Demystifying Structured Data

November 1, 2011 • Blog, Local, Search • Views: 214

Structured data is a topic that is often poorly understood. Many marketers may have heard terms like “Microformats”, “Microdata”, and “RDFa”, but most search marketing campaigns do not take advantage of these data types.

What is structured data? Basically, search engines allow webmasters to extend HTML content in a way that provides added machine-readable information about that content.

A classic example cited by search engines is the HTML line <h1>Avatar</h1>. This code will tell your browser to display the word Avatar as a heading, and from an SEO perspective, may tell search engines that the word Avatar is a key aspect of your page.

However, it doesn’t tell Google what you mean by Avatar – it could be the movie, or it could be a profile picture. Using structured data allows webmasters to put added meaning into their HTML,  thus giving search engines a better understanding of on-page content.

Structured Data and Schema.org

One factor that has traditionally hindered the implementation of structured data is a lack of unity between formats. We mentioned three types – microformats, microdata, and RDFa – all of which serve essentially the same purpose.

In the past, the challenge of learning 3 different data structures, and deciding between them, may have been a barrier to adoption. However, this summer, the three major search engines Google, Bing, and Yahoo, came together to create schema.org.

Schema.org is meant to be a single, authoritative language for structured data. The development of schema.org means that search engines have specifically chosen microdata as the primary structured data format. From Google, “There are arguments to be made for preferring any of the existing standards, but we’ve found that microdata strikes a balance between the extensibility of RDFa and the simplicity of microformats, so this is the format that we’ve gone with.”

While Google will still support other forms of structured markup, it is generally advised that webmasters adopt with the search-engine approved format. Much like the sitemaps.org coalition years ago, when the engines come up with a unified format, it usually sticks.

Rich Snippets

While structured data adoption got a boost this summer from schema.org, it is still mainly a “nice to have” feature. Implementing microdata won’t have the same impact as, say, keyword rich title tags or quality inbound links.

However, one really great value that microdata provides is the creation of rich snippets. For reference, the “snippet” of a page is the small chunk of text that appears in the search results. Traditional SEOs will know that this is often generated by the page’s meta description.

Rich snippets allow webmasters to go beyond just plain-text. For example, the screenshot below shows a search result that has been enhanced with both reviews and a price range. This added SERP content makes the result more appealing to a searcher, and therefore more likely to get the click.

Schema.org and Local Search

Local search is a vertical that benefits greatly from microdata. Schema.org contains a wide range of markup designed to give search engines additional information about locations, businesses, events, and more.

Some examples of great options for local microdata include:

These are just a few examples of the wide range of options that schema.org allows for local businesses to add more machine-readable meaning to their HTML.

Although there are a wide range of options for microdata, many webmasters may wonder – why bother? Is there value to microdata aside from rich snippets?

In an interesting Search Engine Land article, Aaron Bradley observes that Google’s statements about the overall value of rich snippets are somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, Google states, “Marking up your data for rich snippets won’t affect your page’s ranking in search results.”

However, on the same page, Google notes, “Providing this information doesn’t affect the appearance of your content on your own pages, but it does help Google better understand and present information from your page.”

It seems obvious that helping Google understand your content is a good thing. It could make a huge difference that a search engine understands something ambiguous – for example, that a common noun is actually the name of your specific restaurant.

Structured data is not the most glamorous marketing effort, but over the coming years, it could become an increasingly valuable element of on-page optimization. In the future, adding structured meaning to a page may seem as critical as title tags and meta descriptions. For webmasters with suitable sites, it only makes sense to help Google understand your content.

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