Structured data helps optimize your website’s SEO and helps your users find your website easier from the search bar. Implementing structured data into your website will show search engines what your website is all about so that they can more optimally push out your content.
Earlier this year, a podcast called Search Off the Record, a show focused on displaying the voices of the developers at Google directly in a less structured way, released an episode called “Structured Data: What’s it all about?” In this episode, Martin Splitt, Lizzi Sassman, and Ryan Levering have a lot to say about their experience with structured data at Google. They speak candidly about their thoughts on structured data and where they believe this part of Google is heading in the future.
In this blog, we’re going to first give you the rundown of what structured data is, how you can use it, and finally, summarize what is happening in the future based on what they mentioned in the podcast. If you found this helpful make sure to scroll all the way to the end to subscribe to our email list and see more deep-dive content by marketANDgrow.
What is structured data?
There are well over a billion websites out there, and most of those websites all have different pages: home page, about us page, job posting page, etc. When Google comes to any website, its bots are trying to determine exactly what the meaning of that webpage is. There are definitely not enough Google employees out there to manually decipher every page.
But, the problem is that the bots are far more stupid than us humans, and if things aren’t exactly how they like them – different web layout, not including all information – the search algorithm is not going to know what is going on. For example, we humans usually have a pretty easy time figuring out that a page is for a job posting. But the Google bot may misinterpret what is going on if it doesn’t have, for example, an hourly rate, or a location clearly specified. If the search engine doesn’t find the exact strand of text that someone programmed it to specifically find, it’s not going to understand.
That is the challenge. Even with the computer’s best intentions, the search engine will misunderstand, and then when Google miscategorizes it, it will end up in the wrong search results or really far down the results like on the third or fourth page.
However, Google and other search industry giants came together and agreed to a common standard. What if there was a way for people to embed code in the back end, that was not visible to anyone casually visiting the site, that could allow the search engine to read it and more easily interpret the contents of the page? That is how structured data emerged. Together, the search industry giants came up with Schema.org: a collaborative, community activity with a mission to create, maintain, and promote schemas for structured data on the internet, on web pages, in email messages, and beyond. Structured data solved the algorithm problem, and because of it, search results now can look so much richer: pictures, ratings, and whatever you want to show off on your website you can code manually into your search results through structured data.
Since people like high-quality and good-looking results, and Google likes it when people are satisfied, the chances of your website being shown after you include structured data increases.
For example, think of a website with recipes. If you add structured data to a page with your recipes, you will be able to tell the search engine directly which picture you want to use, how people have rated it, how much time it takes, how many calories are in it, etc. This will change your search results to make them “richer,” as Google calls it. Rich results have a lot more specifics in them, meaning that people coming to your website will be more satisfied with the results from their search.
As you can see above, the first link did not add structured data to their website, and the second one did. If you don’t add structured data, your search results will be text only. The decision is yours, but for us, it seems pretty obvious which is better. We think it’s a lot more valuable to showcase ratings and pictures vs. just a simple text result. It never hurts to take the steps that will get your website higher on the search engine results page. Using the right structured data can give you an SEO boost.
What does structured data look like?
There are so many types of structured data to choose from, with seemingly unlimited properties for each feature. Structured data has a lot of different code formats that all do different things. Choosing the right structured data code format is crucial to the success of your structured data performance. As stated by Yeast.com, “You have them for books, for reviews, for movies, and for products in your online store, for instance. In all cases, it adds more details to your snippet in the search results. Browse Google’s Search Gallery to see which rich results are powered by structured data.”
Screenshot of code supplied by Google Search Central
Above is what it looks like when you have structured data on a recipe site. Notice that all of these inputs like “This coffee cake is awesome and perfect for parties,” and “Preparation time: 20 minutes” are both searchable, and what users will see in search results. This search result will now be richer, meaning it’s better for the audience, leading to higher SEO.
How does Google currently use structured data?
marketANDgrow is a Google marketing agency, and we like to stay on top of all Google news. So, when preparing your site for Google Search, it is important to know how they currently use their structured data. For what plans they have for the future, see the later section titled “The future of structured data at Google.”
