Creating Context with Structured Data

So you have this great website.

StructuredData_960x400The graphics and design are perfect, the HTML is letter-perfect, and you even have web analytics switched on (and you monitor them obsessively). But still, you’d like to see your site bumped up the search results pages.

What else would make it easier for web crawlers to index your site and see what information you have to offer? Turns out there are more tricks in the bag, you just have to reach a bit deeper.

One great technique we can use to help the spiders is called structured data. This is where art meets engineering.

Structured Data Explained

Structured data is a fancy (by fancy, I mean computer nerdish) way of writing information down in an ordered way. That may sound complicated, but it’s not, really.

Structured data is behind familiar SERP features, including the Knowledge Graph, rich snippets, and AMP carousels. By properly implementing structured data on your site, you have the opportunity to rank for these SERP features. Structured data also helps crawlers make contextual sense of your site.

For example, consider how many ways there are of presenting the address of your business.

It could be written out as, “The blue coffee van outside the green building on Main Street.” That’s one way to do it — locals would be able to find your business. However, most of us want to be more specific, so you might give the address as, “42A Main Street.” That’s a little better, but there are a few Main Streets around, so then you might add the city, state and, if your coffee is really good, country to the address. Okay, now it’s job done.

Think twice: web crawlers are good at picking out details like addresses from common text, but they are not perfect.

As it turns out, the design on your site may easily allow a human to pick out the address from the site layout, but an artificially intelligent robot may have more trouble. Your great looking website actually hides information from the web crawlers who index and set the search results — gosh.

If only we were able to ensure this information could be put on the site in a way that was unambiguous to the web crawler, without inhibiting creative freedom.

Enter, structured data.

The Origin of Structured Data

Implied in its very name, structured data is data that needs to be, well, structured. That means there needs to be some standards about what various data elements are called, what are valid values for those elements, which way up the full stops go, and so on.

The good news is that this has been done. As a wise man once said, “The good thing about standards is that there are so many of them.”

At one time, there were many competing standards for web structured data. In order to bring some order to this chaotic situation, in 2011, Bing, Google, and Yahoo (the big search engines of the time) got together to decide which standard they should stand behind. From this, the organization Schema.org was formed to be the body which would maintain and control the structured data standards.

During these discussions, three competing formats were proposed: JSON-LD, Microdata, and RDFa. The relative pros and cons of each proposal were discussed and eventually, like all good standards bodies, they adopted all three.

This is an improvement, in as much as now you only have a choice of three arcane, esoteric, and seemingly obscure languages to master. For the casual user, it is still confusing. So what to choose?

Like many things in life, it depends. If we assume Google will be our search engine of choice, the good news is that it supports all three standards, but prefers JSON-LD. This would then seem to be a good place to start.

Checking for Structured Data Usage

Google offers a tool to check a website’s use of structured data, which can be found here. The tool is easy to use: simply paste a URL into the search box. You will see, returned on the left-hand side, the raw HTML code, and on the right, the decoded structured data. Try the test tool to your site — you may be surprised to find some structured data there already.

Now, I can see the structured data on my site (and others), and I can see the code that creates it on the website.

If you have had a chance to look at some examples, I can hear you saying, “I am not typing that,” or some similar (perhaps rude) words to that effect. The good news is, you don’t have to. There are other tools to help you create and correctly format structured data, without having your eyes bleed from creating it manually.

Choosing a Structured Data Development Tool

According to data from CodeinWP.com, it would seem that WordPress powers 28.9% of the internet. True or otherwise, we will start there. A casual search of Google with a query like [WordPress structured data plugin] will turn up a great many results. Some good, some not so good, but all aimed at allowing non-technical users to create structured data that is correctly formatted.

When choosing a tool, we need a good compromise between complexity and usability. Often, a flexible, fully-featured tool will be harder to use than a less-complex but less-capable one. One such tool, “WP SEO Structured Data Schema” by Kansas City SEO, seems to find this balance.

Pulling it All Together

Structured data is a way to make the meaning of your content more apparent to search engines, so they can more quickly and accurately identify the content that’s being presented on your website.

Structured data must be coded into your website according to the standards defined by Schema.org, but before you go putting your coding pants on, have a look around: you can easily find a tool or plugin that can help you create structured data as a part of your standard content creation workflow.

If you’re going to make changes to your website by adding structured data, make sure to check your analytics before you start to get a baseline. Monitor and track any shifts in performance to ensure your changes are actually having the desired impact on traffic through the site.

 

Alan Ibbett
Alan Ibbett
Alan Ibbett is an accomplished Electrical Engineer and IT Manager with a background in Engineering, Communications, and IT in Education. Since 1997, he’s worked in the Information Technology field in the Education sector, and currently is the Chief Information Officer for Catholic Education in the Diocese of Wollongong in NSW Australia. He’s passionate about ensuring IT improves the learning outcomes of students, and is a keen advocate for Open Source hardware and software. He enjoys the challenge of bringing innovative, functioning technology to support the needs of the business.