Structured Data for SEO

What Is Structured Data and Why You Need It for SEO

Last Edited July 19, 2017 by Garenne Bigby in Search Engine Optimization

In light of the global movement from a physical copy to online content, having a good online presence with excellent visibility is one of the most important keys to success. Almost everyone has heard of search engine optimization (SEO) and knows some of the basic tricks to help boost your site’s search engine page results (SERP) ranking. You may even have heard of structured data before, but aren’t sure what it is or what it has to do with SEO. Flexibility. That’s why we’re here to help.

What is Structured Data?

The first step to understanding what structured data is is to know what it looks like on SERPs. Very simply, it’s the extra bit of information you see next to a website’s description. If you search for a restaurant, for example, you’ll be able to see some basic information as a snippet—their operating hours, pricing, and usually between one and five stars to indicate their reviews rating. That’s the structured data output, also known as a schema markup.

Why Does Structured Data Matter?

Let’s use contact information as an example this time. If you add your contact details to the bottom of your page as a footer, human viewers will be satisfied. They’re guaranteed to understand that it’s contact information. Website crawlers (and therefore, by extension, search engines) won’t, however, so contextualizing the data using a schema markup code allows them to understand what you’re adding to your website and why.

No matter how clear and concise your writing, textual content always contains some level of ambiguity. It’s a natural aspect of language (think of the “buffalo Buffalo buffalo” example), and is made more noticeable when human language and computer language meet.

Websites are created using coding, even though you may not realize it: website builders are designed to allow for a visual building experience so that you don’t need to do the coding yourself. The data is automatically formatted into HTML code. This makes it easier for search engines to understand your content, but some elements can seem quite visible to the human eye while being meaningless to website crawlers (the tool search engine platforms use to generate their results pages).
Structured data is a piece of code that helps to translate your site’s information in a way that search engines understand. It removes the ambiguity.

How Does Structured Data Help SEO?

As we’ve mentioned, structured data helps search engines to understand what your website content means—giving context to its relevance. Because the search engine is now able to contextualize your content better, it has a better understanding of when it would be appropriate to display your site (or a particular page thereof) in its results page.

Web sites and pages that contain structured data will, therefore, rank better by default than those without a schema markup. On the technical side of things, this is how structured data helps SEO.

Aesthetically—the human aspect of the same coin—structured data helps in yet another way. Because the search engine now understands your site better, it can generate those snippets we spoke of: the extra information that appears. When users can see basic but important information about your site or page right in the SERP, they can quickly figure out which option to choose without having to open every single result first.

In this way, what is known as a rich snippet (because of structured data) can make your website more noticeable on a SERP. Not only does it help your rank better straight off the bat, but because your SERP output is more informative, you’re also likely to increase organic views—which, in the long run, will help boost your SEO ranking even more.

I’ve Been Told to Write for Humans - isn’t Structured Data Writing for Machines?

This is a common question and an entirely valid one at that. Many people don’t realize that even though the Google AI is getting closer and closer to having a human understanding (they’ve been feeding it novels to teach it human speech patterns, for example, in response to the rising popularity of voice search), machines and humans do still interact with website information in different ways. Structured data is coding that helps the computer understand your content better, so you may think that it’s writing for machines.

Although the most obvious benefit does appear to be on the search engine, as we’ve explained in the previous section, structured data is still writing for humans because of its output.

In fact, you can think of structured data as an online business card! You don’t make business cards for machines; you make them for humans. In the same way, adding structured data to your website isn’t changing your content for the search engines, and website crawlers—you’re just adding a little bit of extra detail.

What You Need to Know

There are three basic things you need to know when working with structured data: the available formats and which one to use, some of the most common schema markup terms, and the structured data guidelines. The last one is such a vast topic that we’ll be covering it in the next section.

The first thing you should know is that there are three supported structured data formats available: RDFa, microdata, and JSON-LD, which is the most common (and best recommended).

  • RDFa is an HTML5 extension that introduces the use of HTML tag attributes in linking data to generate a rich snippet.
  • Microdata is an open community HTML extension but also uses tag attributes for naming content elements (in the same way as RDFa).
  • JSON-LD, on the other hand, is a JavaScript notation that is kept separate from the HTML body itself, using script tags in the page’s header. This makes developing a schema markup easier and doesn’t require careful wording your content around attribute tags to create structured data. This is one of the many reasons why JSON-LD is the most popular format to use.

