Why is structured data important to Google and how can it boost your search visibility?

The search landscape is continuing to evolve, and one distinct trend brands need to be aware of is the increasing richness of search results.

The standard 10 blue links are less common than ever before and most SERPs contain one or more rich features, from answer cards, to video results and featured snippets.

Schema markup drives many of these new kinds of search results and therefore has a big role to play for brands looking to be present through featured snippets, and other rich results.

In a fascinating conversation with Jon Earnshaw, Jono Alderson, Special Ops at Yoast, gives some insight into how Schema can help you to control how your content is surfaced, and how it can help you to improve brand recognition, as well as where he thinks Google is heading.

In this article, we’ll sum up some of the key points from Jon and Jono’s recent webinar, and look into detail at how Schema is changing the search landscape.

What’s the difference between structured data, schema markup and schema.org?

First of all, it’s useful to clear up any confusion between terminology, so we understand what we mean when using terms like Schema and structured data.

Information can be displayed and formatted in ways that make it easier for readers to scan and understand. For example, the standard address format with the first line as the house number, the second line street address, and so on makes sense for readers.

Users can scan and understand information easily when presented like this, and the same general principle applies to the search engines crawling your site.

Structured data follows the same principle, but it’s about making data and information easier to understand for machines, very often Google. Structuring data in certain ways makes it easier for search engines to index information and consequently for your results to be seen.

Schema markup is one of the ways – and the most common – of structuring data in a way that is understandable to search engines. Schema.org is both the vocabulary that can be used for structured data, and the website where the information is hosted.

Why is schema markup important?

Featured snippets now feature in 12.9% of search queries, according to stats from ahrefs. The screenshot below shows one example of a snippet. 

Schema - 1

They appear in the top slot for many search results, and stand out way more than the average text link. The significance here is that these snippets, and other non-standard results, rely on structured data.

As Jono explains, these snippets are a sign of where Google is heading. Google doesn’t want to simply present a list of links – it wants to answer the searcher’s query directly.

Google wants to be your personal assistant, removing the effort of trawling through links to find the best answer, it wants to find the best answer and present it to you directly, saving you the effort of too many clicks.

To achieve this aim, Google (and this applies to Facebook and other platforms too) needs more structured data. This enables them to index more quickly and efficiently and find the answers for users.

For brands and marketers, if Google wants sites to use structured data, and this data is used to drive the most prominent results in the SERPs, then brands need to think about how they can take advantage of this.

How close is Google to its intended vision?

Here’s an example of where Google is now, an answer to what must have been a very popular query this year:

Scheme - 2

This partly answers the search query, but users still have to click through to find the information they need. It’s still a hassle. It’s a sign of where Google is heading and represents progress, but it isn’t the intended finished product.

There are some examples of rich results that point to a growth in interaction from users. In these examples, the user can find the answer without clicking through to any website – something website owners may object to but may also find hard to resist.

Schemea 3

These results answer the question, and allow users to interact and find the exact answer they need.

Schema - convert

Schema and the new SERPs landscape

Pi’s SEO Platform helps us to see how much the search landscape has changed. In searches for fragrances on Google UK, we’re increasingly seeing answer cards, featured snippets and video content feature prominently in search results.

Schema Markup = A richer, more interactive SERP Landscape | UK Fragrances

scheme serps

Image source: Pi’s SEO Platform SERP Matrix

For now, users may be yet to adapt to these changing results. A recent study found that, when a featured snippet is the top result, it gets 8.5% of clicks, while the first ‘classic’ link result attracts 19.6%.

In searches which return no snippets, the top slot attracts 26% of clicks. This may vary according to the type of result, but it seems Google may be ahead of users in some ways.

However, as Jono Alderson points out, featured snippets and similar rich results will increasingly become the norm. This is part of an ongoing transformation from the ten blue links.

It’s time to stop thinking about ranking positions, but instead about how it’s best to present your site in the search results, however Google chooses to present them.

