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What Is XBRL?

XBRL is an offshoot of XML, which is a markup language. Similar to the way HTML allows you to markup language for the internet, XBRL allows you to markup business data. So, what does XBRL stand for? XBRL stands for Extensible (abbreviated as X) Business Reporting Language. Now that you know the basic XBRL meaning, read on to learn how the business markup language works; why the SEC mandates it and how to use XBRL to tag documents.

What is XBRL Filing?

XBRL is a format for classifying information. It relies on taxonomy, in which a set of elements are defined, similar to the way words are defined and classified within a dictionary. The taxonomy not only defines the elements of classifying information but the relationships among those elements.

For example, "cash" is defined within the taxonomy, but so are the relationships among cash and other terms that encompass cash, such as "assets." The "extensible" part of XBRL acknowledges the fact that the classification system is incomplete and, as such, may be added to by companies as they markup documents for filing with the SEC.

XBRL is applied to a document through tagging, which operates in much the same way as applying a tag on social media. Adding the right tag to the right element in the source documents makes the snippets of information contained within each filing searchable, sortable and classifiable. Tagging a document with XBRL requires the use of software that allows you to mark or tag elements with the right classification (i.e., to denote cash and assets as such).

How does the taxonomy work? This is only one of the important questions when it comes to understanding and applying XBRL and its newest iteration, iXBRL. Read on for more information on the purpose, audience and benefits of XBRL. You should walk away with a big picture understanding of how to apply the taxonomy, why it matters and the latest software that enables XBRL filing.

Who Uses Extensible Business Reporting Language?

Although XBRL is required by the SEC, the demographics of XBRL users is far wider than the pool of businesses that complete SEC filings.

Business filers are one user group for the markup language. Analysts and investors make up additional user groups. Whereas data collection and analysis previously required a significant investment of time and resources, the extensible data format significantly streamlines the time required to sort, filter, analyze and review business data.

Consider that previously, analysts would need to pull a report and visually scan the file for a keyword they wished to track, such as the tax liability of foreign-earned income. Using iXBRL, research analysts can search for the tag associated with tax liability of foreign-earned income and generate accurate results in a fraction of the time.

Many investment firms also rely on XBRL to review and display relevant business data for their end users. Their clients — individual investors — are able to review data nearly instantly, versus the time lag associated with HTML.


While XBRL has been around since 2009, iXBRL is relatively new. The “i” stands for “inline,” meaning that XBRL tags can now be embedded inline rather than appended to the document. Inline tagging is not only easier, but it also reduces inaccuracies.

There are other technical differences to note, such as the way certain tags are closed or how certain HTML aspects aren't supported within iXBRL. Since users are generating iXBRL with software rather than hand-coding it, they shouldn’t need to memorize these slight technical differences in order to generate the iXBRL language required by the SEC.

XBRL Benefits

Since XBRL can be read by machine, computers can automatically analyze and review data without human input. There are significant time-saving benefits to this ability. While XBRL has been mandated for years, the data hasn't been as useful as the SEC initially hoped due to data quality issues.

In making the inline version of XBRL available, the SEC hopes to reduce the data quality issues and improve the quality of business data within corporate filings. iXBRL acts as a bridge between XBRL and HTML, meaning that it can reconcile differences in the markup languages in order to render XBRL data in website format, where people can easily review it. In most cases, it is cheaper and easier to work within iXBRL, because HTML and XBRL markup languages can be reviewed at the same time.

While most of these benefits affect filers, there are also benefits to the end user and to the SEC. Thanks to iXBRL, the data becomes more transparent and it can easily be searched. Thus, it is more likely that investors and analysts will be able to use the data when making investment decisions.

How DFIN Can Help

Understanding the structured financial data requirements such as XBRL is only one step toward using the markup language when filing. You still need to apply the language, generate business filings and transmit to the SEC.

Fortunately, DFIN helps companies all over the globe handle the complexities of financial reporting in today's business environment. Our customers have access to our signature ActiveDisclosure software, which offers cloud-based, collaborative financing reporting in a secure system. ActiveDisclosure supports iXBRL tagging, taking the complexity out of compliance.

The SEC formally adopted iXBRL in 2018, to be incorporated during a three-year rollout. As time runs out to begin filing in iXBRL, get the help you need from a company trusted by major players. Turn to the experts at DFIN.