Part 1: An overview of structured data for SEO
SEOs have been talking about structured data for a few years now — ever since Google, Bing, Yahoo! and Yandex got together in 2011 to create a standardized list of attributes and entities which they all agreed to support, and which became known as Schema.org. However, there’s still a lot of confusion around what structured data is, what it’s for, and how and when to implement structured data for SEO purposes. In fact, a survey carried out last year by Bing found that only 17% of marketers are using (or were planning to use) Schema.org structured data markup.
In this two-part series, you’ll learn the basics of structured data: first we’ll talk about what it is, and how it relates to SEO (Part 1), and then I’ll take you through a simple process for identifying structured data opportunities and implementing structured data on your own site (Part 2).
What is “structured data”?
“Structured data” as a general term simply refers to any data which is organized (i.e., given “structure”). For example, if you have a bunch of scattered Post-It notes with phone messages about meetings, dates, times, people, etc, and you organize these into a table with labeled rows and columns for each type of information, you’re structuring the data.
Example of unstructured data
Post-It 1: “John called, confirming 3pm on Wed at Coffee Shop”
Post-It 2: “Don’t forget your 10am meeting at Mary’s Office this Friday”
Example of structured data
Structured data can be used in many different ways, such as using Open Graph markup to specify a Facebook title and description, or using SQL to query a relational database. In an SEO context, “structured data” usually refers to implementing some type of markup on a webpage, in order to provide additional detail around the page’s content. This markup improves the search engines’ understanding of that content, which can help with relevancy signals and also enables a site to benefit from enhanced results in SERPs (rich snippets, rich cards, carousels, knowledge boxes, etc). Because this type of markup needs to be parsed and understood consistently by search engines as well as by people, there are standardized implementations (known as formats and/or syntaxes) and classifications of concepts, relationships, and terms (known as vocabularies) which should be used.
There are three syntaxes which search engines will typically support (Microdata, JSON-LD, and microformats) and two common vocabularies which can be used with these syntaxes: Schema.org and Microformats.org. If you’re reading up on this topic, you may also see references to RDFa, which is another syntax.
*This all gets pretty confusing, so if you’re feeling less-than-crystal-clear right now, you might want to check out this great glossary cheat sheet from Aaron Bradley.
When we talk about structured data for SEO, we’re usually talking about the particular vocabulary known as “Schema.org.” Schema.org is the most commonly used approach to structured data markup for SEO purposes. It isn’t the only one, though. Some websites use the Microformats.org vocabulary, most often for marking up product reviews (h-review markup) or defining a physical location (h-card markup).
The Microdata approach was originally the recommended one for SEO purposes, but Google’s JSON-LD support has improved in the past few years and now it is their recommended approach when possible. Note, however, that Bing does not currently support JSON-LD (although hopefully this may be changing soon).
How does structured data support SEO?
Google, Bing, and other search engines encourage webmasters to use structured data, and incentivize that usage by providing benefits to websites with structured data correctly implemented.
Some of these benefits include search result enhancements and content-specific features, such as:
- Rich search results: Includes styling, images, and other visual enhancements
- Rich cards: A variation on rich search results, similar to rich snippets and designed for mobile users
- Enriched search results: Includes interactive or immersive features
- Knowledge Graph: Information about an entity such as a brand
- Breadcrumbs: Breadcrumbs in your search result
- Carousels: A collection of multiple rich results in a carousel style
- Rich results for AMP: To have your AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) appear in carousels and with rich results, you’ll need to include structured data
These enhanced search results can also improve your click-through rate (CTR) and drive additional traffic, because they are more visually appealing and provide additional information to searchers. And improved CTR can also indirectly improve your rankings, as a user behavior signal.
Implementing structured data on your site is also a way to prepare for the future of search, as Google in particular continues to move in the direction of hyper-personalization and solving problems and answering questions directly. Tom Anthony gave a presentation about this topic not too long ago, titled Five Emerging Trends in Search.
Common uses for structured data
Part 2 of this series will go into more detail around specific structured data opportunities and how to implement them. However, there are certain common uses for structured data which almost any website or brand can benefit from:
If you have a personal or business brand, you can edit the information which appears on the right-hand side of the SERP for branded searches. Google uses structured data to populate the Knowledge Graph box.
Rich snippets and rich cards
The most commonly used markup allows you to provide additional context for:
- Star Ratings and Product Reviews
Using this markup allows your site to show up in the SERPs as a rich snippet or rich card:
If your site has several items that would fit the query, you can also get a “host carousel” result like this one for “chicken recipes”:
In addition to these types of content markup, Google is currently experimenting with “action markup,” which enables users to take an action directly from the SERP, such as booking an appointment or watching a movie. If this is relevant to your business, you may want to express interest in participating.
AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages)
If your site uses AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages), you’ll want to make sure you include structured data markup on both the regular and AMP pages. This will allow your AMP pages to appear in rich results, including the Top Stories carousel and host carousels.
Although Open Graph, Twitter cards, and other social-specific markup may not have a big impact from a purely SEO perspective, this markup is visible to search engines and Bing specifically notes that their search engine can understand Open Graph page-level annotations (although at the moment they only use this data to provide visual enhancements for a specific handful of publishers).
If you use any social networks for marketing, or simply want your content to look good when it’s shared on social media, make sure you correctly implement social markup and validate using the various platforms’ respective testing tools:
You can include structured data in your AdWords ads, using structured snippet extensions. These allow you to add additional information within your ad copy to help people understand more about your products or services and can also improve click-through rate (CTR) on your ads.
If you have Gmail, you may have gotten a confirmation email for a flight and seen the information box at the top showing your flight details, or seen a similar information box for your last Amazon order. This is possible due to structured data markup for emails. Google Inbox and Gmail support both JSON-LD and Microdata markup for emails about various types of orders, invoices and reservations.
3 common myths about structured data & SEO
Myth #1: Implementing structured data means I will definitely get rich snippets.
Although using structured data markup is necessary to be eligible for rich snippets and rich cards, there is no guarantee that simply adding structured data markup to your site will immediately result in rich snippets or cards. Sometimes it may not show up at all, or may appear inconsistently. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done anything wrong.
Myth #2: Structured data is a ranking signal.
Using structured data correctly can help search engines to better understand what your content is about and may therefore contribute to a stronger relevancy signal. In addition, studies have shown that rich snippets can improve click-through rate (CTR), which can lead to better rankings indirectly. However, the use of structured data markup on its own is not a direct ranking signal.
Myth #3: Google can figure it out without the extra work.
Sometimes it’s tempting to skip extra steps, like implementing structured data, since we know that Google is getting smarter at figuring things out and understanding content without much help. But this is a short-sighted view. Yes, Google and other search engines can understand and figure out some of this stuff on their own, but if you want them to be able to understand a specific thing about your content, you should use the correct markup. Not only will it help in the short term with the things the algorithms aren’t so good at understanding, it also ensures that your site itself is well structured and that your content serves a clear purpose. Also, Google won’t give you certain features without correct implementation, which could be costing you on a large scale over time, especially if you’re in a competitive niche. Apart from anything else, studies have shown that rich snippets can improve CTR by anywhere from 5%–30%.
In Part 2 of this two-part series, we’ll be looking at the practical side of structured data implementation: how to actually identify structured data opportunities for your site, and how to implement and test the markup correctly.
But for now, here are some resources to help you get started:
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you: Have you implemented structured data markup on your site? Share your results in the comments!