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Complete Guide to Structured Data for SEO

Last update: 27/10/19.

If you’ve ever wondered what structured data is, and how it applies to SEO, you’ve come to the right place. Structured data is becoming more and more a focus for SEOs, because it can significantly improve the way your website reacts with search engines. Or, more specifically, how search engines find, sort and display your website in search results.

We’ve put together a comprehensive guide on structured data, from how it works to how it can help you. We’ll even explain all you need to know about structured data testing. Read on to find out more!

What is Structured Data?

Structured data, in really simple terms, is data organised in a particular way that makes sense. Think about having household bills strewn about the place in no order. A phone bill in the living room, a power bill on the fridge, kid’s school fees on the dining table. But if you took all those bills and entered the details into a spreadsheet with the amounts and due dates clearly displayed – it then becomes structured.

But you’re not interested in bills – you want to know how structured data applies to your website. Essentially, its specific code in your website that allows search engines like Google to understand your content better. Search engines can also use structured data to make your search results look better – for example, with more detail which is often referred to as rich content.

An example may be the search result for a DVD you’re selling. We know, so 2000’s, right? But for the purpose of demonstration, rather than just listing your website and the movie title, a rich search result may also include the top billed actors, the DVD price, the movie’s running time, even the product’s star rating. Not to mention an image of the DVD cover. All of that information comes from the structured data in your website.

When done properly, search engines can easily find this information and link it to a customer’s search. In short, that means you rank higher and your search result also looks more professional and appealing to customers. Google and other search engines are continually evolving to try and provide users with the best, most relevant content for their search queries. As searching moves more into mobile and voice search, structured data becomes more important than ever.

An Introduction to the Semantic Web

The semantic web is a concept designed to essentially make the internet better and easier for everyone. The ongoing goal of search engines is to find and organise data in a way that creates the best user experience. The idea behind the semantic web involves linked data that can be shared and used in multiple applications.

Historically, search engines have been very user driven. You type in a search, and Google gives you some webpage suggestions based on that search. But often, the user needs to have a very specific idea of what they’re looking for in order for that search to be successful. The goal of the semantic web is to create a network of information that can be more readily interpreted by machines (which search engines are).

 This is where structured data comes in. It allows the semantic web to order things in a coherent flow of information and provide a better user experience. One way to think about it is a search engine being able to give you suggestions you didn’t even know you were looking for, based on existing content that is relevant to your search query.

 A perfect example of this technology is streaming platforms. With services like Spotify, you don’t need to know every artist in the world and search for them directly. The structured data of each and every song links it in some way to another. This way, users may search for one song they know and love, and receive suggestions of 50 other songs that have the same genre classification, year of release, or shared popularity among other users.

 With no structured (linked) data to join all of these songs and their unique information together, such an effective user experience would never be possible because machines would have no concise way of finding such information throughout the world wide web.

Why Use Structured Data on Your Website

As the magical machines we know as search engines continue to evolve, incorporating voice search, voice assistants and mobile searching, your website could be slipping behind the pack without structured data.

Remember, structured data makes it easier for search engines to find and assess the relevance of your website. This means you’ve already got a better chance of ranking highly in search results. Add in the enhanced visual component of your listing – images, review ratings and product information – and you’re halfway towards achieving your goal of attracting visitors to your site.

 And don’t forget, we’ve just talked about the semantic web and how structured data allows information to be linked more easily. If you’ve got quality structured and content behind your website, there’s a chance you’ll be showing up on search results you’re not even planning for.

 Search engines are trying to give a better flow of information, so let’s consider that DVD example again. You might not be in the business of selling or streaming music, but what if someone searches for a popular song from the soundtrack of the DVD you’re selling? With search engines trying to create an easy way for users to flow through their web of information, they may determine that users who love that song might also want to buy….you guessed it, your DVD!

How Does Structured Data Improve Search Ranking?

In short, structured data helps SEOs by improving the chance of a website ranking well in search results. But it goes a lot deeper than that. A website using structured data should, in theory, appear in more search results and in better positions. That obviously means more impressions, in the sense that more people are seeing your page in a search result.

 However, for SEOs, getting more impressions and increasing the average search position is only half the job. They also want their websites to achieve a greater CTR (click-through-rate), meaning the amount of times a user actually visits the website for every impression it achieves. This is where structured data really comes into play.