When doing any research for coding sources online, always make sure that you stick to one format. Google has openly admitted that their AI handles JSON-LD schema markups quicker than RDFa and microdata, so you’d be well advised to ensure that any code you source online is JSON-LD. Unless you’re a coding expert that would prefer to use either microdata or RDFa, we recommend that you give them a wide berth.

Second on our list of things you should know is the basics of structured data terms. While you can certainly get away with not memorizing these, using them regularly over time will help you improve your schema markup strategies and practice quicker.

The command ‘itemscope’ is used to organize your content according to topic. For categorizing your content even further according to its type (video, movie, audio file, et cetera), you’ll be using the ‘itemtype’ command.

To go into even greater detail in defining the content’s properties, which is highly recommended, you need the command ‘itemprop’. There are endless types of itemprops you can assign, including name, director, genre, length, and so much more.

Structured Data Guidelines

The structured data guidelines are our third and final entry on things you need to have some understanding of when working with schema markups. It’s incredibly important (you’ll see why in a bit), and because there are both technical and quality guidelines involved, we decided to give it its section.

Technical Guidelines

Structured data should always be posted on the page you want to describe (for example, online books will have a description page—this is where you’ll place your schema markup). In some cases, it’s perfectly acceptable to have the structured data elsewhere on your site, but it needs to be properly documented then.

If you have duplicate pages with same content (which isn’t the best of ideas, but there are valid reasons for doing so at times), then you need to add the same schema markup to both pages. Even though one of the pages will be considered canonical, there’s no guarantee that the Googlebot will recognize it as such, meaning the duplicate page may show up first in a SERP from time to time. For this reason, it’s safest to copy the structured data too.

Use the available resources at schema.org to your advantage in making sure that you use the most applicable and particular type and property names when embedding structured data in your website pages.

Search engines use website crawlers to add your site pages to the search engine index, and structured data helps them to index your content correctly so as to generate the SERP. You should always make sure that any access control methods you implement (such as the no-index command or a robots.txt—the file containing the Standards for Robot Exclusion) don’t prevent Googlebot and other search engine website crawlers from reading your schema markup.

Structured data comes with documentation. This includes additional usage guidelines, and you would certainly benefit from reading through these.

Always ensure that image URLs that you add a schema markup to do belong to the instance of the type you’ve added the image to.

It’s worth mentioning that by adding structured data to an image URL, you can have the image appear in your snippet. As always, make sure that it isn’t blocked, so that website crawlers can read the schema markup—otherwise, the image won’t be displayed in the SERP as intended.

It is also possible to add more than one structured data objects on a single page, but you must ensure that the information is appropriate for the page in question and applies to the content that users will be able to view. It’s highly recommended to add a schema markup for all entities on a page, which helps the Google Bot’s algorithms to understand the full context of your content. For example, if you have a recipe page on your cooking blog that presents the instructions as text and also incorporates a tutorial video, you should mark each type separately.

Quality Guidelines

The top priority of any search engine is to provide relevant and engaging results when any user submits a search query. Naturally, this means that search engine platform companies like Google have relevancy standards, which should certainly be taken into account when adding structured data to your pages.

Schema markups should always be up-to-date. For example, news sites usually include publication date in their structured data so that users can see how recently an article was posted.

Your structured data should never be misleading. If your content is on the dangers of substance abuse, for example, then your schema markup should not make it look like an advertisement for the material in question. In layman’s terms—no clickbait. It’s unprofessional (not to mention highly annoying for users), and can result in your snippet not appearing on the SERP.

Content (and your structured data) should never promote pedophilia, sexual violence, bestiality, violent or cruel acts, or targeted hate speech.

Disclaimer

This is an appropriate time to point out that even if your schema markup is set up correctly according to any Structured Data Testing Tool you may use, no search engine platform guarantees that a rich snippet will be successfully generated for your page.

There are a few reasons why your structured data won’t result in a snippet. Google, in particular, perform strict manual and algorithmic quality checks on schema markups against their relevancy standards, and if yours falls short of the mark, then they can refuse to generate a snippet for your page, and reserve the right to remove existing snippets. Here are some the reasons this may happen:

  • Your structured data does not accurately represent the main content of the marked-up page, or is misleading in any other manner;
  • The schema markup is flawed in any way (and your testing tool was unable to pick up the error);
  • Content referenced in the structured data is hidden from visitors to your site (this does not apply to websites that require a subscription for users to view the full content of a page, so long as there is a reasonable amount of “preview” available);
  • Your website page does not comply with any of the technical or quality guidelines we’ve given here. It may also be worth your time to take a look at Google’s general webmaster guidelines for more details.


