The Structured Data Brouhaha At SMX East: Clarifying Contentious Issues

If you attended the Structured Data Superstars session at SMX East earlier this month, you probably witnessed a very brief interchange between myself and Googler Pierre Far at the end of the session. Pierre woke everyone up by stating that some of the semantic markup recommendations I’d presented would be considered “spam” by Google.

It was quite a gut-clencher for me, particularly because it was so completely unexpected — and because I’ve long considered myself a fairly conservative, white-hat sort of search marketer. Not the reception I was aiming for by a long shot!

I asked for specifics, and he stated that there were two areas of recommendation involving reviews and ratings that Google would have considered against their guidelines; he also went on to state that my recommendations around logo markup optimization were erroneous.

There wasn’t much time for context or specifics, and the session was soon over, so I chatted with him afterward and got more clarification. We’ve subsequently emailed as well, so I wanted to post an update outlining directly what uses of structured data can get you into trouble with Google so you don’t innocently stray into dicey implementations.

Using Reviews/Ratings Markup For Testimonials On Small Business Websites

During my presentation, I showed an example of a business that had quoted a review from Yelp on their company’s homepage. They had marked the review up using Review and Rating Schema. Doing this gave their homepage a five-star rating in Google’s search results:

Example of SMB site with Review Rating Schema on Testimonial

I knew that Google Maps guidelines had at one point stated that doing this was okay (see Internet Archive for this in 2010):

Google Maps Guidelines on Review Schema for Testimonials

Now, this is where I really should’ve known better. Mike Blumenthal later warned that Google had changed this guideline, and his interpretation was that they were now calling this tactic “spam.” Here was the later text:

Now it's bad

Mike did a better job of channeling Google’s intentions than I did. It was still confusing, however, because despite the language above which suggests a ranking penalty for “reviews markup intended to game search results,” the same FAQ states elsewhere that structured markup will not impact rankings, negatively or positively:

Will structured data affect rankings?

To add more confusion, the FAQ page from which the above excerpts were taken is no longer available (it errors out), despite being linked to from the Webmaster Tools help page on Reviews. It’s nearly enough to make you feel that adding structured markup is just too risky — if you can’t keep up with the changing landscape, parse Google’s language and psychically glean what they like, then perhaps you shouldn’t do it at all since you could get dinged if they don’t like it.

What I’d assumed was that the obvious problem with small businesses using Reviews markup was that their reviews might not be real — though that’s been deemed illegal by the U.S. government and state attorneys general. However, the wording of Google’s updated guideline made it sound like it was okay to use reviews on your site as long as they came “from an independent source.” In the example I posted above, the business had quoted the review from someone on Yelp.

Pierre told me later that there were two problems with that from Google’s perspective. First, they don’t want any syndicated content marked up — it should only be your original content (although they never mentioned the word “syndicated” in the guidelines). Second, a business homepage isn’t a page of reviews, so it shouldn’t be presented as such. Quoting him directly:

There are two aspects to this, both stated in our guidelines. We want structured data markup to:

1. Describe and summarize the page’s main content as a user would see it. 2. Be of original content that you and your users have generated and is fully contained on your page.

The first point is that if a user sees a review rich snippet, they will expect a page that’s a review. In the scenario you described, you suggested webmasters add the reviews on the homepage, which is usually not seen as a review page. I’ve yet to see a business homepage that a user would expect to function as a review page.

The second point is about syndicating reviews. By definition, syndicated reviews are not original content your users generated on your site. Marking up third-party reviews like this is outside our guidelines and is considered spam.

So, it’s now clear that what I presented was wrong from Google’s perspective, though their guidelines are still not really telling people that in a very direct manner. From what Pierre has said, I’m sort of assuming it would still be fine to mark up testimonials on your site if they’re sent to you directly by your customers (as so many are), and if you have them only on a page specifically devoted to testimonials — not the homepage or a locations page.

However, considering how these guidelines have changed around this one point over time, I would advise just leaving that markup out entirely.

Rolling Multiple Reviews Up For Aggregate Rating/Reviews Presentation

The second problematic tactic I’d presented was around Aggregate Reviews. I’d suggested that if you were an online retailer, you could use Aggregate Reviews markup for your category-level pages, to enable them to display reviews and rating stars in the search results.

For instance, if you had a category of “Big Screen TVs,” you could average the rating value to display the rating in a rich snippet. Or, if you were an hotelier, you could perhaps roll up a page of all your hotels within a particular country or state and enable that listings page to display an average rating.

Pierre said that was a violation of their quality guidelines. He further expanded:

This, incidentally, is another example of the markup needing to describe the main content of the page as a user would see it. Pages that list multiple products are not what users would expect to see if the snippet suggests it’s a review page. If a page lists (say) cars, I would expect a listing of cars. Showing rich snippets aggregating reviews across all cars is confusing and misleading because the listing page doesn’t function as a review page.

