Lee Willis

Google and Microformats – The end of the road for Froogle?


About six weeks ago, Google made an interesting announcement. They basically said that they will

Look for markup formats (microformats and RDFa) that you can easily add to your own web pages

This is an interesting announcement for a bunch of reasons (which I’ll get to soon – I promise!).

Now, I like Google, they build some fairly good stuff, and provide some quite good tools for webmasters. There’s a lot more that they could do I’m sure, however the tools they provide are a lot better than some people. So, I figure if they’re willing to put the effort in, then so should I.

Google helpfully have a bunch of support pages showing which microformats they support, and some immediately jumped out at me since I run a bunch of ecommerce sites – hproduct and hreview. Now, most of my sites don’t actually have reviews on them (Yes, I know – they increase conversion …), so I jumped straight to hproduct.

This supposedly lets you mark up your page so that the key attributes can be picked out easily. Perfect – I can mark up all of my products and have Google easily index them, jump straight to the top of the SERPS and retire a millionaire before I’m 35 …

Well, no actually. Google said:

Currently we recognize product data included in reviews.

Which reads to me like they don’t support it outside of reviews. I find this pretty confusing – especially when one of Google’s aims is to rid the index of “spammy review sites”.

So, I’ve marked up one of my sites with hproduct microformats just to see what happens.

At least I think I have…

You see, there’s no real way to check. I’ve yet to find a validation service (One thing that w3c did right all those years ago), and there’s no way to see if Google has found them and noticed them.

I do however have some observations about my implementation that hint at why I think the format doesn’t quite work (At least when taken alongside Google’s understandable strictness about showing their crawler the same as your users).

1. Categories

When people browse to a category they see the category name right at the top of the page, together with a category description, followed by a list of products.

The hproduct spec suggests that I should put the category inside every hproduct group. Which is fine on a technical level – but in terms of usability – why would I want to display it like that for my users?

display:none here we come …

2. Brand

In my particular case my products are categorised by brand, so I have the same problem here. The spec expects me to put the brand within the hproduct cluster – which means my user will see it 20-30 times on a page unneccesarily (They already know the brand – they chose the category). Not to mention the keyword-stuffiness of it all…

3. URL

Google’s example markup contains this little gem:

<span class="url">http://anvil.example.com</span>

So – let me get this straight. You want me to display a link to the product page, where the anchor text is the URL? Is this 1994 again?

Can’t I just do this and have you work it out?

<a class="url"
Nice User-friendly link text

So that’s my moans and gripes out of the way.

Now, I said there was something interesting about all this – and there is. You see, this is a major departure for Google. They’ve made it their business to make sense out of the myriad of unstructured data on the web – and they’re good at it – very good. There’s two problems I see with this proposal:

1. Why are Google abandoning their previous plan – has the spam and unstructuredness of the web got too much for them?

2. If everyone structures their data – that really lowers the barrier to entry for other search engines

And here’s a third because I’m feeling generous:

3. It’s easy to game. I said before I don’t have reviews on my site. That’s not to say I can’t now just whip up a quick <div class=”hreview-aggregate”> <span class=”average”>4.4</span></div> [Not that I would, but someone will]

The other reason I think this is interesting is that it pretty much changes the game for Froogle (Aka Google Base, Aka Google Product Search). That’s a service to allow you to provide structured data to have your products listed in Google … hmmmm.

I guess we’ll have to see where that goes – but with microformats for products, and universal blended search results I can’t see a reason to keep good ole Froogle much longer …


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