structured blogging, we would have that ability. If both of these reviews were written into the same XML format, search engines and blog aggregators could recognize that they were of similar kind, and could provide a targeted service that aggregates reviews and only reviews. And this idea works equally well for any other structure you might dream up: classifieds, event listings, recipes. The promise of structured content is that we would have an explosion of software aggregating it into useful, specialized services. Think recommendation systems.

Why Google Base is Different

This trend is not only happening in blogs. The recent service from Google, Base, uses this same concept of structure to elicit content from users. But Google only goes half-way. They provide specialized screens for inputting certain types of content (they have ingredients fields on their recipes, for example), but the resulting code is a mess, with little or no discernable structure. This makes it difficult for other services to index that content and provide aggregation services that help us see an overall picture. It’s valuable for Google, but not for anybody else. I wrote about the content types that Base provides in Google Base Item Types.

So Google provides a structured interface, but not structured code. The Structured Blogging folks, however, intend to do both. To this end they have provided plugins for both WordPress and Movable Type. When you write a structured post, you get specific fields. When the blog tool then converts your review to code, it publishes it in a known XML format.

So let’s outline the value propositions here. Who is benefitting and how?

Value for Bloggers

  • A structured blogging interface, making it easier to write posts for certain types of content
  • A blog tool that produces structured code, with the promise that aggregation tools and search engines will recognize that code and provide valuable services for others
  • Increased traffic as a result of being included in these services
  • Data in a common XML format, for easy transfer to other formats

Value for Software Developers

  • A much easier time aggregating content. They can simply adjust their spidering tools to recognize the agreed-upon formats
  • Providing more powerful services that leverage the aggregate content
  • A much more targeted audience to sell to advertisers, with a enhanced ability to provide leads

So notice that the software developers are the biggest winners here. Bloggers will have to do a little more work to install the plugin and dutifully fill out the structured fields for each post. Meanwhile, the job of software developers just got a lot easier, at least in terms of aggregating content and the opportunity to provide services. It’s no wonder that Pubsub and Technorati are pushing the idea of structured code so hard.

So What are the Downsides?

Are there any potential downsides to structured blogging? You bet. The same structure that allows honest bloggers to announce their content to the world allows spammers to abuse it. For example, a spamming software developer could easily write millions of positive reviews for their software, leaving the aggregator of the content with the burden of weeding it out before unsuspecting users really believe that ACME Ajax Writer is a 5-star piece of software. Remember <meta\> tags? This is exactly why they didn’t work.

Stowe Boyd is also skeptical of structured blogging, though not because of spam. Instead, he sees the structure of structured blogging as a departure from the “messiness” of the Web, and considers the closely-related but slightly different effort of microformats as the way to go, in part because it puts more of the burden on bloggers. (FYI: Structured Blogging supports microformats, so Stowe’s distinction isn’t absolute)

In addition, Greg Yardley sees the whole affair as exploiting the contributions of bloggers.

Going Forward

It’s hard to imagine that our blog posts won’t get more structured. Ask any music reviewer if they would want an extra field for “liner notes” in their music reviews and they would probably say Yes. But there are still many things to be sorted out. Will bloggers use a more structured interface for posting? Will developers get on board and write aggregation software any time soon? Or will spammers stop the initiative in its tracks? It’s still too early to tell, but the possible benefits are definitely high.

Published: December 15th, 2005

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