I was particularly tripped up by the webmaster guidelines on this one — totally unaware that this was not acceptable. Here’s what they say:

Aggregate Reviews Guidelines - Rich Snippets

I understand now that they meant “singular” or “individual” when they said “specific.”

The second part of that first guideline had also added to the trip-up — “not supported” suggests if you use the code incorrectly, it just won’t show up. When I found examples of this sort of code in use, I’d assumed it must therefore be “supported.” In online and software terms, “not supported” just usually means that functionality isn’t there or isn’t guaranteed. What Google really means in these guidelines is “it’s prohibited.”

I still think there’s a problem with the way these obvious implementations are not spelled out as prohibited.

For instance, some online retailers will list out separate product pages according to options — like “white,” “black,” and “gold” color. But, they’re all the same product — so, it’s apparently not okay for those sites to use aggregate markup for a page that lists out separate pages with separate reviews of the same type of product that differs by an option; whereas, the sites that do display the product only on a single product page will get to use the aggregate markup for the main product page.

Logo Optimization

Finally, on the point about my preso being erroneous about Logo Optimization, apparently it wasn’t. In both my earlier article on using logos for SEO, and in the presentation, I’d based my example code on Google’s blog post on the subject, only I’d used a sub-type of organization instead of the more general organization schema. Pierre had thought that the subtypes weren’t supported, but they are. So, my advice around that was fine after all.

In Summary

Google’s guidelines around using structured data to elicit rich snippets tell us not to “parse” their rules, but to be honest and straightforward when implementing. I didn’t really parse it until after I tripped-up and felt somewhat stung. I don’t think the webmasters, from examples I presented, intended to do wrong, either — I think that in some specific implementation cases, it is difficult to understand precisely what is allowed and what isn’t.

I really wish that Google would address some of the more common issues that are likely to arise, and use blunter language in the guidelines so that people will not stray into implementing in ways that can get them into hot water.

Pierre told me that Google can take manual actions on sites that abuse structured markup — at least one action is that their ability to invoke rich snippets can be completely suspended.

I appreciate Pierre attending and communicating with us at SMX — I think this is helpful all the way around in enabling us as marketers to do a good job in helping companies to optimize themselves. I think it’s also good to have the dialogue so Google might be able to clarify their guidelines if and when they appear a bit mystifying.

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

Related Topics: Google: SEO | Local Search Column | Schema.org | SEO: Spamming

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About The Author: is President of Argent Media, and serves on advisory boards for Universal Business Listing and FindLaw. Follow him @si1very on Twitter.

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  • Cindy Krum

    Great article Chris – that certainly was an *interesting* session :P

  • http://www.touchpointdigital.net/ David Deering

    Hmmm, definitely a little confusing, this whole review/aggregate review/rating thing. I agree with you, Chris–I wish Google was much clearer as to what is acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to the review schemas.

    But I’m not sure if I understand Pierre’s statement when he said: The first point is that if a user sees a review rich snippet, they will expect a page that’s a review. In the scenario you described, you suggested webmasters add the reviews on the homepage, which is usually not seen as a review page. I’ve yet to see a business homepage that a user would expect to function as a review page.

    Reviews and rating markups are usually nested within another schema, such as a product or organization schema. And each page of a site could in fact be marked up with its own unique schema of which the review markup could be a part of.

    As far as marking up syndicated reviews, I’m not sure if I agree. True, the reviews may not be original content that are posted only on the website. But my counterpoint to that is, which reviews are more trusted–the ones posted on Yelp or the ones a webmaster posted himself? It could be relatively easy for webmasters to game the system, at least initially, by creating fake reviews/ratings and posting them on their site. I would be more inclined to trust the reviews if they had a link to the original source.

    Google states in their guidelines that if the aggregate rating schema is used, the individual reviews must be posted on the same page. But for syndicated ratings, one possible solution would be to use the data-vocabulary rating markup shown here: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/146645?hl=en and linking it to the orginal source, such as:

    [span itemprop="rating" itemscope itemtype="http://data-vocabulary.org/Rating"]
    We/our whatever was rated [span itemprop="average"]9[/span]
    out of [span itemprop="best"]10[/span]
    [/span]based on [span itemprop="count"]25[/span] user reviews, which can be seen on our [a href="http://www.yelp.com/...."]Yelp page.[/a].

    Or perhaps another option is to post the review and mark it up and include a link to the original, if it’s practical to do so on the web page.

    I think I’d trust that more than reviews and ratings that were posted but have no links to verify that the reviewer exists or that a review was actually written.

    But perhaps I’m wrong. I just wish Google would be clearer as to what is acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to the review and rating markups, otherwise I’m afraid that many honest webmasters with good intentions will get themselves in hot water and be clueless as to why.

