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Communications of the ACM

Practice Evolution of Structured Data on the Web

interactive starburst visualization

An interactive version of the starburst visualization ( allows for exploring's hierarchy.

Credit: Fabio Valsecchi

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Separation between content and presentation has always been one of the important design aspects of the Web. Historically, however, even though most websites were driven off structured databases, they published their content purely in HTML. Services such as Web search, price comparison, reservation engines, among others that operated on this content had access only to HTML. Applications requiring access to the structured data underlying these Web pages had to build custom extractors to convert plain HTML into structured data. These efforts were often laborious and the scrapers were fragile and error prone, breaking every time a site changed its layout.

Recent proliferation of devices with widely varying form factors has dramatically increased the number of different presentation formats that websites must target. At the same time, a number of new personal assistant applications such as Google App and Microsoft's Cortana have started providing sites with new channels for reaching their users. Further, mature Web applications such as Web search are increasingly seeking to use the structured content, if any, to power richer and more interactive experiences. These developments have finally made it vital for both Web and application developers to be able to exchange their structured data in an interoperable fashion.


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