Everything You Need to Know about Structured Data in 1200(ish) Words.

Structured data, the HTML tags that identify certain categories of information in a web site, is not a new concept. For many years the various discrete subparts of a webpage were tagged with <Head>, <Body>, and the like to indicate to browsers which parts went where. Known as Meta-Tags, these descriptors where used to label images and implant keywords into a site. However, over the last few years, the breadth of structured data has increased dramatically to include tags for authorship, image, content type (article, review, product, etc.), and much more. While still technically dependent on the Meta-Tag paradigm, structured data is much deeper and no longer limited to mere keyword association. More importantly, search engines have recently begun to track and incorporate structured data tags into search results in order to improve the accessibility of those results to readers. Most of you have probably noticed that a relevant Google search now often returns results that include an author’s picture, a product rating, or a clickable Youtube video directly in the Search Results page. This is made possible by the increased use of structured data tags and the importance of this kind of result is growing.

Many of these changes are very recent and understanding how to properly implement the applicable tags into a web page is difficult due to the rapidly advancing nature of the available schemes. What’s worse, figuring out exactly what kind of impact the various tags will have sometimes seems next to impossible. Even notable industry experts sometimes trip up, particularly with regard to staying inside Google’s often nebulous Terms of Service guidelines. While Google has been very clear about their drive to improve the quality of internet content (at least the content they return in search results), implementing that advice on a page level basis can be challenging given Google’s policy of refraining from long lists of “do nots.”

Unfortunately, while there are a great number of articles flying around that purport to explain structured data, the majority of them seem to fall into one of two classes: the vague, and the highly-technical. While each has its place, most of these articles are either for practitioners who are familiar with HTML coding or for content producers who barely even know how to spell HTML. This is understandable given the relatively complex relationships operating behind the scenes of structured data, but we’d like to attempt some clarity on the topic.

What is Structured Data?

In a nutshell, structured data is a collection of HTML tags that can be applied to webpage content for the purpose of identifying critical components of that content. This can include such things as the author of an article, the date of an article, the primary image on a page, an important video file embedded in content, a product description, a product rating, and much more. These tags are supposed to be universal, a new language if you will. Naturally, there are at least three major tagging schemes, all of which are currently supported by Yahoo, Google, and Bing. To make matters worse, HTML 5 (the newest iteration of website programing language) is upon us, bringing its own complications and Google has specifically indicated a preference for only one of the available tag schemes. If your head is spinning, you’re in good company. We’ll leave it at this for our article, but please visit here for details on structured data schemes.

Structured data has a great many uses. In addition to helping other software “understand” the context and meaning of your data, structured data helps search engines “view” website content (which is our primary interest in this article). For the last few years, the stated thrust of new development at Google search was to view the web as end-users did in an effort to produce the best possible results; results a human (with infinite knowledge) would return for their own search. Part of this development simply involves a new way of displaying search results, but underneath those displays is an ongoing effort to build a search engine that “understands” web content. As a result, Google can now return more interactive and conversational kinds of information; directly in a search results page. The following is an example of the way Google can now display a venue’s upcoming events right from Google’s home page.

In another salient example, Google shows ratings, cook time, and images all directly in a search results page giving users a better overview of the content they are about to utilize. Which result below looks more attractive to you?

While no search engine has yet achieved human level interpretation of web content (though I think they might soon, possibly within this decade), doing so seems to be Google’s goal. While their dark-room engineers work on that, they looked to simpler shortcuts to presenting human like search results right now. One of these is structured data. In essence the tags and categories provided by structured data give content developers a way to inform the search engines about the type of content presented on a page, which in turns enables the search engine to return that information to end-users.

Complex relationships

However, this definition of structured data is deceptively simple. Ostensibly, Google is not currently incorporating structured data directly into their search algorithm (though we warn you that their algorithm changes frequently). However, because Google’s search results explicitly incorporate social sharing, content quality signals, and presentation into their results, it’s a good bet that adding structured data to your site is a good long-term strategy. By properly labeling your content, you place your website solidly within the social sharing mechanism. It’s not a catch all, of course, because good content is still king, but good content that no one can find is about as irrelevant as no content at all.

To further complicate the situation, structured data that is properly picked up by the search engines and (at least in the case of Google) directly displayed on search results pages dramatically improves the visibility of your search listing. This in turn helps to drive your click through rate which ultimately improves your site’s organic search traffic. In other words, while Google says they won’t rank you higher just because you incorporate structured data tags into your HTML, readers will inherently rank you higher when they are choosing among the many results most searches return.

A note about mobile

There is one more aspect of structure data that’s worth mentioning; mobile users. At least one industry expert has called on mobile aware content to begin incorporating the summaries and organization provided by structured data tagging schemes when displaying content to mobile browsers. While early in development, this application seems like an obvious way to make broader use of structured data (especially given that many sites are now spending the money to build the tagging into their content anyway). It’s just one more reason to jump on the bandwagon.

Spammers Beware

However, as with all things Google, quality reigns supreme over quantity. Attempts to game the system, even out of a seemingly innocent desire to simply obtain the legitimate benefit of enhanced search listings, will not be tolerated. Google has made clear that they have the will and capacity to manually delist sites that don’t play nice. Our advice, don’t even try. If you’re not 110% sure that the way in which you’re using structured data is for the benefit of end-users, don’t bother. Like with content development, writing your site for Google (as opposed to for humans) is almost always a very bad idea.

What’s next?

Now that we’ve (hopefully) both explained the gist of structured data to you, and convinced you that you need to start using it, you’re probably wondering what to do next. To this end, we’d like to point you to some valuable resources that can help you get started with structured data on your site. Of course, it’s something we can build in on your behalf, but we understand that many of you want to better understand the subject for yourselves and we’re happy to oblige.

For a very high-level overview of the kinds of results structured data can provide, see here.

For details on how to make use of the many great tools Google offers to content developers, start here.

If you still need help, please don’t hesitate to contact us for more information.

Editor

Kjeld Lindsted Kjeld Lindsted
Content Architecture, Copywriting, and Editing
Full Bio >


Recent Articles

Did the “PC” Really Die?

Who Needs Net Neutrality Anyway?

Rise of the Visual Web

Microsoft Is Retiring Windows XP This Year

Email Marketing Part V: Back to basics

Mobile Is King: But you knew that already

Website v. Web Presence

Password Strength and Quality: How to build, and use, a password that holds


Tools



Topics

Security
Marketing
Coding and Design
e-Commerce, Privacy, and Legal
Hosting and Technology
OC Updates and Announcements
New Projects