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An Introduction to Structured Data: How Markup Helps Search Engines Understand Context

Jun 8, 2020
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The goal of structured data is to help search engines understand and accurately index your site. In this video, we will do an overview of structured data by answering the following questions.

  • What is Structured Data?
  • Why Structured Data?
  • How Does Structured Data Help?
  • What Structured Data is NOT and more.

If you want to add Schema.org., Open Graph, Twitter Card, or other Microformats to your website, this video is a must.

Video Transcript: 

Why should we use structured data? Semantic search is based around entities and Hummingbird, which is the core of Google's search engine, is at the heart of semantic search and really Google's transition from strings into things. In order for Google to understand a string, which maybe is a line of text, they need to understand the context of that. So, an entity is something that exists in itself. We can really think of a person, place or thing. This would be a noun, right?

For search engines to know what an entity is, they need a standardized language that can describe it. Entities allow Google to understand how the thing you're talking about really fits into the whole concept. Understand the attributes, understanding the qualities and the properties that that thing possesses.

As you can understand, this has a huge implication to SEO, because if you can supply more context and you can really meet the intent of the user's query, this can really help your page rank better. But more importantly, drive qualified traffic because it's going to meet the end users needs.

In order for Google to understand more about our business or our value proposition, it has to understand the following, who are our products and services for? Who's our audience? Why our products and services are the best option for that audience? Then, how they deliver value to the end users?

Now, these seem like basic questions, but you can create the right semantic connections to these questions and this will, again, have a direct impact on your site's trust, your site's authority and its reputation. If you're able to clearly say what you do and how it delivers value and you can back that up, that is going to translate in more qualified traffic. It's going to translate in better rankings if you have a lot of the other factors in place too.

You can't just do structured data and expect everything to work. You also have to have an optimized on-page site. You need to have good off-page practices and you need to be doing all the other things as well. But this can really help set the right foundation to where Google fully understands who you are and what you do.

How does structured data help? Let's look at this example. This is just a very basic example, but I think it should give a visual idea of how this works. A web crawler will visit a page and the web crawler starting to read the content and then it's going to look to see if it knows or understands that content.

Here the crawlers asking the database, the search engine, "All right, this page is about Jaguars. What do we know about that?" It sends the information over and let's say the database says, "Okay, this could be an animal and it could be a car, but we're not sure you need to keep digging," so then the crawler is going to continue to read and continue to look at that content to see if it fully understands it.

How would this be different if this page had structured data on it? Well, here in this same example, the crawler reads it, but now it incurs and comes across structured data talking about something specific. This page is about the Jaguar, a South American jungle cat. Here the search engine index will say, "Great. I can index this using the structured data provided. That was so much easier on me and I really understand what this site's about."

Structured data is basically speaking the language and helping them make those direct connections with the content and the context of the page. This is really important. Structured data is not a shortcut to better rankings. It is going to make indexing cleaner. It's going to help the search engines better understand you, but just because you have it on your site, you're not guaranteed anything. You're not guaranteed any rich feature listing. You're not guaranteed any better results. It's not a ranking factor, but it is still important.

Structured data is a label and it's applied to market formats that allows Google and search engines to better understand the data and its indexes. It's essentially, metadata and metadata is data and it's specifically for the search engines, not people. People aren't going to read your JSON, people aren't going to read your markup. The search engines will and it's important and helpful for them.

The primary purpose is to help with better indexing and understanding. That is extremely important, but as we know right now, it's not technically a ranking factor. In order to rank, you have to have high quality content. You have to deliver value. The content has to be unique. You need to have links. Your page has authority. I mean, there's so many other factors, but structured data is still important because it helps with indexing and understanding.

How do you add structured data to your site? There's a couple of different ways that you can do this. The three most common machine readable annotations that are actually recognized and processed by major search engines are RDFA, which stands for resource description framework attributes. You have HTML5 microdata and then you have JSON-LD.

Somebody asked John Mueller of Google which type they prefer and he answered that they currently prefer JSON-LD markup. You can see the source there to read more about this if you're interested, but Google is referring us to use JSON-LD. JSON-LD is a lot easier to write a lot of the times than some of the others. It's very easy for somebody who doesn't have a lot of background in processing structured data or creating structured data and the other types of annotations, so this is the type that we also prefer. If you're interested in learning more about that, we have other videos on this as well.

There's a number of different structured data vocabularies. The most popular is probably Schema.org. Schema.org is one that was built with Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and a lot of the other search engines. It's one that most of the markup today is based off of, especially when we're looking at Google's rich features, which those are things like The Knowledge Graph, Featured Snippets, the carousels with videos or images, local business knowledge graph, things like that. Those are typically based off Schema.org structured data.

But we have other types of structured data as well. We have the Open Graph structured data. This is typically associated with Facebook. This is going to structure your content for when it's shared on that social channel. You can use Twitter Cards. Twitter Cards are very similar to Open Graph, but instead of for Facebook, they're for Twitter.

You also have microformats. These are things like hCard or hCalendars. There's a number of other microformats as well. hCard, hCalendar are some of the earliest types of structured data and you can think of these like digital business cards or calendar links that you may have saved data into your Microsoft Office V-cards, things like that. That's really where these microformats come out of.

There's also a number of other vocabularies and ontologies, which can describe a number of different things. We're not going to get into all of those in this video, because this is an introduction to structured data, but know that you're not limited to these types of structured data.

It is important to understand which Google is preferring, which they're using, which they're not. One of the ones they were using was something called Dublin Core. Google is no longer looking at Dublin Core structured data and they are definitely pushing more and more to Schema.org, which has made it, obviously, extremely important for anybody interested in ranking in rich features.

One last thing. Google and other search engines can extract entities and information from unstructured data. So just because your site doesn't have this, doesn't mean you're going to be penalized. But by following guidelines instruction information on your site, it can have a huge impact on how your site is indexed by Google and also how it's displayed in the SERPs. How it's being shown to the users when they're typing it in. Owning these rich features can have a major impact on driving relevant and qualified traffic to your website.

Thanks for checking out this video. I hope you found it helpful and intuitive. This is just a basic introduction of structured data, but if you're interested in learning more, check out some of the other videos on our channel or comment below. We are putting together a number of resources to help website owners and SEOs to implement structured data on their site to help make sure that they can have a competitive advantage when it comes to earning those rich features.

Thanks again for watching and until next time, Happy Marketing.

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Ryan Shelley, CPBI

By Ryan Shelley, CPBI

Ryan is passionate about helping companies make a more personal connection online with their customers and prospects. He is a regular contributor to Search Engine Land, the largest and most popular SEO news site on the web. His works have also been featured on the HubSpot Blog, Business2Community and by LinkedIn Marketing Solutions.

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