Parsing Microformats

September 4, 2007

Brian Suda

Microformats are a way to embed specific semantic data into the HTML that we use today. One of the first questions an XML guru might ask is "Why use HTML when XML lets you create the same semantics?" I won't go into all the reasons XML might be a better or worse choice for encoding data or why microformats have chosen to use HTML as their encoding base. This article will focus more on how to extract microformats data from the HTML, how the basic parsing rules work, and how they differ from XML.

Contact Information in HTML

One of the more popular and well-established microformats is hCard. This is a vCard representation in HTML, hence the h in hCard, HTML vCard. You can read more about hCards on the microformats wiki. A vCard contains basic information about a person or an organization. This format is used extensively in address book applications as a way to backup and interchange contact information. By Internet standards it's an old format, the specification is RFC2426 from 1998. It is pre-XML, so the syntax is just simple text with a few delimiters and start and end elements. We'll use my information for this example.


FN:Brian Suda




This vCard file has a BEGIN:VCARD and an END:VCARD that acts as a container so the parser knows when to stop looking for more data. There might be multiple vCards in one file, so this nicely groups the data into distinct vCards. The FN stands for Formatted Name, which is used as the display name. The N is the structured name, which encodes things like first, last, middle names, prefixes and suffixes, all semicolon separated. Finally, URL is the URL of the web site associated with this contact.

If we were to encode this in XML it would probably look something like this:


    <fn>Brian Suda</fn>







Let's see how we can mark up the same vCard data in HTML using microformats, which make extensive use of the rel, rev, and class attributes to help encode the semantics. The class attribute is used in much the same way as elements are used in XML. So the previous XML example might be marked up in HTML as:

<div class="vcard">

    <div class="fn">Brian Suda</div>

    <div class="n">

        <div class="given-name">Brian</div>

        <div class="family-name">Suda</div>


    <div class="url"></div>


If that was all microformats did, then it wouldn't be very interesting. Instead, microformats make use of the semantics of existing HTML elements to explain where the encoded data can be found. In this example everything is a <div>, but it doesn't have to be. This is what makes extracting data from the HTML slightly more difficult for parsers, but makes it easier for publisher. Microformats do not force publishers to change their current HTML structure or publishing behavior. At the end of the day, there will be factors of 10 more people writing HTML than writing parsers, so why not make it as easy as possible for the publishers?

It bugs me when I look at the previous XML example and see "Brian Suda" encoded twice, once for FN then repeated again for N. With HTML this isn't a problem, we can combine those two XML elements using space-separated values in the class attribute. It is a little know fact that the class, rel, and rev attributes in HTML can actually take a space-separated list of values. If we combine the FN and N we get something like this:

<div class="n fn">

    <div class="given-name">Brian</div>

    <div class="family-name">Suda</div>


Now the N property still has its children and the FN has the same value as before. Remember, HTML collapses whitespace, so the FN still is "Brian Suda" even though it is spread over two elements now with spaces inside those <div>s.

So, we have sorted the ability to condense multiple properties with the same value. The next thing that bothers me about the XML example is that the URL is displayed, it doesn't seem natural. In XML we are talking about data, but the HTML is being displayed to people in a browser. Coincidentally, there is an <a> element, which has an href attribute that takes the URL value and also a node-value to display more human-friendly text. We can further refine our HTML example to include the URL switching the <div> to an <a> element.

<a class="n fn url" href="">

    <span class="given-name">Brian</span>

    <span class="family-name">Suda</span>


After switching to the <a> element, we needed to change the child <div>s to <spans>s because the <a> element can only contain inline elements as children. Microformats do not force publishers to use specific elements, but it is recommended that you use the most semantic for each case. In the case of URL data, it makes the most sense in this case to use an <a> element, because of this; the parsing rules change slightly (we'll discuss this in a bit).

The final hCard microformat might look something like the following in HTML:

<div class="vcard">

    <a class="n fn url" href="">

        <span class="given-name">Brian</span>

        <span class="family-name">Suda</span>



To me, this is much more intuitive, simpler, and more compact than the XML example at the start. People are already publishing blogrolls and links in this manner and all browsers recognize and style this information, plus it can easily be passed around inside a feed.

Parsing with XSLT

Let's take that HTML example and try to parse it using XSLT.

