I recently received a question from a reader asking about the way search engines were using microformats and other forms of structured markup.

Today, I am going to address that topic from the perspective of its impact on SEO. What is particularly interesting about this topic is that structured markup provides publishers a way to provide the search engines information about their website(s).

One of the original ways of doing that was with metatags. Unfortunately, these were so badly abused by spammers that Google stopped using it as a ranking signal. Google finally stated this publicly in this post in 2009, which notes that “Google has ignored the keywords meta tag for years and currently we see no need to change that policy.”

Google continues to indicate that markup is not used as a ranking signal: “Google doesn’t use markup for ranking purposes at this time.” However, there are important SEO benefits to using markup, and I will explore these in today’s column.

Markup In Search Results

The first benefit is that you can impact the appearance of your search listings, creating what we call a “rich snippet.” Here is an example of rich snippets in the search results, as shown on a search for one of my favorite recipes, loc lac:

The presence of the stars in the search listing will tend to draw the human eye and increase the click-through rate for those results. These modified listings are a result of the use of markup in the source code for the webpages.

The next two screen shots will give you a view as to what the code is for the first of the two search results. The first screen shot shows a piece of the hrecipe format (which is a type of Microformat) that includes the code for specifying the breadcrumb links:

Looking farther down in the hrecipe format, we get a look at the code which shows an implementation of a review (in the hreview-aggregate tag) and also shows the cook time for the recipe:

You will see additional elements included in the markup as well. My purpose in showing you this is not to try to teach you the coding details, but to illustrate the connection between the use of publisher tagged data and an impact on the search results.

There are many more examples of rich snippets and a discussion of different types of markup here. You can see information on microdata, microformats and RDFa, as well as the types of categories supported by Google. Some of the more common types of markup are:

In June, Google announced support for the “rel=author”, which is another form of markup. This adds the author’s picture in the search results next to search listings for the articles they have written.

Implementing this is not simple, but you can read an excellent article on how to implement rel=author here. Here is an example of what this looks like in the search results:

It’s About Click-Through Rates

One thing I have learned (over and over again!) in my time as an Internet marketer is that a morass of boring text is … well, boring. The eye is drawn to search listings that look different.

Images, such as result from rel=author, or the asterisks in the recipes (you can also get pictures in your recipes as well) do wonders, but any level of difference that breaks up the 10 blue links will do great things for you.

As a result, your click-through rate will go up, and this will bring you more qualified visitors, and that is, after all, what SEO is all about.

In addition, if you believe (as I do) that click-through rate and search results interaction is a ranking factor (you can see what Bing’s Duane Forrester had to say about Click-Through Rates and Search Rankings here), then this starts to sound like a double win.

You get higher CTR without changing your ranking; and provided that the user does not simply bounce back to the search results and click another listing, you get higher rankings to boot.

How do I reconcile this belief with Google’s statement that they don’t use markup as a ranking factor? Actually, there is no conflict there. I believe that they use CTR as a ranking factor, not the markup itself.

Remember, Google is often quite literal in the way they express things. The influence in rankings is indirect, so their statement would still be true.

Enter Schema.org

On June 2, Bing, Google and Yahoo announced the launch of Schema.org. This is markup based on the microdata specification. Google indicates that the reason the companies chose microdata over other types of markup such as microformats and RDFa is:

Instead of having webmasters decide between competing formats, we’ve decided to focus on just one format for Schema.org. In addition, a single format will improve consistency across search engines relying on the data. There are arguments to be made for preferring any of the existing standards, but we’ve found that microdata strikes a balance between the extensibility of RDFa and the simplicity of microformats, so this is the format that we’ve gone with.

I don’t think that the search engines will end their support for the other formats any time soon, but the weight of their attention will shift to Schema.org (microdata), and as a publisher your attention should shift in that direction too. As they add support for new rich snippets, that will most certainly focus on the microdata approach since they can all count on each other to support the same format.

Summary

I am bullish on adding support for Schema.org markup in your content, particularly in those cases where it is already known to be supported. The click-through rate benefits are enough to make this effort worthwhile.

If you have content that fits a format that is not yet supported by rich snippets, you may want to wait and invest your development effort elsewhere, but I would move quickly once support is announced.

I am excited that Google, Bing and Yahoo are all involved in Schema.org. When the search engines band together to define a standard, it is a major sign that something is here to stay, and that it is important. This makes it a more interesting area for us as publishers to invest effort into.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Enterprise SEO | Google: Rich Snippets | Schema.org

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About The Author: is the president of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy outside of Boston. Eric publishes a highly respected interview series and can be followed on Twitter at @stonetemple.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.getfoundfirst.com Matt Dyer

    Great post. In regards to your comment in your third paragraph: “One of the original ways of doing that was with metatags. Unfortunately, these were so badly abused by spammers that Google stopped using it as a ranking signal.”

