What is Structured Data?

Web Design

One of the most important aspects of web design is, ironically, something that visitors never actually see, but certainly experience and appreciate: structured data.

What is Structured Data?

In essence, structured data is any set of data that is organized in a certain way on a web page. The key that makes structured data work is that it is standardized. This allows web browsers (e.g., Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Safari, etc.,) to read the data, and render web pages accordingly.

If structured data was not standardized, then it would be extremely difficult — and in some cases impossible — to ensure that all visitors have a positive experience. Thankfully, structured data eliminates this obstacle and worry, which is great news for visitors (and for web developers!).

What is Structured Data in SEO?

We just finished highlighting that structured data is a set of data that is organized in a specific way on a web page. In a moment, we will explore how this relates to search engine optimization (SEO). First, let us briefly explain what SEO means for those who have surely come across this term countless times, but may not be clear on all of the details.

What is SEO?

In the simplest terms, SEO is a strategy and process that aims to improve the visibility of a website (and more technically: specific web pages of a website) in the search engine rankings page for relevant search terms, which are better known as keywords. For example, consider a General Contractor in Bradenton, Florida that wants to get found by potential customers who are using Google or Bing to find a “home renovator in Bradenton”.

The Connection Between Structured Data

Now that we have spent a little time describing the basics of SEO, we can answer look at the connection to structured data.

In terms of SEO, structured data allows certain groups of text to be organized and tagged, in order to provide search engines with more information and context about a web page. For example, a web page with a recipe can use structured data that instructs search engines to display the ingredients, cooking time, temperature and calories in the search results.

Why is this so valuable? Because it increases the likelihood that a searcher will click that link in the search results, and by doing so go straight to that recipe web page (where they will ideally stick around and take some other desirable action, such buy products/services, sign-up for a newsletter, download an ebook, and so on).

Now, if you have never seen this dynamic in all of your years (or probably decades by now!) of surfing the web, then do not be alarmed: all of this happens behind-the-scenes. Searchers never see — or even know — that a web page is using structured data to have a quick conversation with their web browser and say:  

Hey there my Browser friend, I see that someone is searching for deep dish apple pie recipes. That’s great, because I happen to have a delicious recipe right here! When you display my web page in the search results, I’d appreciate if you could also add a little bit of extra information that they will find helpful, such as the ingredients, cooking time, temperature, and calories. This way, they can quickly determine if my recipe is what they are looking for. If so, they will click through and come to my website, which makes me happy. And they will see your search engine as very useful and reliable, which makes you happy. And they will enjoy a delicious deep dish apple pie, which will make them happy! Who knew that something called structured data could create so much happiness?

OK, you’re right: the conversation between a web page and a browser is much more efficient than this! But the core idea still the same, and an easy way to grasp how and why structured data works, and how it can be beneficial for all (and we apologize if you now have a craving for a deep dish apple pie!).

Is Structure Data a Ranking Factor?

At this point, some readers who are a little more familiar with SEO may be asking a very relevant question: is structured data a ranking factor? That is, is there a way to design structured data so that Google and Bing will look favorably on a page and move it higher in the search engine results (for example, boosting it from page 3 to page 1)?

The answer is no. While structured data can indeed improve visibility in the search engine results page (SERP), which in turn can potentially increase the clickthrough rate (recall our example with the deep dish apple pie)  it cannot, in itself, improve ranking positions in search results. This was confirmed in 2018 by Google Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller, who stated: “There's no generic ranking boost for [structured data] usage… however, [structured data] can make it easier to understand what the page is about, which can make it easier to show where it's relevant.”

In other words:  if a web page recipe for deep dish apple pie is showing up on page 3 of Google, then adding structured data to highlight details like ingredients and cooking time in the search results will not boost it to page 1. However, as Mueller points out, this can help browsers better understand what the web page is about (e.g. a recipe for deep dish apple pie), which in turn may lead to it being displayed in a greater number of relevant searches.

For example, without structured data, Google may think that a web page with a recipe for deep dish apple pie is actually an article about the history of deep dish apple pie, or a collection of photos of deep dish apple pie. As such, it may not necessarily show up in the search results for all people looking for a deep dish apple pie recipe.  But with structured data, Google will know — without any confusion! — that the web page is offering a recipe, and as such will be more likely to display it for searchers who are looking for that.