Microformats are designed to work with HTML 4 and up. The downside to using XSLT is that the document needs to be well-formed. HTML 4 does not. HTML 4 can use <br>, <img>, and <hr> elements without closing tags. If you were using a different technology like REGEXs or the DOM to extract microformats, then this is a separate issue, but with XSLT we need to clean up the HTML first. There are two simple ways to do this, TIDY or a function like HTMLlib or loadHTML, either will load the HTML document and convert it into a usable state for XSLT.

Now that we know we have a well-formed HTML document, we can begin to extract the microformat data. The following is a very rough XSLT that is far from comprehensive, but it should get you started. For more information you can see the wiki page about parsing or use the XSLT templates that do most of the heavy-lifting data extraction (available at

All the data inside an hCard is contained within the element that has a class of "vcard". In our example this is a <div>, but it could be any element, so we'll start with:


This XPath expression looks for any element anywhere in the tree that has a class equal to "vcard". At first glance, this should find all the hCards, but the problem is that the class attribute can take a space-separated list of values. So, class="vcard myStyle" would not be picked up by that XPath expression. To fix this we can use the contains function.


This is better, now we find any element when the class attribute contains the term "vcard." This will successfully find the "vcard" in class="vcard myStyle", but there is still a problem. The contains function is not word safe it is a substring match. So, class="my-vcard" would be found by contains() just the same as class="vcard", even though "my-vcard" is not the proper name of the property to indicate this is an hCard microformat, a false-positive. To fix this we need to work some magic and pad the values we are searching for with spaces, then search for the term with the padded spaces around it. It sounds complicated, but really isn't.

//*[contains(concat(" ",@class," "), " vcard ")]

With padding, class="my-vcard" becomes " my-vcardZ " and would not contain the substring " vcard ," which solves the substring problem. In the other instance, class="vcard mySytle" becomes " vcard myStyle ," which does contain "  vcard " so the space-separated values in a class issue is also solved with the padding technique.

Now that we know how to find the data, let's loop through each hCard using XSLT and begin to extract it into vCard output. At this point, it is pretty easy to see how using XSLT can let you easily convert this HTML data into just about any format you want. This includes other HTML, XML, RDF, flat vCard text, CSV, SPARQL results, JSON, or just about anything else your heart desires.

The for-each will find all instances of an hCard on the page and create a new vCard for each one. While creating each vCard it applies the templates to look for any properties inside an hCard, such as FN, N, and URL.

<xsl:for-each select="//*[contains(concat(" ",@class," "), " vcard ")]">


    <xsl:apply-templates />



The FN is a simple template that extracts the node-value of the element that contains FN as a class value.

<xsl:template match="//*[contains(concat(" ",@class," "), " fn ")]">

    <xsl:text>FN:</xsl:text><xsl:value-of select="."/>


The N template is slightly more complex. It first has to look for an element with a class containing N. Then it looks for child elements that contain subproperties of N, such as family-name and given-name and outputs those values.

<xsl:template match="//*[contains(concat(" ",@class," "), " n ")]">


    <xsl:value-of select="//*[contains(concat(" ",@class," "), " family-name ")]"/>


    <xsl:value-of select="//*[contains(concat(" ",@class," "), " given-name ")]"/>



The template for URL uses the choose element to determine where the most semantic information for the URL value is encoded. It tests to see if the element the class="url" is an <a> element. If it is, then the value of URL is extracted from the @href, otherwise it uses the node-value.

<xsl:template match="//*[contains(concat(" ",@class," "), " url ")]">



        <xsl:when test="local-name() = 'a'">

            <vxsl:alue-of select="@href"/>



            <xsl:value-of select="."/>




The <a> element and many others carry implied semantics. In our original HTML example the URL had been encoded on a <div>, in that case, the node-value would have been extracted and the value of URL would have been the same. This is just one of the many ways microformats are different than XML. The parsing of microformats data is dependent the type of data and on the HTML element it was encoded on.

This is a very basic overview of parsing data from a microformat. There are more rules depending on the type of vCard property and on which HTML element it is encoded. For more information, you can refer to the Microformats wiki, my O'Reilly PDF book Using Microformats, or you can always email me or join the microformats dev mailing list if you have questions.