Some of the most fevered chatter in SEO circles these days concerns semantic markup, specifically the newish toolkit called “schemas” that leverages a structured data vocabulary in order to deliver unprecedentedly rich and informative search results on results pages. This is universally considered one of the great emerging frontiers in search. And while from every halfway-progressive SEO person in the world you will hear something like: “everyone is going to be playing the semantic markup game soon enough; jump on it now, before your competitors do”—and our advice to clients at SwellPath is no different—what you tend to hear less is talk of the semantic web as a movement with a philosophy. After all, there must be a reason why the search engines themselves decided to accelerate and codify this movement by founding Schema.org, and I don’t imagine it was because they were running a betting pool on which was going to be the first major player in every vertical to start using it right. No, the semantic markup/structured data advent exists for a more substantive reason—indeed a virtuous reason. It exists to speed the process by which you receive answers to your questions. It exists to expand the detail of those answers. It exists because the search engines believe its use will make search better for everyone, thereby making the web a better place to be, thereby improving your life. And OK, yes, it also exists because the search engine companies know that a better search experience leads to a larger user base which leads to increased paid search revenue, but in my view of things, whenever a company does a bunch of research and then concludes that the most tactically sound way to increase their revenue is to improve your life, an angel gets its wings. For how significantly better it’s already making the search experience for me—and the quite reasonable expectation that it will only make it better still in the future—the semantic markup concept deserves to be called virtuous, and that’s my primary personal reason for arguing so passionately for its universal adoption. And, hey, you know what else? Everyone is going to be playing the semantic markup game soon enough. Jump on it now, before your competitors do.
What Exactly Is Semantic Markup?
Semantic markup is a system for teaching search engines what a webpage means. In an effort to evolve beyond the traditional model of having to stake the whole meaning mission on a page’s title, meta description, and world-facing content—none of which are anything more than blocks of text unbound by any system of rules—the search community began establishing, over the last few years, a much more precise vocabulary of markup designed to capture and transmit the truly concrete, unambiguous information about a page in small snippets, called “schemas.” The microdata advent delivered by HTML5 helped to catalyze this project, and the official engagement of the project by Google, Yahoo! and Bing consolidated it around a single standard with a single bank of schemas and a single surrounding community: Schema.org, which has become a shorthand for the project as a whole.
For instance: is your page about a recipe? [I hope it is, because I really love to cook.] You can use semantic markup not only simply to indicate that the page is about a recipe, but also to state pretty much every conceivable detail about the recipe—what ingredients it requires, what the cooking method is, how much time it takes to cook, its country of origin, etc.—in a crawlable way, with each of those individual facts receiving its own dedicated piece of strictly defined markup that a search engine cannot possibly misinterpret. The upshot of this is not only a major leap forward in the relevancy game, but changes in the appearance of search results themselves.
Examplo primo: did you know that Google already has a specialized recipe search? Beyond just searching for a recipe by name, searchers can now filter a recipe search by any of its Schema.org-designated attributes right on the results page. So if you especially like or dislike, for example, carrots (I understand that the question of whether or not to include carrots in a tomato sauce is a controversial one), you can filter your bolognese sauce recipe results in Google to explicitly include or exclude carrots. No more clicking through and then backtracking. Search streamlined, time saved, life improved.
The other direct effect of semantic markup is the one that really makes digital marketers’ hearts flutter (and this is the one that gets mentioned much earlier in the version of this speech that clients hear): the “rich snippets” phenomenon, whereby certain results on a search engine results page show up larger than others and loaded with auxiliary information, a kind of serious-looking boldface and credibility indicator that demonstrably improves click-through rate. But rich snippets share the same virtue that we can hang on something like recipe search: more detail on results pages means less time spent clicking through and then backtracking. A user facing a rich snippet is decidedly going to have a much better idea of what to expect on the other side of that click-through than one facing a title and meta description alone. So while the competitive appeal of rich snippets may seem clear enough from looking at the size advantage and quantity-of-links advantage that they furnish, it becomes a lot clearer when you consider how attractive a rich snippet is for its virtue, i.e. for its power to improve the lives of searchers. How could any thoughtful SEO practitioner not be in a hurry to deliver this virtue to searchers?
So What’s the Bigger Picture?
You will be a boon to your clients here and now—immensely, even—by getting them aboard the semantic markup train, and as an SEO professional my belief in the power of this toolkit to confer advantage is unquestionably my first motivation for recommending it as often as I do. But the other thing going through my mind when I recommend semantic markup is a fantasy about how much better my life is going to be when ten out of ten results on a Google page display a rich snippet, so I can know everything about every one before I make a move, and how awesome it’s going to be when the results pages that get returned for searches on events and products and people and places and medical conditions and just about everything else become sortable and filterable. Because that is going to be awesome. With each passing year, we add significantly to the sum of human information on the web, and rely on search ever more to connect us with that information. To make the process of retrieving and digesting it this much more efficient is going to go a very long way indeed toward making us happier denizens of the web. I want the web bursting at the seams with the stuff.