As a result of working in web products (both personal and professional), I have become quite au fait with SEO from a technical point of view, and the purely technical things you can do to put you in good standing – all of which really, are just web best practices to be a good web citizen – things that we should be doing to make the web better (proper use of HTTP headers, mobile friendly designs, good performance for people on slower connections, etc.).
One thing that is a bit above and beyond that is the use of Google’s Structured Data. I will talk about what it is and what it does below, but if you are dynamically loading webpages (e.g. your website isn’t just HTML on a web server, but either served from a server-side application, or is an API driven JS application), then you are most likely well placed to easily and immediately start implementing it.
1. What Is Structured Data?
Google has defined a set of schemas regarding Structured Data on websites. This is a schema that allows better definition of key data points from a given website. It’s a sensible move by Google and is a natural progression for their search engine.
Think about it, there are millions of websites out there made up with sprawling HTML code and content – whilst HTML is a standard (more or less!) across the web, there are probably millions of different ways people use it. It would be nice if everyone used the H1 etc heading tags consistently, or if everyone used the <em> tag the same way (emphasis vs italics), but the reality is they don’t – some sites will be using HTML as intended but many many more undoubtedly just rely on <span> or <div> tags combined with CSS classes to re-define every element they might need.
This is all fine, Google is smart enough to pull out the content for indexing – yes, if you use span elements with custom styling for headings on your website rather than the H1+ tags then Google will penalise you, but it won’t stop Google reading and indexing the site. What’s more, its getting smarter all the time – I’d probably back Google to be able to pull out relevant clips or question/answers directly in a fairly reliable way. However, they are Google and much like the Microsoft/IE of the 90s, they have the dominant market share so they can define their own standards for the web if they want to. That’s exactly what Structured Data is.
It’s Google saying:
Hey, if you provide some data in your code that looks like this and is cool with our schema, then we will read that, so we don’t have to guess or work out stuff. Or we can just keep trying to work it out from your HTML content.. it’s your call
As mentioned earlier, if you have control over the source code and the data on your website, then this is really powerful. You can define specific (keyword heavy) snippets of content and explicitly tell Google about them – what’s more the Schema for Structured Data lets you define content such as FAQ or how-to directions – so you can go beyond keyword heavy snippets and actually create FAQ for questions that you have identified from Google search trends (or whatever SEO tools you might use).
Hopefully you get the picture by now – this is a pretty powerful tool.
2. Schema Tags: FAQ and HowTo
- FAQ schema allows high level Q&A points to be provided in the metadata for Google – generally useful as most sites will have some element of their pages that could be presented as FAQ
- HowTo schema allows step-by-step how to guides – less widely applicable, but if you have any website that provides how-to guides or anything with instructions this is applicable.
What exactly to these tags do and why do we care? Well, as well as trying to win favour with the all-seeing google search bot, if it gets picked up it also means we get more search real estate and increased accessibility to our content which should also increase the chance of click through conversion.
If you have ever seen search results like this:
These points are being scraped from the site by Google from their schema tags – if you can automate the creation and inclusion of these for your site then you can be in a pretty good position to improve your SEO (still relatively low number of sites implementing these schemas).
3. Automating Your Schema Tags
Below is some example code – It is based on Jekyll, as that’s what my most recent personal project has been, but it’s also pretty close to pseudocode, so hopefully you can easily translate it to whatever tech you use:
As you can see, its a simple JSON based data structure and you just fill in the relevant parts of the object with your data.
You can see the full code in my Jekyll food website over on GitHub here – likewise, you can see the end result in action on the website (hosted by GitHub pages, of course) too – the project was a food-science site – covering science and recipes, so a perfect match for FAQ (science pages) and HowTo (recipe pages). For example if you go to a recipe page view the page source, you will see the JSON schema at the top of the page, using the HowTo schema elements laying out resources required and then the steps required, if you compare that data with the actual page you will see the data mirrors each other (this is an important part, Google doesn’t like what it thinks looks like “tricks”). Likewise on the Science of humidity in cooking in the page source you will see the JSON schema with FAQ:
If you have control of the data being loaded on to the page (a custom site – something like WordPress or another off the shelf platform might make this harder, but at the same time there are undoubtedly lots of plugins that already handle this for you on your given platform which make it even easier!), and are even vaguely interested in increasing organic traffic and search ranking, then I’d recommend implementing this. It’s very easy to add (it’s also primarily behind the scenes tech – it doesn’t impact the visuals or design of the pages its added to) and can only be beneficial.
As with anything trying to improve SEO, its always hard to measure and get concrete details on, but its relatively low cost to add, minimal ongoing maintenance so I think its worth a shot.
If you have had experiences with Google’s Structured data, good or bad, then I’d love to hear about it!