Why Should Business Owners Care About Structured Data?

A: Because it will improve how you show up in search engines.

I have been working with structured data since 2004, and can get pretty excited about it, but truth be told, the typical business owner doesn’t need to geek out like I do. All the business owner needs to know is:

Structured Data is specific code added to your website that can help your business appear better in search results, whether those results are on Google, Bing, Yahoo, Facebook, Instagram, or even voice search platforms like Siri, Google Now, Cortana, or Alexa.

Cool. How does it do that?
Well, Structured Data is a way to translate your content — which is written for a human audience (at least it should be) — into machine-interpretable form. That way, machines (i.e. search engines) can understand your content and match it to search user queries.

Questions you should ask yourself:

  • What do potential customers see in search results when they search for you, your brand, or your products and services?
  • Do they see a plain blue link or do they see extra goodies like your logo, photos, videos, starred reviews, social media icons, product details, menu items, and contact information?
  • Do search engines and social media sites really understand what your web site is about or do you get weird search matches for your business? I once worked with a conference organizer who got weekly inquiry calls about renting conference space. He worked from his bedroom, so that wasn’t going to work out.
  • Do search engines understand your product service details like price, description, images, and product variants (color, size, etc.)?
  • Does your SEO strategy involve trying to “trick” search engines with extra keywords and a bunch of random backlinks only to end up attracting visitors who never convert to paying customers?
  • If you ARE implementing Structured Data, are you doing so using a plug-in? (Spoiler Alert: DON’T!)

So, this structured data thing. How did it start?

In 2011, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft (Bing), made a joint announcement at a conference I was running. That these three big companies made any kind of joint announcement was HUGE — they had quietly worked behind closed doors for over a year on a project and then got that project approved by their various company management teams, marketing, and press offices.

And what they announced was even MORE exciting…

In a nutshell they said, “Web publishers of the world, website owners, developers, we have developed a set of terms that you can use to describe your content. We will be looking for this marked-up content when we crawl the web, and when we find it, we will do interesting things with it!”

The project, schema.org, got a huge response when it was announced at the conference, and I was fortunate to have a front row seat as the project grew and stabalized. Over the years, I have even contributed to the vocabulary, improving it as my clients’ needs demanded different terminology.

Because these initial schema.org sponsor companies were competitors, they wouldn’t state publicly WHAT exactly they would do with the marked-up content, but they have made good on that promise to do interesting things and then some! Today, this markup is leveraged to display rich search results for a wide range of content types, and the search engines keep adding to the many ways they use Structured Data. See how Google uses structured data: https://developers.google.com/search/docs/guides/search-gallery.

“Structured data. This is one of those things that I want you to pay lots of attention to this year.

We launched a bunch of search features that are based on structured data. It was badges on image search, jobs was another thing, job search, recipes, movies, local restaurants, courses and a bunch of other things that rely solely on structured data, schema.org annotations. It is almost like we started building lots of new features that rely on structured data, kind of like we started caring more and more and more about structured data. That is an important hint for you if you want your sites to appear in search features — implement structured data.“
Gary Illyes, Google (at Pubcon, November 2017)

Today, schema.org is being sought out, published, and consumed by search engines and platforms such as Apple’s iOS, Google Now, Cortana, Instagram, Windows 10, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, IMDb, YouTube, and many other systems.

So how do you go about adding structured data?

[GEEK ALERT!]: There are various syntaxes and techniques that can be used to add custom structured data to your website (Microdata, RDFa, JSON-LD). When and how to use one or another depends on your use case.

Many in the SEO world use plug-ins to add the code automatically, but there’s a problem with that — you’re losing human curation. Huh? Think about it this way: Structured Data is a way to translate human-understandable content into machine interpretable content. The plug-in approach puts a machine in the role of interpretor. Having a machine translate your content for machines is not a reliable approach for sending accurate signals to search engines.

Our method puts human brains to the translation task, ensuring that the meaning of your content, its intent and its context, all come through in the strong signals we send to search engines.

When it comes to Structured Data and schema.org, we have been there since the beginning, and were implementing Structured Data in client websites as early as 2009, two years before schema.org launched.

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