The way that search engines like Google interact with websites is changing. If you think back ten or even five years ago, you’d agree that your search results pages looked remarkably different. You might have some paid ads at the top, and then the organic search results straight after. There wasn’t much else.
If you conduct a Google search now, the picture is vastly different. You’ll see images, carousels promoting individual products, and search results full of rich information like images, opening hours, event times, store locations. The list goes on and on, but from a business and marketing point of view, have you ever wondered what makes these search results look different?
The answer is ‘structured data’. In this article, we’ll give you all the structured data basics, and even show you how to test the structured data on your website to ensure you’re getting the best out of your search results.
Structured data in plain English
In basic terms, structured data refers to any method of organizing data in a way that makes sense. Filing cabinets, entering data into a spreadsheet, and the folders on your computer are all forms of structured data, but when we talk about it in website terms, it’s a little more complex.
Basically, structured data is a certain way of writing code, or ‘marking up’ aspects of your website to ensure Google understands your content better. By using structured data, you’re telling search engines what the key information on your website is, allowing the search engine to classify and rank it on search results accordingly.
It is also a means of getting your search results up in lights. Google can process your structured data and turn your search result into what we call ‘rich content’, or ‘rich snippets’. This rich content can manifest in many ways, including some of the following information right there on your search result (this list is far from exhaustive – we’ll touch on different kinds of structured data later):
- Opening hours
- Event times
- Product/event prices
- Step by step instructions (i.e. recipes)
Google and other search engines are always evolving in an effort to give users the best, most relevant content for their search queries. As search engines continue to evolve, it’s important that your website does, too.
A history of structured data and the semantic web
The semantic web is a concept which helps search engines find and organise data in a way that provides a better internet experience for everyone.
Because searching for something on Google used to be very user-driven and only focused on the words you search, the semantic web was created to build on this.
Rather than just using keywords, the semantic web is a way to link common data so that searches can be more easily interpreted by machines (search engines). So, rather than having to fill your website with the same keywords over and over, the semantic web picks up on common themes. For example, if you have a website that sells shoes, you don’t have to fill the page with the word ‘cheap shoes for sale’. The semantic web will pick up on the fact you have images of shoes, and also your location, so it can deliver your website to users in your local area who are looking for shoes.
Linked data, in short, allows search engines to provide you with certain search results that you perhaps didn’t even specifically search for – much in the way a streaming platform can provide recommendations based on genre, artists or actors that you’ve previously searched for.
The next step in the evolution of the semantic web was the introduction of schema.org. The brainchild of search engine giants Google, Yahoo, Bing and Yandex, schema is an even more structured version of linked data, and it’s universally recognized across the major search engines.
Essentially, schema.org is a specific set of tags that can be applied to certain sections of websites to make them stand out more prominently on search engine results pages. These snippets of tagged content are also known as ‘microdata’, which form the basis of any particular schema being used. It may sound complicated; however, it isn’t too difficult to implement, and many website builders like WordPress and Wix can actually guide you through the process of using schema.
Does your website need structured data?
The simple answer is yes, particularly if you want to improve your rankings and your online visibility.
Structured data has two main goals:
For search engines: To more coherently organise websites and provide the best search results to users, relevant to their query.
For website owners: To help your website rank better, appear in more results pages, and become a more attractive option for users to click on.
The first part is obvious. Search engines are striving to give users the very best experience possible. This is why, for example, Google will reward websites that use structured data with some of the following search result bonuses:
- Rich Search Result – a search result featuring more interactive information than just the standard page description. Could include images or specific business information.
- Rich Cards – for mobile search, these are an extension of a rich search result.
- Carousels – shows products or other information in a carousel style for users to scroll through.
- Enriched Search Results – a further extension of rich search results, with even more features.
- Breadcrumbs – visual images also in a carousel style, providing multiple answers to a search.
These are the obvious, visual rewards, but behind the scenes the benefits of structured data continue to be relevant:
- Better ranking – pages with structured data generally rank higher on search result pages.
- More impressions – better ranking means more users seeing your website.
- Improved click-through-rate (CTR) – If your search result is enriched with extra content, it is more visually appealing and encourages people to click through.