 Let’s use Google as an example. Google wants website owners to use structured data. We’ve already established that they want to create the best user experience possible. More websites using structured data makes it easier for them to achieve this. So, Google rewards those who are doing structured data well.

 One of the main ways they do this is by providing rich search results. We touched on this before – you might end up with a search result featuring an image and additional visual enhancements to make you stand out from the crowd.

 Other enhancements include:

 Rich Cards – these are mainly designed for mobile users, and are an extension of a rich search result.

Carousels – putting several of your results (usually products) in a carousel style for users to scroll through.

Enriched Search Results – an extension of rich search results, but providing more interactive features.

Breadcrumbs – visual images also in a carousel style, providing multiple answers to a search.

 Ranking on search engines is a little bit like a cycle, too. Although most consider that behavioural metrics are pretty low on Google’s ranking algorithm, they do play some role. If you use structured data to increase your ranking and achieve some of the rich search results above, your CTR is likely to improve. Since many believe CTR is a behavioural metric that tells Google whether a customer finds your page relevant, you could even get a further increased ranking boost.

Which Search Engines Use Structured Data

All search engines use structured data, but the main one is of course Google. Search engine market share varies from country to country, but Google is often the most recognised. Other big players are Yahoo, Yandex and Bing.

 One of the biggest side stories to structured data that we haven’t touched on yet is schema.org. We’ll go into this further later on, but schema.org was founded by Google, Bing, Yahoo and Yandex, and in many ways forms the basis of the semantic web and structured data.

 The biggest search engines in the world have an active interest in taking structured data and harnessing it to create a better internet experience for everyone. So, if you’re not using structured data and want to rank well on the world’s biggest search engines – it’s time to start.

Most Used Structured Data for SEOs

There’s a multitude of businesses and industries that will want to use structured data to boost their online visibility, but here’s some of the most popular types of structured data.

Organization  Organization structured data helps to enhance brand presence by populating the knowledge panel area to the right of the search results with company information. Having the knowledge panel populated increases not only click-through but also user trust – often only noteworthy organizations have this field.

Organization Schema Code Example:

Local Business – Particularly valuable if you’re running a business that relies heavily on local customers. Service businesses, restaurants and basically any company that wants people walking through their brick and mortar shop front. This sort of structured data markup help you stand out in searches like ‘plumbers near me’.

Local Business Schema Example:

Rating– Nearly all businesses should be harnessing the power of the rating markup. This can give users clear visibility of your star ratings for Google reviews, for example. Having these stars we’ve seen up to a 30% increase in clickthrough from the search results In conjunction with LocalBusiness (in our case) we’ve used aggregateRating.

Update: Alas, it is no longer possible to display stars for your own business since September 2019. However, if you’ve pages that talk about a third party for example a review of 3WhiteHats on a customer website or a reviews site like Trust Pilot – rating markup for your business may still show here

Rating Schema Example:

Recipe – Recipes are so popular online, and they make great use of structured data. Rich search results for recipes can show things like rating, cooking time, even images of the dish prepared earlier.

Recipe Schema Example:

Events – Make sure your event can be easily discovered on search engines. You can show up on search engine listings for events in a particular area.

Event Schema Example:

Breadcrumbs Markup – A breadcrumb trail on a page shows where the page sits in the site hierarchy. Users can explore the site hierarchy by starting with the last breadcrumb in the trail.

Breadcrumb Schema example:

Video Schema Markup – Rank high on video searches, as well as appearing in top stories and other carousels. You can add details like video length and upload date. 

Video Schema Example:

(We’ve removed surrounding code from Barry’s page to show you just the structured data. Note also it’s not in JSON-LD format like the other Schema examples):

FAQ Schema – If you have an FAQ section on your website, this is a great schema to use. By using this schema, you may be eligible to receive a rich result for certain searches. The answer to the search question can appear, with a list of other frequently asked questions regarding your product or service. It makes it easy for customers to find out about your product or service, and this can often lead to a click through to your site.

FAQ Schema Example:

How To Schema *NEW* – This is a great option if your website is providing step-by-step instructions on how to achieve something. The Google search result can, for example, show each step in your process with an accompanying image in a carousel style. This mainly works for mobile searches, and really makes your search result stand out above others.

FAQ Schema Example:

(We’ve truncated this to include just the one step, since it was massive!)

