Major search engine results are not the flat list of ten links that they once were. With the rapid evolution and addition of paid media, semantic search, knowledge graphs, predictive search, etc., search has come a long way toward providing a one-stop shop for all types of users. Google in particular is leading the pack in what Product Management Director Johanna Wright describes as “moving from an information engine to a knowledge engine.”
Through all of these changes and much to the chagrin of SEOs everywhere, the major concern of almost every business owner remains the same: snagging the top search result, or at least a position within the top three. However, in highly competitive markets, verticals dominated by major brands (think Delta or Target), or searches where search engines place higher significance on knowledge resources or aggregate listings, ranking number one isn’t always a possibility or even a necessity.
So, how can websites generate interest without ranking number one?
Creating rich snippets through structured data
Structured data is a method of marking up HTML to better inform search engines as well as users about the contents of a site; thereby diminishing bounce rates, improving visibility in search results and even boosting click through rates and qualified traffic.
Rich snippets benefit all parties: websites ultimately enjoy better opportunities for clicks in organic search, search engines utilize SEOs and webmasters to help create more relevant results, and consumers are better able to locate their query quickly and easily.
Rich snippets are particularly useful for businesses that are in a highly competitive industry, since they can make up for being disadvantaged in search rankings with a more attention-grabbing appearance in search.
While rich snippets don’t officially affect rankings, at a recent SES conference in Atlanta, NexTraq VP of Marketing, Wyn Partington, described the company’s success with implementing structured data. He cited noticeable ranking increases in Google within the first few weeks of a large scale integration.
Whether or not the increases in rankings resulted from increased quality signals will remain Google’s little secret for now, but tracking rankings on marked up pages vs. similar non-marked up pages is a worthwhile experiment for webmasters to determine the worth of a structured data campaign.
Despite the benefits of structured data, Prominent Placement’s SEO and Analytics Manager, Aaron Abbot, explained at the same conference that only 3 percent of sites are currently using marked up HTML. That means 97 percent of sites out there are not offering search engines additional perspective about their relevancy to search queries.
Structured data is a largely unmined but valuable opportunity for brand sites to capitalize on as a distinct advantage over competitors in a given market share. Someday, the remaining 97 percent will wake up and jump aboard, so the time to implement structured data for rich snippets is now.
There are several types of content that can be marked up with the above code, including:
- TV episodes
- Software applications
- Book reviews
- URL structure
The list is constantly evolving.
Depending on the content type and level of comfort marking up data, there are three forms of HTML markup language endorsed by the major search engines that can be used to populate rich snippets in the search results:
2. Microdata (Google recommended)
Use of each format depends on content type and one’s level of comfort marking up data. The big conundrum for SEOs has traditionally been which one is the best to choose. However, In June 2011, major search engines made the choice a lot easier.
Google, Bing, Yahoo, Yandex and others came together to decide on a shared markup language, or schema, that webmasters can use to mark up HTML. Schema.org is based on microdata, which Google described as a fair balance between “the extensibility of RDFa and the simplicity of microformats.”
While brand sites can continue to implement RDFa or microformats, the wisest and simplest solution for most is to align with the language endorsed by search engines.
There is a plethora of tools and resources available to developers for implementing structured data, although some are more convoluted than others. A great starting point for implementing structured data is to use the Structured Data Markup Helper housed under “Other Resources” in Google’s webmaster tools. Choose the content that you want to work up, like a blog post.
1. Select the item type from the list offered in Google’s Markup helper. Bear in mind that this tool is limited in functionality so you may not be able to thoroughly mark up every piece of content with webmaster tools alone.
2. Enter the URL of the page you want to mark up.
3. Highlight the data, and select the relevant tags. Click “Create HTML” in the upper right hand corner, and Google Webmaster Tools will generate HTML code with the microdata markup that website owners or developers can then add to the relevant page. It’ll look a little something like this:
As easy as Google’s Markup helper is, it is also fairly limited in terms of its reach: it covers just ten types of broad data, while there is a massive dictionary of markup for all types of service and product pages, from medical procedures to pawn shops. Webmasters can use schema.org to locate their industry’s specific markup language for the most effective, thorough HTML markup per landing page. The following language, however, exists across the board:
While major search engines work together to create a universal language for structured data, none of them guarantee that they will use your site’s rich snippets in search results.
In fact, Google just recently stopped using author images alongside author rank in search results. While Google Authorship isn’t exactly populated via HTML markup, it is a rich snippet feature in search that suddenly became unavailable. Google is fickle, so no strategy is ever guaranteed to last or even provide definitive results.
Lastly, this wouldn’t be an SEO article if it didn’t include a nod to the conspiracy theorists out there. There are some that worry that marking sites up with structured data just feeds into Google’s plan to gather and hoard all information so that users never click through to sites at all, instead relying on Google entirely. It’s fairly unlikely that this scenario will ever be a reality, but even if it is, SEOs and webmasters should remember that evolving is always the right answer and stagnancy is always the wrong one when it comes to optimizing websites for qualified traffic.