- Behavioural metrics – these are low on Google’s algorithm, however the more people clicking on your website gives Google an indication that people find your site relevant, which potentially further increases your site’s ranking.
Commonly used types of structured data
Some of the popular kinds of structured data being used on websites today include:
Local Business – This sort of structured data markup help you rank well for searches like ‘restaurants near me’.
Review – Allows users to clearly see your star rating for Google reviews.
Recipe – Rich search results for recipes can display things like cooking time, a list of ingredients, step by step instructions and even images.
Events – Clearly showcase your event’s time, ticket prices, location and other relevant information.
Product and Offer – Shows prices, discounts, product images, and can even push your products onto carousel search results.
Article Schema Markup – Allows your news articles to appear in the top stories results, visual stories and other visual enhancement like images and bold headlines.
Video Schema Markup – Improves your ranking on video searches, and you can include upload date and video runtime.
How to get structured data on your page
There’s many ways to include structured data markups and schema on your website, and the best news is, you don’t even need an extensive knowledge of coding. Some of the common methods are listed below:
Website builder plugins: WordPress and other popular builders allow you to install schema plugins, which makes the process incredibly easy. Such plugins are great at stepping you through the process, and you don’t need any technical knowledge at all.
Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper: Similar to the above-mentioned plugins, Google’s very own tool makes it simple to mark up your website with structured data, and once again, no technical skills are required.
Google Tag Manager: Basically, a way to add tags to certain content in your website. It should be noted that these are simply marketing style tags, and are not an actual form of schema.
All about structured data testing
So now you can clearly see the benefits of using structured data to improve your online visibility and attract customers, but how do you generate it and more importantly test that it’s working properly? Testing is a crucial part of the process, because if Google isn’t picking up the structured data you’ve created, you won’t achieve those search result rewards you’re chasing.
Common problems when testing structured data
When testing your structured data, you’re likely to run into two issues.
Warnings are generally considered only minor concerns. Essentially, these are changes that are recommended by Google, but not essential. Best practice dictates you would fix them to give yourself the best chance of success, however depending on their nature, you may still be eligible for search result enhancements by leaving them be.
Errors, on the other hand, are fixes you must make, or you won’t have any chance of getting the enhancements on your search results.
Using Google’s structured data testing tool
Like everything, Google provides their own testing tool for structured data. The process is relatively simple, and like all things Google, it steps you through the process quite smoothly. The problem, however, is that in order to use the tool, your website needs to be live.
Most web developers prefer to conduct their testing during the development phase, and while Google’s tool does allow this, it is time consuming and involves copying code page by page.
3WhiteHats structured data testing tool
3WhiteHats have developed a structured data testing tool which can validate all of your structured data, markups and rich snippets. If you’re using microdata, schema, RDFa and JSON-LD, this tool can test your site and tell you what’s working well – and what needs work.
Unlike other testing tools, you can use this one even if your website is still in the development phase. The huge benefit here is you can test each page on your website before you send it off onto the World Wide Web, and you’ll know that your structured data will work from day one.
What if your structured data isn’t showing?
If you’ve added structured data to your site and you’re still not seeing your wonderful rich search results appearing on Google, don’t panic. Here’s some of the possible reasons:
Google hasn’t crawled your site yet: GoogleBot will crawl your site eventually but it might take a few days. If you simply can’t wait, submit it for crawling through Google Search Console.
Incorrect images: Images need to follow Google’s guidelines to be eligible for rich snippets. They must be between 160×90 and 1920×1080 pixels, high resolution and must be in .jpg, .gif, or .png format.
Errors in structured data: If you’ve done your testing correctly, this should never occur. However, if you do receive errors, it’s time to test your site correctly.
Google penalties: Google is pretty strict with their structured data guidelines, and if you’re breaching them, you will likely be penalised. If you’re uncertain, check out the full list of Google’s structured data guidelines.
Results aren’t guaranteed: Unfortunately, rich snippets and Google enhancements are never guaranteed. Google doesn’t display structured data for all types of content, so even if you’ve done everything perfectly, there are sadly no guarantees.
We hope you now understand the theory and history behind structured data, and also why and how you should implement it on your website as soon as possible. You should also understand the basics for testing and getting everything perfect. So now, all that’s left is to get out there and start implementing your structured data today!