What is Schema.org?

schema org

In our previous section, we made reference to a resource library called schema.org—but what is it exactly? Schema.org is an online project developed collaboratively by the major search engines, led by Google of course, where you can find structured data markup codes supported by the engines.

The code examples are freely available for you to copy into your site, but do note that you’ll have to adapt the existing code to match your requirements. There is a host of guides available online to help you do so.

Do I Need a Web Developer for Structured Data?

This is a difficult question to answer because it depends entirely on you. A lot of clients get nervous when they hear SEO experts talk about implementing structured data on their sites. We understand that—schema markup can be relatively complex, and the wide array of related terms (there are thousands of them) can be rather overwhelming.

The good news is that you won’t have to memorize the terms, and as long as you keep the basics we mentioned earlier in mind you won’t have much difficulty finding everything you need at schema.org. There are plenty of resources available online that are designed to help you make sure your structured data is compliant with the technical and quality guidelines too.

Some experience with HTML code will certainly be beneficial in using structured data, and it won’t hurt to get someone like a developer involved to ensure that your schema markup is set up correctly—especially if you limited experience working on the backend of website development. Even if you can configure the coding yourself (with the help of schema.org especially), it’s always worth having someone with a better knowledge of the coding language take a look at it.

The short answer to the question “do I need a web developer for structured data?” is yes, you probably will. Unless you have a good grasp of coding language structure and protocol, you should almost definitely get someone with more experience involved. How much you rely on them is up to you. You may need them to set everything up for you or have them do as little as double-check what you’ve done.

Another alternative is to take a look at some plugins that are designed to help you with your structured data. Yoast offers an incredibly adept SEO plugin for WordPress sites that allows you to input details and have the schema markup generated for you by the software.

At the end of the day, this is your site we’re talking about. Whether you’re a blogger or a website owner, you don’t want a lack of structured data (or bad implementation thereof) to damage your SEO ranking. You have to make the decision whether you can afford to rely on a plugin and schema.org to do it yourself, or leave it to a website developer (who may or may not decide to make use of the plugin as well, and will almost certainly use schema.org too) while you focus on growing your business.

Do Keywords Still Matter?

The first thing anyone learns about SEO is keywords. Keywords are one of the oldest means of letting search engine website crawlers know what your content is about to determine its relevancy in generating a SERP. But with the rise of voice search as a popular trend (in particular among the younger generations), short tail keywords—which are one to three words long—are becoming less prevalent. Long tail keywords (typically three to five words, sometimes longer) are better suited to ranking your website pages for voice search query SERPs.

This is because voice search is conversational, often being question-based. As we mentioned earlier, Google has been leading the way in developing the conversational search feature by teaching their AI how to recognize and respond to human speech patterns.

Furthermore, voice search SERPs take into account your location, what you’ve searched for previously, and even who you are. This makes semantic SEO and structured data more important in boosting your site’s rank, and as users move further from PC to mobile searches (including voice search), such techniques will have much more impact on SERPs.

This doesn’t mean that keywords will ever die off entirely, but they certainly aren’t dominating the SEO market any longer.

The Bottom Line

So keywords (and even backlinks) are certainly not enough to ensure good SEO ranking anymore. In fact, they won’t ever have been enough by themselves, but now more than ever it’s important to take note of technical SEO—especially structured data.

It’s tempting to disregard such methods because they take relatively long to yield results after implementation. But here’s the thing: all SEO is, in fact, a long-term strategy. No matter what anyone tells you, there is nothing you can do to boost your rating overnight.

With new trends in search methods on the rise, your ability to successfully incorporate schema markups in your website pages will become the difference between appearing on the first page of search engine result outputs and disappearing in the subsequent pages. Don’t let dying SEO techniques cripple your business!

Garenne Bigby
Author: Garenne BigbyWebsite: http://garennebigby.com
Founder @dynomapper
Garenne Bigby is freelance Chicago developer and founder of DYNO Mapper with over 10 years experience in both agency and freelance roles in design, development, user experience, SEO, and information architecture.

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