In this context it’s important to see the SERPs as a range of opportunities as different content and media types are displayed. Brands need to think about whether they have the messaging and content to deal with this changing landscape.

It’s about looking at the formats in which your content is surfacing – or can surface – and seeing the value and opportunity presented.

Here’s an example from the UK SERPs for fragrances in the UK which highlights the importance of tracking SERP features in your target sectors and producing the content that works best in this context.

In this particular sector, standard pages and content underperforms. Essentially brands that take a look at the search landscape and adapt accordingly have a greater revenue opportunity.

Schema Markup = More revenue opportunities | UK Fragrances

Screenshot 2020-11-25 at 14.45.26

Image source: Pi Market Intelligence

The analysis of the search landscape is important here. If the range of keywords and search terms you target tend to deliver richer results in Google, you need to take this into account.

If the SERP Features for your target market look something like this, it’s time to take structured data very seriously.

Brands have to make the choice to adapt to SERPs like this. If video results feature heavily, then maybe they need to invest in this area. If featured snippets are big, then Schema needs to feature heavily in your content strategy.

What are the benefits of structured data?

As Jono points out, the push towards structured data from Google, Facebook et al means ignoring it is risky. The benefits of structured data are greater than just featuring in snippets and other rich results, it’s going to be the basis for even appearing to potential customers.

Historically, marketing is based around getting into a conversation with your audience, to be able to persuade them to buy your product or service.

Now, Google, Facebook and others control your access to that audience. If Google can’t understand that you’re a good candidate for the customer’s consideration set, then you want to get the chance to make the pitch to them.

Increasingly, structured data isn’t simply an opportunity to unlock features in search results,  it’s the table stakes for accessing the market.

Here’s an example. These are some of the most common words used in searches where featured snippets are shown by Google.

12 most frequent words used for queries with featured snippets

most frequent snippets

As Jono explains, this is where people are beginning to ask questions, which can ultimately lead to website visits and potential purchases. These are top of funnel queries.

If you use Schema to create guides and support for these kinds of queries, Google will surface those. If users see your results, you begin to build brand recognition, familiarity, and maybe become the searcher’s preference.

If not, your competitors may be doing the same, and you’ve missed out well before the buyers move further down the funnel.

Why EAT makes structured data more important

It’s also important to look at structured data in terms of how Google is thinking. One such model is Google EAT (expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness).

It’s a factor in determining page quality, based on signals to tell Google whether the content on the page is authoritative and trustworthy.

Factors such as authorship data help Google to evaluate this. For example, if the author has social profiles and other recognisable footprints, that may signal authority to Google.

Likewise, physical addresses and contact details for organisations, as well as key historical dates (founding dates etc) all help to validate content as reputable and therefore worthy of indexing.

If Google only wants to surface content from authoritative sources, the Schema is a way to present key information that helps Google to quickly understand this.

Google is telling us that schema will help it to find and surface this EAT content.

John Mueller, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google has been quoted on the impotence of Schema:

“Schema readies content to be found across different surfaces and moments. We can better understand the entities on a page. It helps us understand and match intent”

Essentially, if your competitors are using structured data effectively and you aren’t, Google will potentially understand them better.

As Jono points out, it’s about how we think about search that needs to change. It isn’t just about pages and links – it’s also important to think about entities and things. For example, a product with reviews, and authors with Twitter profiles.

These separate entities are all sending messages to Google which affect the way the content on your pages in surfaced.

What is the best way to implement structured data on your website?

Jono presents some top tips to boost search presence with Schema:

  • Build on a strong foundation (Jono suggests Yoast and SchemaApp).
  • Avoid DIY! It’s easy to break Schema unintentionally so be careful!
  • Read Google’s documentation to identify opportunities.
  • Mark up everyone they have that Google lists (and rewards).
  • Create new content and data to fill in the gaps (organisation, product and people properties in particular).
  • Keep you front end in sync with your Schema (no hidden content or data)
  • Explore Schema.org for more other opportunities, and to keep abreast of future changes.