Pimp-up search engine results with Schema.org semantic markup – before your competitors do

SEO and Schema.org presentation at SMX München, 29 March 2012 (Photo: Jan Kutschera)

Note: this article is based on my SEO and Schema.org presentation at SMX München, 29 March 2012. It is also available in Italian and German.

For all too long search results have comprised 10 sad blue links together with a summary and an URL. Over time search engines began to display other types of objects, such as images and videos, in search results, but web document display remained neglected.

Now what if a search engine could display additional information from a web page to help a user better decide if a particular search result is the right one for them? Well actually, they can.

Figure 1: 10 sad blue links

In 2008 Yahoo began to use structured data available in some web pages to enhance search results. Google followed suit in 2009 with what they call rich snippets. Sites which add a bit of extra code, known as microformats or microdata, to the data which appears in their html web pages enable search engines to improve the quality of the displayed search result excerpts. The best way to do that is by using a standard called Schema.org, but we’ll come back to this after looking at some examples which may be pertinent to your business.

Rich snippet search results examples

Figure 2: Event rich snippet for Herbert Grönemeyer’s 2012 tour

Rich snippets are available for many types of data. In this example we see concert dates for Herbert Grönemeyer’s 2012 tour. Events are also applicable to business events like meetings, seminars and conferences.

Figure 3: Ratings and reviews rich snippets in Google search results

Almost any product or service can take advantage of user ratings. Reviews, when authentic, can be even more useful in stimulating sales, assuming the product or service is worthy of good reviews!

Figure 4: Breadcrumb navigation & people profiles

Technical URLs become user-friendly breadcrumb navigation. People profiles become more personal.

Figure 5: Product details can be specified with microdata markup

E-commerce sites may want to mark-up their products for rich snippets. Yet in many cases it may be more beneficial to send search engines product feeds rather than adding markup to product pages – or do both, as long as the two are consistent. In Europe, Bing, though its ciao.com division, charges for the privilege. Do note that Google’s documentation says that rich snippet product markup is initially used for results on Google.com.

Figure 6. Pumpkin pie rich snippets, including cooking time

Ah, wouldn’t a piece of pumpkin pie be nice right now! Recipes are a popular search topic, and an opportunity for the food industry. In the first example we see cooking time.

Video meta data can be provided with Schema.org markup, but as with products, some search engines may accept video sitemaps which may be a better option.

Figure 7. Music tracks displayed on google.com

Audio tracks can also be marked up, although currently Google only recognizes audio markup for sites in English on Google.com

Figure 8. Google’s sports statistics experiment

Google has experimented with sport statistics in the USA.

By now it should be clear that rich snippets enjoy applicability to a wide variety of business sectors.

Its like walking into a gelateria with 28 flavors: there’s something for everyone.

Search engines which support Rich Snippets & Schema.org

Figure 9: Who recognizes Rich Snippets?

All the major search engines recognize rich snippets to one degree or another. Google is by far the furthest along in embracing rich snippets.

Figure 10: Ratings displayed in a search in Bing Germany.

Bing does support rich snippets, what they call tiles, internationally, but it appears that support is currently limited to very authoritative sites. Stefan Weitz, Bing Director of Search, told me that bing is cautiously embracing Schema.org markup due to two primary issues. Firstly, there is a limited number of sites which have actually implemented schema.org markup. Secondly, many of the early adopters are spammers.

Rich snippets advantages

Website owners gain multiple advantages by adding semantic markup of structured data to their web pages. The most obvious is the opportunity to provide more information to the person who has to select one of many search results. This will help better pre-qualify clicks.

A second advantage is to stand out from the crowd in the search results. The enhanced results also take up more space in search results and usually attract more clicks. More clicks is a positive ranking signal, as long as the user bounce rate doesn’t increase (we’re more concerned about quick bounces, than long time on page bounces). Since search users have more information to decide whether to click or out, the bounce rate for search traffic should actually decrease.

As competitors add microdata markup to their sites as well, the initial advantages of schema.org markup will diminish.

Rich snippets disadvantages

The display of “too much” information in search results could actually dissuade users from clicking. Carefully consider what information should be displayed.

Use of semantic web markup will allow others to automatically retrieve, or scrape, data from your pages – a particular concern in the case of valuable proprietary information. Additional page markup will increase page load times, although this is a minimal concern if compression is enabled on the web server.

Enabling rich snippets will incur some development costs, although they shouldn’t be dramatic.

Prerequisites for rich snippets

To enable rich snippets, a site needs to have access to the required data in a structured format, otherwise it won’t be feasible to correctly apply markup.