Types of Structured Data for SEO

Other than providing additional information about a recipe (e.g., cooking time, ingredients, temperature, etc.), what other ways can structured data be used to enhance search results — and ideally, improve clickthrough rate? There are many possibilities, including:

• Rich snippets: these are styling enhancements that modify how a web page appears in the SERPs.
• Rich cards: these are a variation of rich snippets, which are designed specifically for mobile SERPs.
• Knowledge graph: this is an aggregate of information pulled from sources deemed reliable.
• Breadcrumbs: this is a small text path, usually located at the top of a page, indicating where a visitor is on a website.  
• Enriched results (also referred to as interactive search results): these allow searchers to filter their search criteria.
• Accelerated mobile pages (APMs): this is an extremely fast version of a web page, which can be exchanged for the original page in mobile results.
• Social cards: these control the images, titles, and descriptions of links to social platforms (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc.). Social cards come in handy, because in some cases search engines do a pretty bad job of figuring this information on their own. For example, in the search results instead of displaying a business’s selected Twitter image (such as its logo), confused search engines may default to displaying the generic Twitter image. Social cards prevent this from happening.
• Carousels: these are a collection of multiple rich results, which are displayed in a carousel style.  

Supported Formats

There are three supported formats for structured data: JSON-LD, Microdata, and RDFa.

JSON-LD: this uses a Javascript object to insert the markup into the top of a web page. Because JSON-LD is lightweight, simple, and can be added to a web page without “breaking” anything, it is recommended over the other two formats. It is also the format that Google prefers.  
Microdata: this integrates structured data into the main HTML of a web page. This can be efficient, but if not implemented properly then a web page may crash.  
RDFa: this uses the HTML5 format to publish data that is linked in HTML5 documents.  

Regardless of the format selected, web developers can test compliance with Google’s Rich Results Test and URL Inspection tool, which catch most technical errors.

Best Practices for Structured Data

Google (which as noted above, prefers the JSON-LD format vs. microdata and RDFa) has provided a list of best practices for using structured data:

• Do not block structured data pages to Googlebot using robots.txt, noindex, or any other access control methods.
• Always follow the spam policies for Google web search.
• All information should be accurate and updated. Google will not display a rich result for time-sensitive content that is no longer relevant.
• Always provide original content that a business (or its users) have generated.  
• Do not mark up content that is not visible to visits of a web page.  
• Do not mark up irrelevant or misleading content (e.g., if a web page has a recipe for deep dish apple pie, do not mark up content that focuses on a recipe for cheesecake).  
• Do not use structured data to deceive or mislead visitors, such as impersonating any person or organization.  
• Structured data must be a true representation of the web page content.  
• Specify all required properties listed in the documentation for specific rich result type.  
• The more recommended properties that are provided, the higher quality the result is to visitors.
• Put the structured data on the web page that it describes (the exception is if this is specified otherwise by the documentation).
• In cases where there is duplicate pages for the same content, then the same structured data should be placed on all pages and not just the canonical page.
• Use the most specific applicable type and property names defined by schema.org for markup.
• When specifying an image as a structured data property, ensure that the image is relevant to the page that it is on.  
• All image URLs specified in structured data must be crawlable and indexable.  
• Always include the main type of structured data that reflects the main focus of the page.  
• To ensure that the page fully represents the content that's visible to users, make sure all structured data items are complete.  

The Final Word

We hope that you have found this article on “What is Structured Data?” to be informative and easy-to-understand — especially if you are not a web developer, and want to know what all of these strange terms and concepts are (do virtual birds eat digital breadcrumbs? Are rich snippets wealthy? And who is this JSON guy that everyone keeps talking about?).

The key thing to takeaway from this article is that structured data — if done right — could significantly improve the volume of quality search engine traffic you generate, which may lead to more customers, sales, revenues, profits, and growth.  

Learn More

Ready to discover how structured data can boost your search engine ranking visibility, and help your website stand out in a crowded, competitive marketplace? Then contact Noble Webworks for your free consultation.

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