At first, Google made a move toward using machine learning to figure out what content was the most important, rather than requiring the user to manually markup their content. However, as we mentioned earlier, machines are dumb. So obviously, machine learning came with its challenges, and was not the easiest to implement. They found that ultimately, after some time, it was easier for them to just ask business owners to do it themselves since it typically ended up more accurate. When you provide the structured data, it allows Google to know that your information is out there to consume, which feeds into the machine learning and helps the search engine as one variable in an overall calculation.
Despite this, machine learning is not completely gone. Google currently uses a multipronged approach to help supplement its understanding of websites. Firstly, it works for sites that do not use structured data, but Google still wants to show rich results. Be warned it rarely turns out as well as if you were to do it yourself, though. Secondly, it uses it to tag mistakes or abuse, so Google can verify what the page is really saying compared to the structured data. For people trying to exploit the ability to give Google structured data to boost their site in a non-valid way, or people who have not updated their structured data, machine learning can help to verify that the structured data is accurate.
For sites without structured data, the providers still always have the option to provide the data, which will improve accuracy and benefit the provider. In fact, as Levering states in the podcast, “I always see them as working side by side in an ideal world… it’s always good to empower people who are giving you data, to have control over that. So I think it’s really important that structured data, in general, is part of the overall strategy so people can have some control over the content we show.”
What are the best ways to implement structured data as a beginner?
Here at marketANDgrow, we use WordPress to publish our website. WordPress has plugins that you can use that will help you turn your website into structured data more easily. For us, the plugin we use is called “Schema & Structured Data for WP & AMP.”
If you too use WordPress, you are in good hands. That plugin should work for you as it’s an easy tool to use. However, if you use another website service provider, such as Squarespace, contact them to see how they add structured data to your website.
When we need to be extra sure of our search results ending up on the right page, we will go out of our way to Google search and find the right structured data. For example, if marketANDgrow was having an event, we would Google search “Structured data: events” and use the result that came up to code our webpage. We can then put that code behind the webpage for the bot to pick up, and now it will know that our event is on such and such date, at such and such location, during such and such time.
What will happen if I don’t use structured data?
Understanding the importance of structured data can be confusing since the calculations are nuanced and depend on a multitude of factors.
Levering mentions, “If you don’t put structured data on your page, we might be getting it fully correct. So, it’s hard to convey that in some of our reporting and stuff that we actually find this useful. Because it’s a nuanced calculation. But, when there are problems detecting it, we can use it as an extra signal. So it’s usually on the edge cases where we find that stuff useful.”
This means that more data, as long as it reflects the page accurately, is never worse. It’s always better to add more data to clarify what the page content is. Google doesn’t recommend ever removing accurate structured data, even if it is no longer useful since there could be other tools or systems that could use the information.
You might be thinking that structured data is not worth it because you’re unsure of what happens if the site becomes out-of-sync. Will Google penalize a website for not keeping your structured data updated? What if I own an e-commerce site where products and prices are constantly changing? Don’t worry, this shouldn’t be an issue. The algorithm takes into account more than just your structured data, it’s from a database and not completely manual. If you use RDFa or Microdata, generally it is wrapping the content, so it tends to stay more in sync.
The future of structured data at Google
In the near future, Google plans on using structured data to help understand more about the page, rather than just visual treatments. In addition, Google wants to use structured data more universally in their features, rather than just in search.
According to the developer at Google Ryan Levering, long term Google wants to use structured data to change the way its algorithm interprets the data. They would like to move to where they are adjusting more and more data through structured data-specific channels rather than necessarily conveying all of your information on the webpage itself. This is essentially figuring out a cleaner way to do data transfers between data providers. They’re planning to work with large CMS platforms such as Wix or Squarespace so that the structured data is built natively into the platforms and the users do not have to put additional effort into specifying structured data. This way you know Google will get much cleaner data all the way through.
So, should I use structured data?
Yes, certainly! As we said, the more businesses opt-in and see a difference in their search results, the more Google will pivot its focus to including different types of structured data for website owners to implement. It’s not always just visual, as this data has a lot of potential to be used in some unique and amazing ways in the future.
The way we use structured data is continuously changing. Staying updated with Google’s recent news will ensure that everything you publish on your website shows up in the proper search queries. Make sure to scroll down to sign up for our weekly email newsletter, so you will always know the most recent marketing news.