Schema.org markup requires changes to a website – sometimes a problem for companies with contractual or other issues which impede site changes.

Finally, search engines will only display semantic markup from sites they regard as trustworthy. A new site launched yesterday should not expect rich snippets to appear any time soon.

The many rich snippets standards

Figure 11: The many rich snippets standards

Multiple standards exist to add semantic markup to web pages, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Initially search engines supported three primary standards: RDFa, microformats and microdata.

Search Engines Google, bing, Yahoo & Yandex unite behind Schema.org

Figure 12: Search engines unite behind one standard, schema.org.

Concern that competing standards would hinder semantic web adoption led major search engines to launch schema.org in June 2011, just like their common support for sitemaps.org in 2006; the common look of the two sites isn’t coincidental!

For web marketers, common support of a semantic markup standard by major search engines is truly fantastic.

Schema.org “Impostors” – lists and tables

Figure 13: Schema.org Impostors – lists and tables

Some search results seem to include schema.org structured mark-up, but they’re really “impostors”. The first type you may run across are lists and tables, which Google introduced in August 2011. The tell-tale sign is the label “50+ Items” where 50 represents the number of items in the list or table.

Schema.org “Impostors” – authorship attribution

Figure 14: Schema.org Impostors – authorship attribution

Also in the summer of 2011 Google began to allow article authors to provide additional information in their search results. Unfortunately Google has tied authorship attribution to Google+ in order to promote Google+ rather than to support independent Schema.org markup, and other authoritative author profile pages such as those of LinkedIn or Twitter.

Schema.org implementation best practices, direct from the trenches!

A few Schema.org best practices follow, based on first hand experience,

  • The schema.org documentation contains examples for many definitions – make sure you scroll to the bottom of the page, otherwise you might not see them.
  • Only a small subset of schemas are currently implemented by search engines. Consult their documentation and look for working examples in search results to see what is really supported..
  • Review search engine documentation to try to understand the minimum data elements required.
  • While examples may use lots of “div” tags, you can actually use other html elements such as <span>, <em>, <strong> or <li> as appropriate.
  • <meta> and <link> tags can be used for data which shouldn’t or cannot be displayed. Do note that search engines frown on hidden text and might not display this data in search results.
  • The <time> tag should be used for dates and times
  • Test implemented code using one or more of the validation tools from Google, Bing and Yandex.
  • You can notify Google once you’ve implemented schema.org markup. Ostensibly this enables them to contact you should there be problems with your markup
  • Schema.org is extendable, but there’s little point in doing this if the result won’t be officially supported by search engines.
  • Pages should use the html5 DOCTYPE.<!DOCTYPE html> to correctly pass W3C validation. While validation isn’t strictly necessary for SEO, poorly coded pages may pose problems for browser rendering and search engine indexers.

Good Spam and bad Spam

Figure 15. Two types of Spam

If by spam you mean the American canned ham or the related Monty Python sketch, you’ll be fine. Avoid the temptation to spam search engines using schema.org markup, especially if your marketing efforts are anything but short term..

How long do I have to wait to see Rich Snippets appear?

Once schema.org markup has been added to a page, the page will need to be re-crawled by the search engines before rich snippets could appear. Search engines will consider how authoritative the website is. Display also depends on the query. Some schema.org types are only displayed in English search results on Google.com, such as those for Music, Products and Sport.

Will Schema.org help search engine ranking?

Google says that schema.org markup doesn’t impact ranking, although greater click-through should improve ranking over time.

Schema.org and CMS’ like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal

Schema.org support can be facilitated with extensions for major web software products such as WordPress, Joomla, Drupal and IBM Websphere. Do note that the maturity of schema.org support varies across these platforms – no warranty supplied!.

Rich snippets and schema.org resources

For further information, consult these resources – or contact us if you’d like to talk about training or consulting.

View the entire slide set from my SMX Munich 2012 presentation.

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About Sean Carlos

Sean Carlos is a digital marketing consultant & teacher, assisting companies with their Search (SEO + SEA = SEM), Social Media & Digital Media Analytics strategies. Sean first worked with text indexing in 1990 in a project for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Since then he worked for Hewlett-Packard Consulting and later as IT Manager of a real estate website before founding Antezeta in 2006. Sean is an official instructor of the Digital Analytics Association and collaborates with the Bocconi University. He is Chairman of the SMX Search and Social Media Conference, 12 & 13 November in Milan. He is also a co-author of the Treccani encyclopedic dictionary of computer science, ICT & digital media. Born in Providence, RI, USA, Sean received Honors in Physics from Bates College, Maine. He speaks English, Italian and German.

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