    While Google doesn’t recognize the meta keywords tag anymore, metatags are still very important when it comes to SEO. The title tag and meta description are still very important. Just wanted to clarify that.

  • http://mklofurno mklofurno

    Hi Eric,

    Nice article. I have two rich snippet projects running here. One for products on our e-commerce sites and one for events on our event sites.

    As you know, the problem many times is the rich snippet testing tool itself and the fact that the engines don’t always show your rich snippet even if its constructed correctly.

    Frankly, we have had a tough time implementing the product snippet. We have tried microformats, microdata and RFDa and we still can’t get it to work in the rich snippet testing tool.

    We have not tried to implement the event snippet yet. I have the ticket in for a project currently and its getting cued up. The thing here for us is that the information about the event is on two different pages [complete information]. i.e. the event snippet markup is made for a page that has all the information about that event on it.

    Since we regularly create event sites [think search engine land SMX event]; our event site design does not have us having all the information needed on one page for the event snippet mark up. We are going to make modifications to the site, but I wanted to share some of what we are facing.

    I have tried banging on google’s door in the web master center forum but to no avail…I wish you folks at search engine land would write a series of articles [how tos] for each of the product types. That might help immensely.

    Thanks and always a fan. Mary Kay Lofurno

  • http://www.bazaarvoice.com naja2183

    Thanks Eric! I just found this page and tweeted it to @seland but you may find it useful for identifying issues with Rich Snippets markup: http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=1093493

    This page is a great step for Google to be more transparent about Rich Snippets. I work with quite a few merchants, and Google’s posts about Rich Snippets have been pretty confusing. Often they indicate that structured markup is similar to other meta tags like the title tag – once you add the title tag, you typically see it in your search results (even that is changing these days). However, with Rich Snippets, I have found that even with the markup present, the timeline to turn on any sort of snippet is indefinite.

  • http://ozerkavak.blogspot.com özer kavak

    Thanks for this article.

    In real life, there are two main problems about structured mark-up and displaying rich snippets.
    First one is; there is no enough information / how-to documents about marking-up structured data.
    Second one is, there is no clear guide about Google rich snippet testing tool & showing rich snippets on SERP’s.

    I have a small-sized furniture manufacturing company in Turkey. I’ve tested Drupal7 Joomla1.5 and Joomla 1.7. I’ve used XHTML and html5. I’ve marked up with RDFa, microdata and microformats. I’ve used Goodrelations, schema.org and some other vocabularies.

    After two years, i’ve noticed two main points:
    * Even if Google suggests us to use schema.org, supports RDFa etc, rich snippets on SERPs (and on testing tool) do not display a product image since i do not use “data-vocabulary.org/Review-aggregate” mark-up with microdata. For example, if you use “http://schema.org/AggregateRating”, it will just display stars… To display a product image on SERP is very important for CTR especially for a furniture company.

    Example is “http://www.nestingo.com/zigon-sehpalar/3-roma-zigon-sehpa.html”, Rich snippet testing tool result can be found here: “http://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/richsnippets?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nestingo.com%2Fzigon-sehpalar%2F3-roma-zigon-sehpa.html&view=”

    * Even if Rich snippet testing tool displays images, stars, price, stock status etc, Mostly SERP does not. Google says: “no guarantee, may or may not…”. No clear information. Google probably does not display rich snippets if number of pages are limited or if the page is in Turkish etc.

    For a small company, effort to add structured markup correctly may be time-consuming (expensive). But for what?

    I am interested in semantic web. I’ve marked up my online data in detail by using RDFa. i’ve customized core components of CMS, i’ve overcome validation and other issues (on three different websites and over 300 pages). But no rich snippet displayed on SERP’s in two years (i’ve made several mistakes too.)

    Ironically, i’ve removed almost all structured markup from my pages and used limited “data-vocabulary.org” properties to display a product image on rich snippet testing tool :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sharon-Chatterjee/100003584274601 Sharon Chatterjee

    hi can u help me create a rich snippet for my website

  • Joe Francis

    Hi Eric,

  • Paul Naybour

    Hi

    Nice post, we have had some success with event markup using a Joomla site. We did a test page and this was pricked up quite quickly and looks very good in search results, as its in the top half of page one. Since proving the concept we have marked up the rest of our event pages. However after two weeks we are still waiting to see the results. It all seems to work in the rich snippet testing tool. I just submitted it to ask Google to include the rich snippets form our site using.  http://support.google.com/webmasters/bin/request.py?&contact_type=rich_snippets_feedback

    I hope this works?

 

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