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Google Webmaster Tools and Structured Data

Google’s Push Towards Structured Data

Is structured data the future of SEO?

Google is indicating that it is more likely a present opportunity by releasing continuous enhancements to its structured data tools and reporting capabilities.  Within Google Webmaster Tools, it is now possible to create structured data code, test its accuracy, locate existing markup within your site, and specify markup on pages without editing any of your website’s code. Obviously, Google is viewing structured data as yet another series of relevancy signals that can help enhance the overall search experience of its users right now.

To take a step back, if you’re unfamiliar with structured data, it is defined as detailed information that has been formatted in a universally understandable manner, using specific language that is located within the source code of a web document. Structured data languages include microdata, microformats, and RFDa. However, microdata utilizing the Schema.org structure is recommended by Google, as well as other search engines. This is shown in the example below.

An Example of Structured Data Markup within a Web Document

 Why is structured data important?

Well, search engines rely on it to understand content on web documents, which allows them to improve the results that are displayed for specific types of search queries. Another benefit to including structured data in your website is the ability to showcase rich snippets, which are part of an increasingly enhanced search experience that reveals additional lines of text or images in search results, as highlighted below.

Examples of Rich Snippets Displayed in Search Results

 While the benefits of using structured data include easier identification of page content and enhanced search listings, it’s important to note that search engines do not currently use structured data as a ranking factor. Structured data can help indicate and identify the page content, but it does not increase rankings over pages that do not contain structured markup.

Structured Data Markup Helper

Initially, adding structured data markup to a website can seem overwhelming, especially when you begin to explore the many options available within Schema.org.  However, it isn’t as complicated as it first seems and there are a number of tools, such as Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper, make the process much easier.  This new tool eases the stress of creating structured markup code from scratch, which is extremely helpful for those unfamiliar with developing or editing HTML code.

The Structured Data Markup Helper is found within Webmaster Tools under Additional Tools.  Currently, the markup tool is available for eight data categories, including article, events, local businesses, movies, products, restaurants, software applications, and TV episodes with ratings, as well as four email markup options.  Once a category is chosen and a valid URL is entered, the web page is loaded and webmasters can highlight the properties by using a simple point-and-click method.  If an item is unable to be highlighted, which is common with images, it is also possible to enter it manually within “My Data Items.”  Depending on the category chosen, some fields are required while many others are optional.

An Example of the Structured Data Markup Helper in Use

 Once all the appropriate item properties are included, a user clicks on the red “Create HTML” button and the marked up HTML code is generated, as shown below.

An Example of the Structured Data Markup Helper HTML-Generated Code

Unlike other structured markup creation tools, the original page code is included within the output, which can be easily downloaded.  The snippets of code highlighted in yellow indicate where the structured markup should be inserted.  Essentially, the entire page of HTML code can be copied and pasted to replace the existing page content.  However, it is not recommended that the code go live without further review by an experienced programmer.

While a valuable tool, Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper has its limitations. Aside from the narrow number of categories available, there are also issues with highlighting sites that include pop-ups, or contain extensive JavaScript.  Access to your website’s HTML code, with an understanding of how to modify it, is also required.  However, if HTML code is foreign to you, or you don’t know the first step in accessing it, then the Data Highlighter is a great option for you.

Data Highlighter

The Data Highlighter can be found within Google Webmaster Tools under the Search Appearance section. The tool works very similar to the Structured Data Markup Helper, but requires no modifications to a web page’s HTML code. The structured data categories available within the Data Highlighter mirror those in the Structured Data Markup Helper, but there is an additional option to include tags for similar pages, which could save time if you have multiple web pages that are a lot alike. Once the URL, category and tagging options are input, the URL entered will load as shown below.

An Example of the Data Highlighter in Use

After the page loads, the important information can easily be highlighted with a click of the mouse. Upon highlighting the information, a drop-down box appears to identify the item. Once the properties are highlighted and categorized, the data items appear on the right side. For items that are difficult to tag, such as images, the information can be entered manually within the settings.  After all the desired items are acknowledged, the red “Publish” button submits the information to Google.  Depending on the details submitted, additional prompts may be required to verify the information, but the process is very user-friendly.

The Data Highlighter is a great tool for those with a limited knowledge of HTML code or those who don’t have access to it on their sites.  That said, it also has its limitations. With only eight categories available, the item properties are very limited in each category. Like the Structured Data Markup Helper, highlighting sites that include pop-ups or contain and extensive JavaScript can be a barrier. Lastly, while this tool works well for Google, it does not work for all search engines since the information is only submitted to Google and not incorporated within the source code of the web page..

Structured Data Testing Tool

The Structured Data Testing Tool was one of the first tools introduced by Google to support the adoption of structured data. The tool allows a user to check structured markup that is either existing in a live environment or has already been written to ensure it can be properly read by Google and other search engines. There are two options when verifying the data – entering the URL of a page or entering the written HTML code. Both options will display the structured markup found, as well as a snapshot of how that page could appear within search results, including the rich snippets displays. This testing tool will also outline any potential problems or existing issues with marked up data or rich snippet displays.

An Example of the Structured Data Testing Tool in Use

Testing structured markup HTML code, prior to release, is very beneficial, and will indicate how a piece of structured markup can enhance a search engine listing and will help you make the most of your hard-earned results.  For existing content, this tool can help to diagnose any errors so corrections can be readily made.  As with all tools, using structured data testing is highly recommended, especially when you are first getting started.

Structured Data Reporting

While all the other tools work to increase the amount of accurate structured data markup, reporting resources provide detailed information on the existing structured markup of a website. The Structured Data Report summarizes the following:

• The language or source (microdata, microformats, RFDa, etc.) of structured data discovered on a website.
• The type of structured data (web page, article, product, etc.) discovered on a website.
• The number of occurrences of structured data discovered on a website for each structured data type.
• The total number of pages containing each structured data type on a website.
• The specific web pages on which each structured data type is present.
• Information about the item properties present on each page for each structured data type.
• The last date a specific structured data item was detected.
• Notice of any errors within structured data markup (in Beta).

An Example of Structured Data Reporting

This detailed information provides webmasters insight into their existing structured data, which can be drilled down to the page level and specific data markup details. Using the new error reporting information can help improve the entire process, and will certainly help improve the overall search experience.

Actionable Insights

There are numerous benefits of adding structured data to a website. With structured data, search engines can better understand the content located on each web page. When the search engines gain this understanding of content located within a web document, it creates an opportunity to gain visibility in search engine results. It also allows for enhanced search listings with the inclusion of rich snippets, which can encourage users to visit the site and help reduce bounce rates.

In addition, the increased focus Google has placed on structured data with all the new tools introduced over the last year underscores the point that producing optimal search results now includes using structured data markup.

Clearly, the benefits of structured data outweigh the efforts to incorporate the information into a website, especially with all the new helpful tools made available to webmasters. Why not make the most of your websites’ search engine results right now and get started implementing structured markup today?

1 reply
  1. Rich Benci
    Rich Benci says:

    Great article. I liked how you outlined each of Google’s structured data tools and included both benefits and limitations of using these tools. Schema.org markup is powerful, as we have seen first hand through the image carousal and rich snippets in SERPs, but can be complicated to set-up and maintain. #Algebrize

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