What in the world is Structured Data, and why do you need it?
The Quick & Simple: Structured Data is a way to communicate what your website or webpage is all about to Google (or any other search engine) in a more structured and direct way than just the content on the site.
Google does its best to try an understand what your website is all about, and what your content is trying to say. But a lot of the time, it is more of an educated guess. When someone searches for something on Google—Google does its best to return a set of results it thinks the user wants. These results are filtered through Google’s algorithms for things like the geographic location the search is coming from, the keywords that were used, and many other mysterious—behind the wizard’s curtain type factors. Structured data helps you look behind the curtain and tell Google and other search engines what you page is all about—maybe you are reviewing the best plastic surgeons in your area, vs. actually offering these types of services. With Structured Data, you can literally tell search engines you page's main subject is reviewing products, then listing the products you are reviewing.
This makes the search less of a guessing game for Google. Google, Bing, Yahoo and Yandex got together a few years ago and agreed on a single language they prefer web developers and webmasters use when writing this Structured Data. Structured Data is a way to tell Google directly what your webpages are all about, using a language they are asking you to use.
I know you’re probably thinking, “Great! Something else I have to learn to be competitive with my website.”
Which is exactly what we thought when we first started reading about Structured Data as well. As web designers and developers, you always have to keep up on the latest trends and ever-evolving industry standards. The more we dug into Structured Data, the more we became even more confused on how to write it, build it and its grand purpose.
At first we thought it was just another SEO gimmick, or simply a way to get a thumbnail photo next to your Google search results, but it is so much more. Learning this new syntax was definitely one of those, further down the rabbit hole type situations. The more we kept digging, the more we learned how detailed and complex it can get.
The quick and not so dirty: Structured Data is a way to talk to machines and have them better understand your content. The machines being Google, Bing and even Siri or Alexa. This is code/language founded by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Yandex—an almost universal language called Schema. Not to get into too much nerdy stuff here, but Schema is a set of categories, rules and terms that help construct the language to talk to these “machines.”
And just like any language, the better you get at it, the more clearly and concisely you can “speak” it. Your vocabulary grows, your sentence structure is more well-defined. Essentially the more effective of a communicator you become, the greater other people will understand what you are saying. The same goes for speaking to machines with code. The coding in the case, is the “Schema” or the Structured Data. The more you master the language, the better machines will understand what you are trying to communicate.
Isn’t Google and Bing smart enough to understand my site already?
The answer is yes and no. Search engines are smart enough to get the gist of what you are trying to communicate. But you are communicating to other humans, not to machines. If you use your keywords properly throughout the website, then Google can use your site in search results, if it feels it answered the question of the person searching. However, it’s a kind of guess, based on a lot of factors called algorithms.
Structured Data on the other hand is quite literally telling search engines what your webpage is talking about using these structured and hierarchical categories and terms. You can use Structured Data to explain what your company is all about, how best to contact you, what logo to use in results and much more complex things as well like, articles, services, people, products, locations, videos, etc., the list literally goes on and on.
According to georanker.com, Google overlooks 80% of your data or it just doesn’t understand what you are trying to say, site-wide. Let me repeat that, eighty percent, that is a lot of lost real estate! A good example would be if you are a physical therapist, and you have a dedicated page on your site to all the physical therapy services you offer. Google knows you are talking about physical therapy, but it doesn’t know if you are just blogging about physical therapy or if actually offer physical therapy services as an actual product.
With Structured Data you can tell search engines you are a physician, who does physical therapy, where your practice is located or even if you work in multiple hospitals, when you are available, what phone number to call, what email to contact you at—or even a photo of yourself or your staff, what your price range is… this may sound redundant, but the list goes on and on—like I said before, “rabbit hole.”
Another example where Structured Data can help define your products or services is if you have multiple locations that offer varying services from each other or even different hours each location is open. You can tell search engines where the main office is located, the services that location offers, where your other satellite locations are, even provide customs maps and directions to each location. Say you own a car wash in Columbus Ohio and another in Westerville. The Columbus location is open from 9 to 6 and your accept credit cards, however the Westerville location is open Noon to 6 and is cash only, this can all be communicated through Structured Data. Now say a potential custom asks Alexa information about your Westerville car wash… she can read the Structured Data provided and explain your location is cash only and the hours you are open.
How does Structured Data visually affect search results?
Check out the image to the left (or above if you are on a phone or small tablet device). The top Google result is for Dr. Dana MD a plastic surgeon we have done Structured Data work for. Below this search result is her closest competition. This is an example of what the Structured Data work we have done for her website. Full disclosure, this is just an example—we have only recently completed this work and Google has yet to index it. However, this is an entirely possible result. The thumbnail image, description, the 4 green breadcrumb trail links all coded in using Structured Data. This not only allows her to control the display of her Google search results, but also makes her results stand out from her competition.
There are a variety of way Structured Data can affect your search engine results. Some other great examples are displaying reviews of your business or even testimonials, include an embedded searchbox, videos, question and answers pages, upcoming events, the list goes on and on.
Affecting search results is one thing, but building Structured Data to clearly communicate with search engines is paramount to what Structured Data is all about.
Can Structured Data improve my SEO?
In short, yes... but kind of "no," it very much can improve search rankings, but Structured Data is not search engine optimization. This is a whole different category, think of Structured Data more like content or additional information added to a page. All of these things go hand in hand. If you have good content, good SEO, good social media presence and then add in Structured Data layer on top of all that—then you have one hell of a website to contend with.
A peek at the Structured Data code.
Okay, don't get too intimidated. This isn't going to be a lesson in coding, and we promise there won't be a test, but to visually see it, might help you grasp what is going on here. There are a couple of different ways we can show you the code—there is the raw handwritten code, which might not make a whole lot of sense. But then there is the rendered code view which is ran through Google's "Structured Data Testing Tool". The tool provided by Google, breaks the code down and displays it in a much more human-readable form.
Check out the screenshot image below, and if you want to follow along, click here to see the live test on Google. The left panel is a list of the Structured Data categories that have been built on Dr. Dana's homepage. This code is not visible to humans, this code is for search engines only. If you click on the "Website" category, the panel on the right is the Structured Data for that category. This is the most basic of basic data, the website's name, the ID, the URL of the homepage, etc. The data set of "sameAs" is a way to list all of the social media networks that are directly related to this website.
And lastly, below is an example of how you can include your business's services using Structured Data. This directly communicates to search engines either all of the services you offer or your top most popular services offered. In this case the services come in the form of Surgical Procedures. This is just one procedure included in the offer catalog. If you are following along here online, then click on the MedicalClinic tab and you can see all the procedures that are included on the home page of this website alone.
With this ability you can not only tell search engines like Google, what services you offer, but also include a thumbnail image, a description you want searchers to see when they come across your search results. Without having properly built Structured Data on your site, then you leave these decisions to search engines to make—they pick the image if any, and grab a description or any other info completely on a guess. With Structured Data you have more control of your search results.
In summary, Structured Data is another tool to help get your website better exposure on search engines. The difference between Structured Data and all the other marketing/SEO tools that are out there, is Google, Bing, Yahoo and others have all agreed to use this language. Also, its rules are much more rigid and fixed than other SEO tricks. You are building Structured Data to communicate with search engines rather than trying to overuse keywords and trick them.
Lastly, because Structured Data is still relatively new, much of your competition is probably not using it—or if they are, it is the most basic level. If you can start building in detailed Structured Data into your website now, you will be light years ahead of them. Getting in on the ground level early is vastly important, if you would like to learn more about how we can help you with building Structured Data on your site give us a call: (614) 341-9700 or shoot us an email here.