What is the Difference Between Schema, Microdata and Microformats

Schema is a collection of vocabularies that determine how the structured data in your website looks to search engines. To describe it simply, it is an agreed upon set of tags (microdata) that can be added to websites in order to improve the way search engines find and display your page on search results. Schema is a collaboration between Google, Bing, Yandex and Yahoo to come up with a universally recognised collection of tags so that information can be shared and re-used in different environments.

 Microdata is a way to tag certain elements of a page and inform search engines what they are. So, if you see a rich search result that includes a publication date, an author’s name or a product price – all of these are individual pieces of microdata. In this sense, you might say that pieces of microdata are used by schema to determine what is displayed on search results page listing.

 Microformats are another way of marking up structured data through, but unlike schema it is done by an open community process. Schema is the newer standard, but that doesn’t mean microformats are obsolete. Instead, they rely on HTML attribute tags to provide information about certain types of content.

So What is JSON-LD?

JSON-LD (JavaScript Object Notation for Linked Data) is a linked data format that uses vocabularies such as schema.org to read and write structured data. Essentially, JSON-LD can be used to send information to search engines using semantic web technologies.

 Many web developers use JSON-LD because it doesn’t require any alteration to HTML code. It can simply be inserted into the site without disrupting anything, and used to send your structured data information to search engines.

 A simple way to look at it – structured data is the actual content you want search engines to see. JSON-LD is a way to get that information to the search engine.

Is Open Graph Structured Data? And What About Twitter Cards?

Open Graph could be considered a type of structured data, however not so much in the way we’ve been discussing. Our main focus has been how search engines use structured data to interact with websites. Open Graph is more related to social media.

The technology was introduced by Facebook in 2010, and it determines how social media sites display your page when it’s shared on their platform. Let’s imagine you have a website dedicated to farm life. The main image on your homepage might be you standing next to a happy pig.

 If you wrote a blog post on beekeeping and someone shared it on Facebook, you don’t really want the image to be of a pig. And the page description shouldn’t be the generic description of your whole website. By using Open Graph correctly, your shared blog post will have the image of bees you used in the blog past, and a description of that particular article.

Twitter Cards are similar, but obviously unique to Twitter. If you’ve ever read a tweet that says “Hey, check out my new blog post on beekeeping!” with nothing more than a website link included, you’d agree it isn’t very eye-catching or engaging.

Twitter cards allow users to add things like video and other rich content to a tweet. So, you might be spruiking your article on beekeeping, but also have a video of someone surrounded by bees. Or a short image of a beekeeper and a description of your post. It’s more engaging and people are more likely to click through or interact with your tweet.

 

Structured Data Best Practice

You understand the basics when it comes to structured data, so let’s take a look at the best practice when you’re actually implementing and testing.

 Generating Structured Data

How you generate structured data will vary significantly depending on your technical knowledge. Obviously, if you’re a coder, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult. But what if you’re not a coder? What if you’re not really technical at all?

 The good news is, you don’t really need to be technical. Like anything you do without already having the skills, results may vary of course, but fortunately there are tools out there to help you through when it comes to schema markup and structured data.

 One of the easiest structured data to your website is using Google’s own tool. It’s called the Structured Data Markup Helper, and anybody with a website can access it. It allows you to mark up certain elements of your website, making it easier for Google to read and interpret the information. The best thing is, you won’t need to have a great deal of technical knowledge in order to use it, and there’s some handy guidelines right here. Alternatively, if you’ve got access to the code or WordPress you could use this awesome Schema generator from Joe Hall, input your Schema properties, copy the output and paste it directly onto your webpage or page template, done!

Implementing Structured Data via Google Tag Manager

Not everybody has the technical knowledge to properly build their own website, and many businesses don’t have the financial capacity to constantly use developers to add content for them. This is why many people turned to Google Tag Manager (GTM). In its most basic form, GTM let’s you add code to your website.

These GTM tags, when used in conjunction with a trigger, can be used to place structured data on one or many of your website pages. It’s another way of adding structured data to your site without needing extensive coding knowledge. That being said, John Mueller from Google has advised that it is much better to embed structured data directly onto your website from a maintenance and debugging point of view, and we’d agree with that comment.

How to Test Structured Data

So, you’ve got your structured data all ready to go. What next? The most important thing to do is test that what you’ve done is actually working. If something is wrong and search engines aren’t going to be able to access and use your structured data, you won’t get the enhancements you’re hoping for. Let’s take a look at some ways to make sure you’re getting value for your structured data.

