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Organic Search & the Tools for Structured Data Success

Posted on 2.03.2014

:: By Peter Prestipino, Editor-In-Chief ::


Search engine optimization professionals are forced to place a great deal of faith in the digital marketing powers that be, trusting that the guidance they so graciously provide is going to lead to a better experience for search engine users, as well as better results overall for themselves and for the most part, trusting in the system has worked quite well.

Reacting to each and every move of Google and Bing, however, isn’t always the best course of action as these search engines must also evolve (sometimes quickly) in response to market developments, which often seems to happen without much in the way of warning. The problem is that any move they make can absolutely destroy search marketing efforts if you’re not paying close attention.


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SEOs, for example, have spent a lot of time, energy and resources over the past few years implementing schema.org’s data markup standards on their own websites — within ratings/ reviews, product listings, profiles, events and the like — only to find in some instances that their marked up listings on the search results pages have almost entirely vanished. So what’s going on?

SEOs started noticing that authorship markup in particular was being “dialed back” as long ago as April 2013 (likely as a result of some over aggressive use by spammers). Recent developments (specifically Matt Cutts speaking at Pubcon in late 2013), however, highlighted the scope of the issue and made clear what Internet professionals can expect in the coming months/year — change.

Cutts essentially suggested that in the next few months rich snippets (particularly those for authorship) could receive a revamp and will likely be dialed back on a number of websites — by as much as 15 percent. More credible websites will likely continue receiving the rich snippet treatment, while less reputable ones will see theirs removed but count on this: in the future (perhaps the very near future) Google will be tightening the qualifications for earning one of these rich results.

So should you and your SEO team abandon its semantic markup and rich snippet initiatives? Not in the least. While the practice can be abused, they have never been proven to influence the position of a website on the search results anyway. Google’s requirements for being a trusted authority will likely increase in stringency, but the advantage of using rich snippets is in their ability to differentiate a site on the sometimes crowded/muddled search results. That alone should be reason enough to continue leveraging these supplementary forms of data within your website code.

 

Open the Structured Data Toolbox for SEO

The role of an SEO is to make sure that a website can be crawled and understood by the search engines. Their mission is one of adding value — connecting users to information and resources — as well as increasing visibility. That’s the way ROI is achieved in the modern search marketing landscape. Without question, one of the most powerful means to actually do that — and increase qualified organic search traffic in the process — is to leverage structured data. The previously outlined benefit should be obvious (that it can still play a significant role in helping your listing stand out against the competition) so it’s definitely something you’ll need to convince others within your enterprise to pay more attention to in the future. So how can you get started?

Website Magazine published a detailed starter guide to structured data (wsm.co/semanticcourse) back in April 2013 and nothing has really changed about the actual markup structure since that time — making it a useful resource even now. What has evolved (and improved) are the tools and resources available to Internet professionals that help them make the most of this SEO tactic.

The first step that search engine optimization professionals should take is to familiarize themselves with the Structured Data Dashboard in Webmaster tools (initially released in 2012). It’s one of the most valuable features available on the platform and it just keeps getting better. For example, in mid-Dec. 2013, Google announced that webmasters can now see items that have errors in the dashboard. For those that haven’t spent the last few years tweaking their pages and are only now jumping on the schema. org bandwagon, fear not, because there are some powerful tools at your disposal as well.

Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper for example, eases the trials many face in actually creating structured markup. The tool can be used to markup website data for articles, events, book reviews, local businesses, movies, products, restaurants, software applications, TV episodes (with ratings) and even includes several email markup options. In the case of Google, this will enable Gmail users to perform actions like setting up reminders.

Once a category is chosen and a valid URL is entered, the Web page is loaded and webmasters can highlight specific item properties they want to showcase by using a simple point-and-click method. If an item is unable to be highlighted, which is common with images, it is possible to enter the data manually. Once all the appropriate item properties are included, a user clicks on the red “Create HTML” button and the marked up HTML code is generated.

The Google Data Highlighter is another tool that can be found within the Webmaster Tools platform. Similar to the Structured Data Markup Helper, the tool does not require any actual modification of a Web page’s HTML code. The Data Highlighter tool is essentially a visual editor for structured markup, enabling authorized site owners to add rich snippets to Web pages by, in effect, teaching Google the structure of their websites. Previously, this had to be hand coded and added to pages on an individual basis.

To tell the Data Highlighter which pages on a site contain data (data that can be used for rich snippets that appear on the search results), webmasters must create one or more “page sets.” These are a collection of pages on a site that will display data consistently (possibly generated from the same template) and are organized so that URLs follow a simple pattern. Keep in mind that the Data Highlighter can only access pages that have recently been crawled by Google. If Google has not or cannot crawl pages, such as those behind sign-in forms, the Data Highlighter can’t be used for those pages.

Should you actually choose to go it alone, do make sure that you leverage Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool as well, which allows users to check the markup in a live environment to ensure it can be read properly by Google and other engines. Testing will show how structured markup will appear and how it enhances a listing, enabling you to diagnose errors and make corrections quickly.

Search’s Future

Structured data is the future of search engine optimization but it has a long way to go, from the perspective of the search engines and for websites as well. Make structured data a priority in your organization and you’ll enjoy the benefits of doing so for years to come.

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