Search engines are getting smarter, but they can still use plenty of help. Lend them a hand, and your site will receive more traffic and attention.
You probably have no problem finding contact information on the average business’s website. You can easily recognize when a list of items elsewhere online detail the ingredients needed to bake a chocolate cake.
Search engines still have trouble making those kinds of connections themselves. They are excellent at returning results relevant to particular search queries, but not so effective at analyzing and breaking down the information those pages contain when left to their own devices.
Provide some guidance, and your site becomes more likely to appear in search results of many kinds. Add tags that point out your corporate contact info and those details will appear in a special Google Knowledge panel for appropriate searches.
Lay down “breadcrumbs” that describe where particular pages stand in your site’s hierarchy and Google will highlight them over competing resources. Incorporate simple Schema mark up wherever it makes sense, and your SEO can really get a boost which gives your site more traffic.
Schema.org: An Online Catalog of Things and Their Properties
The standard that makes this all possible is published online at http://schema.org. In addition to a variety of introductory resources, Schema.org hosts a standardized hierarchy of item types and associated properties.
The full listing can be viewed here: http://schema.org/docs/full.html. From the most general type, the “Thing,” to much more specific ones like a “CreditCard” or a “FlightReservation,” each type of item can have properties of appropriate kinds.
Items also inherit the properties of those they are descended from, so that a “Book” might have an “author” by virtue of being a “CreativeWork,” and a “Blog,” “Article,” or “Review” would do the same. Properties can also sometimes be Schema items themselves, allowing for nesting of another kind.
While it could look confusing at a first glance, the Schema.org hierarchy is actually a straightforward, universally accepted way to classify and add structure to the information that web pages contain. More to the point, it allows website owners to use Schema markup to add hints that enable search engines to provide more specialized, focused, relevant results to their users.
Three Different Ways to Represent Schema Structure in Web Pages
Communicating the Schema.org classification of website information to a search engine requires the use of one of three recognized markup standards or “vocabularies.” While they differ somewhat in form and approach, each of these accomplishes the same goal, with Google and other search engines understanding all of them:
- Microdata (https://www.w3.org/TR/microdata/) – A product of the same independent group (the W3C) that defined the various HTML standards, Microdata consists of additional tags that are worked into standard HTML elements such as <div>, <li>, and others. In particular, it uses “itemtype” and “itemprop” HTML attributes to assign Schema.org types and properties to particular elements. An “itemscope” tag also sets the structural boundaries of each item to those of the associated HTML element. The inline nature of Microdata can make it easy to work with manually, as Schema types and properties are kept close to the user-visible information they relate to.
- RDFa (https://www.w3.org/TR/rdfa-primer/) – Another project led by the W3C, RDFa traces its origins back to 2004. It is meant to work well with a variety of XML-style languages, including HTML, SVG, and XML-based document formats, and the standard also includes a simplified subset aimed at beginners. Like Microdata, RDFa puts Schema.org types and properties alongside website content in the underlying HTML. RDFa is a top choice today when easy translation into other formats is important, with Microdata being quite a bit more common otherwise.
Since Google recommends that web developers and authors use JSON-LD over the alternatives, that will always be a safe choice. On the other hand, many prefer, in practice, the integrated Microdata approach over the separated one adopted by JSON-LD, with the former enjoying a significant lead among active websites as of 2017, and RDFa trailing both by a healthy margin.
Rich Snippets, Featured Snippets, and Other Ways Your Site Can Stand Out
When a website or page is properly annotated using one of these vocabularies and appropriate Schema mark up, it becomes eligible to appear in special, prominent Google search result placements. If a search engine user asks a question about a movie, book, or other creative work, for example, Google will often consult its index of pages that include relevant Schema.org structure and put together a “Featured Snippet” to show at the very top of the results.
Likewise will Google now present users with special “Rich Snippets” that break out of the usual search results mold when certain queries are entered. By adding appropriate Schema markup and opting in, website owners who publish movie reviews, recipes, and other commonly sought types of content can make their latest updates eligible for inclusion in these prominently displayed results. Some other desirable possibilities include:
- Breadcrumb trails. Sites that incorporate Schema.org “BreadcrumbList” items become candidates for special Google results that display where particular pages fit within an overall hierarchy. A cooking site that does so, for example, could have one of its recipes highlighted with a breadcrumb-style result that places it in the “Main Courses > Italian > Tomato-Based” hierarchy.
- Carousels. Special website pages which group others together sensibly and include appropriate Schema.org markup can be displayed in attention-getting “Carousel” results that are most commonly presented to mobile device users. In the above example, the cooking site in question might receive this treatment if a “Best Italian Recipes” page were appropriately annotated with a Schema ItemList.
Even simply ensuring that a local business’s contact information is identified with appropriate Schema.org structure will allow Google to provide those details in a special panel when users search for the company by name. While Schema markup is not believed by search engine optimization (SEO) experts to affect ranking within regular results yet, the significantly higher click-through rates that these special results encourage can easily make the effort worthwhile.
Structured Data Tips and Best Practices
As with everything else in the realm of SEO, it is still important to do things right. In particular, those interested in adding Schema.org structure to their own websites should:
- Stick to visible data. Information that is hidden from site visitors or otherwise inaccessible should not be marked up according to Schema.org standards at all. This is a point Google emphasizes repeatedly, so it is probably one worth paying particular attention to.
- Mark up as much as possible. At the same time, putting effort into making sure that every visible, appropriate piece of content gets marked up can only help. Start with basics like a business’s address and other contact details, build up from there, and then establish processes that ensure appropriate markup accompanies every update in the future.
- Test to make sure everything is in order. Google maintains a special testing tool at https://search.google.com/structured-data/testing-tool which can be used to ensure that structured data markup is valid and comprehensible. Every addition or modification of Schema markup should be checked.
- Keep markup accurate and up to date. While automated tools like the above will not catch problems with accuracy or timeliness, human reviewers could. Failing to ensure that structured data tags or JSON scripts are correct and up to date could result in manually imposed penalties or disqualification from Rich Snippets and other search programs.
While it can take some effort to come up to speed and getting started, incorporating Schema.org structure into a website can also produce results that would not be achievable by any other means. In many cases, competitors will not have made the leap yet, either, meaning that a particular business could be able to easily produce SEO results that would otherwise take a lot of time and investment. With Google increasingly leveraging structured data wherever its crawlers find it, getting started now could well pay off.
References and Resources
- org: http://schema.org
- Full Schema Hierarchy: http://schema.org/docs/full.html
- Introduction to Structured Data: https://developers.google.com/search/docs/guides/intro-structured-data
- Featured Snippets in Search: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/6229325?hl=en
- Mark Up Your Content: https://developers.google.com/search/docs/guides/mark-up-content
- Google Structured Data Testing Tool: https://search.google.com/structured-data/testing-tool
- Express Interest in Rich Snippets Participation: https://docs.google.com/a/google.com/forms/d/19n7cIIDxTxantWXE6E3TbPnY6WBl0TbZiYuwf8CofXA/viewform
- Structured Data General Guidelines: https://developers.google.com/search/docs/guides/sd-policies