When doing your testing, you’ll most likely encounter 3 problems. Errors, warnings or no feedback at all.. Remember, the idea of adding structured data in the first place is to be rewarded with the enhancements Google has to offer (rich snippets, carousels etc). These errors and warnings will inform you whether you’re on the right track.

 Warnings are usually minor issues. Depending on their nature, you could potentially leave some of them alone and still get the search engine enhancement. You’ll find that these are often issues that ‘recommended’ by Google, rather than ‘required’. While some of these can be ignored, obviously the best practice is to fix all errors to ensure your best possible chance of success.

 Errors, on the other hand, are required fixes. They’re things you simply must fix, or you’ll be no chance of getting the enhancements you’re trying to achieve. Pay special attention to these errors, because you’ll need to ensure they’re fixed to get those Google search result rewards.

No feedback, if you’re seeing nothing, but you are certain your code is present and correct, Google is most likely accessing a cached version. In this case the easiest solution might be to copy and paste the source code into a tool like Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool.

3WhiteHats Structured Data Testing Tool

We’ve 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.

You want testing to be effective and easy. You need to make sure that all of your structured data can be picked up by search engines – it’s the only way to know whether you can expect to get the search result enhancements you’re striving for. Using this tool is practical, easy and extremely highly rated.

 The best part is, you can test the structured data even if your website is still in the development phase, behind a passworded site or on a staging site. Most other testing tools won’t work unless your website is actually live and accessible to a crawler or you manually copy and paste your source code – which is tedious.

 The tool is available as an easy-to-install Chrome extension, with plans to release on other browsers in the future. It can pull information from Google’s own structured data testing tool, so you can be comfortable that the results are accurate.

[Click here to find out more]

Enterprise Structured Data Testing Tools

The 3WhiteHats structured data testing tool, and Google’s own tool can work wonders for ad-hoc structured data testing. However, if you’ve got a mega site, you’re going to need an enterprise testing tool such as Schema App. Tools like this are designed with huge websites in mind, but aren’t always the best solution if your website is smaller.

Why Isn’t Google Showing my Structured Data?

If you’ve added all of your structured data, your schema markups are all done, and you’ve finished your testing, everything should be ready to go, right? So understandably, you rush off to Google and start searching. You want to see your website’s name up in lights (or at least in rich snippets). How great is it going to be to see your products up there on a carousel next to items from eBay and Amazon?

 Then you type in your search and you’re nowhere to be seen. Why? Let’s explore some of the common reasons Google isn’t showing your structured data.

 Google hasn’t crawled your site yet: It can take a few days for GoogleBot to crawl through your website and index it. You can submit your updated URL through Google Search Console for fetching, and then you can request indexing if you’re not happy to wait a few days. You can use Google’s URL Inspection Tool to see how Google views your page, so if the structured data isn’t showing there, it’s likely that GoogleBot just needs more time.

 Incorrect images: Google has guidelines for the images displayed in rich snippets. If yours don’t meet the guidelines, you may miss out. Images need to be relevant, indexable, be between 160×90 and 1920×1080 pixels, high resolution and must be in .jpg, .gif, or .png format. Check Google’s guidelines to make sure your images are up to par.

 Errors in structured data: If you’ve used our Structured Data extension, or even Google’s tester, you shouldn’t have this problem. If you do, it’s back to the testing drawing board.

 Google penalties: Google can penalise websites for not following their structured data guidelines. There’s a number of reasons you could be penalised, such as providing misleading data, content that doesn’t match your structured data, using content that isn’t available to the public. For a full list, check here.

 Results aren’t guaranteed: You may have followed every guideline to the letter, but there’s no guarantee you’ll receive rich snippets or any other Google enhancements. Sometimes, your content may simply be something that Google isn’t displaying structured data for.

Why Doesn’t Google Show stars on my Homepage?

Structured data is typically designed for sub pages (leaf pages) only. What we mean is that structured data is usually for the lowest level index pages. For those not versed in web speak, think about the hierarchy of a search result, if you search for a brand, you’ll often be presented with the homepage of a website, with a number of sub pages underneath, these sub pages are often eligible for enhancements.

If you think about the rich search listings you’ve seen, most are a specific recipe, or lists of events, or individual products. That being said, you can still use structured data to promote your business. The LocalBusiness schema is one way to make yourself stand out, as well as the Organization schema. These two items allow you to add certain additional details which can influence other search features such as the knowledge or local panel to the right of the search results.