  • Chris Silver Smith

    Thanks, Cindy! The immediate feedback was startling, but I think it’s good to have the corrections and clarifications to insure folks don’t stray into getting into trouble.

  • Chris Silver Smith

    David, in the current guidelines, Google says that you can mark up “your content”, but I think they mean more specifically they don’t want borrowed, stolen or quoted content, really. The prob with reviews is that I think webmasters have previously assumed that the content was about them, so it was “yours” in that sense, and it was legally quoted. But, syndicated reviews is definitely out.

    Also, their guidelines state that the focus of the overall page is very important:

    “Is your marked-up content representative of the main content of the page? With rich snippets, Google’s goal is to provide users with a quick
    way to decide if a page in search results meets their needs. If your
    page is almost entirely about cats, but includes a small section
    containing marked-up information about a Star Wars flash mob event, we
    won’t show a rich snippet preview of that event in response to a query
    about cats (or Star Wars either, for that matter).”

    …so, that’s why they wouldn’t want the Reviews used on a site’s homepage or other pages not specifically related to review information.

  • Christine Churchill

    Thanks for the follow up article answering the questions that arose during the now infamous session. I have worked with you enough to know you would never intentionally utilize spam so I was confident the issues brought up by Pierre, were a
    misunderstanding of Google’s instructions. Great article Chris!

  • Pranit Banthia

    Very informative article, though I am still little confused. On the service page (with content about single service), is it OK to have reviews directly from customers who used that service? Is it OK to use reviews markup in schema for that page?

  • Al Carmona

    Very timely article. Just finished adding structured data to all of our product pages. We display user-generated reviews on each specific product page. It’s best to not confuse people and just call a spade a spade. Honesty is the best (long-term) policy because G will eventually penalize those that seem intent on gaming the system.

  • Tad Miller

    Feed back from Google is absolutely welcome. The way that feedback was delivered could have been handled a lot better…

  • Chris Silver Smith

    I’d ask that people be a little careful about calling the use of Aggregate Reviews markup “gaming the system”. Let’s be clear — the primary motivation for introducing the markup onto websites is to elicit Rich Snippets — and, for real, true reviews and real true products, there’s nothing inherently dishonest about that. Being motivated to get the benefit of the listing treatment isn’t evil — even Google’s documentation calls it a “bonus” they are providing to webmasters! The confusion comes in because people see the ratings stars appearing for listings in product searches, and they wish to enable that same treatment for their site’s pages — with the guidelines not being straightforward in communicating that the markup should be used only for individual products, a number of people have mistakenly implemented this for pages where Google does not want them to. This is a case where implementing the markup incorrectly is not at all evidence of malicious intent.

  • Chris Silver Smith

    I could’ve wished for a little more diplomacy and sensitivity, but I believe that Pierre wanted to rapidly deliver a strong caution to the large room of attendees that some of the guidance I’d provided was directly against their policy. I’d rather have that message delivered than to have my recommendations result in people’s work getting penalized! Pierre expressed to me personally that he generally considered me to be an ethical practitioner — and, there wasn’t a lot of time left in the session at that point to deliver the info with a lot of context. Personally, I’m very glad to hear information delivered directly from Google’s representatives, and even if the delivery may be blunt at times, it’s much better than no feedback at all. So, on the balance, I’m appreciative.

  • http://www.send2press.com/ Christopher Simmons

    Simply … wow. Good stuff.

  • http://www.touchpointdigital.net/ David Deering

    Thanks, Chris. I do hear what you’re saying and apparently it is against their guidelines to mark up reviews and ratings from third-party sites based on what I’ve heard from others who have received correspondence from Google about this. I just wish their posted guidelines were very clear about that, so hopefully they will edit that information soon.

    I do believe, though, that this is one structured data markup that will quickly become abused by less than honest webmasters. Creating fake reviews for a business and marking them up is honestly very easy to do if someone wants to. So I am hoping that a system gets put into place to better ensure that the reviews are legitimate.

    Either way, thanks for sharing the information and I commend you for your humility through it all.

  • Tony N. Wright

    I grew up with a CPA for a father. I watched him battle the IRS on interpretation of tax laws for years. Now my profession is becoming the same thing – except there is no court in which to interpret what “is” spam and what “is not”. Google’s TOS is starting to look an awful lot like tax code – except they don’t HAVE to tell us the rules. They just expect us to follow them.

  • Chris Silver Smith

    I know Google tries to be succinct, and that they don’t want to get into specifying everything *not* to do. The structured data has a few areas like this, however, that could use a bit more clarification. Some of these types of implementations are things that could be expected to come up with some frequency, so some examples of what to-do and what not-to-do would’ve kept many sites from implementing things incorrectly.

 

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