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September 25, 2012

Interview with Matthew Brown: SMX East Sneak Peak and Structured Data Primer

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Structured data and the semantic web is, nerdy disclosure, one of my favorite SEO topics. Search is evolving before our eyes, not only to discover resources that answer our questions, but also to answer our questions itself, via instant-answer style mechanisms like Knowledge Graph.

Star Trek - Enterprise D Bridge Set

From here, Wesley and Virginia rode off into space with a computer to do their bidding…

I’m practically transported to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. My hand is interlocked with my preteen heartthrob Wesley Crusher. We’re .2 light years away from the Galatian moon where we’re headed for our honeymoon. I command Computer to calculate the weather forecast when we arrive. :D

Back in reality, Google has gotten really good at parsing structured data to deliver answers directly in search. Marketers have massive opportunity to stand out in search and provide extremely valuable info to web users. Whether you’ve been following the growth of the semantic web over the years or are just getting into it, you should know Matthew Brown.

Matthew’s got a background in structured data from the large publishing side. He was Search Strategy director at New York Times and co-founded the media company’s SEO consulting company Define Search Strategies. At his company AudienceWise, he coordinates search strategy and audience development at Fortune 500 publishers, large e-commerce companies and emerging startups.

At conferences like SMX East (our liveblog schedule here!), Matthew’s the go-to guy for structured data sessions. He’s got a rare gentle touch for explaining the super technical. That’s why, if you have any interest in understanding the opportunity of structured markup in your marketing and you’re attending SMX East, you’ll want to make it to his sessions:

In advance of the show next week, I asked Matthew to answer some questions to the heart of any hesitance a business might have in approaching structured data opportunities so that we marketers can best educate our clients about this exciting next frontier.

1. Schema.org, Open Graph, structured data – these make up the next frontier in search marketing. However, a new frontier is always a little intimidating to broach, and words like “semantic” are especially scary for the less-advanced tech crowd. What tips can you offer to marketers who want to introduce businesses to the opportunities of structured data?

Marketers now have a strong group of introductory articles that they can reference when the situation applies. For instance, if you’re consulting with a publisher about AuthorRank or how to implement rel=author, AJ Kohn has you covered. Mike Arnesen just wrote a great article about AuthorRank over on the SEOMoz blog. Need to get up to speed on implementing Schema.org and how Google treats the markup? Google’s got a great FAQ that they update based on their current view of the vocabulary. I think reading a couple hours worth of basics on what structured data markup is, how Schema.org is just one markup vocabulary, and an introduction the Open Graph Protocol that Facebook is using is a great primer for any marketer trying to get familiar with the basics.

My general recommendations for marketers is to pay close attention to what specific markups are generating rich snippets in their specific niches, and to base their recommendations or implementation strategy on that data. You can gain a lot of insight by running a spreadsheet of these observations. At AudienceWise, we’re spending more of our consulting time in helping publishers sort out a coherent strategy for structured data and the semantic web. As always, development resources are finite, and you should address the best opportunities first.

Many of the search conferences are now dedicating at least one or two sessions to structured data and Schema.org. If you’re attending SMX East, come to these sessions and you’ll have a much better idea of how structured data works and the latest on how the search engines and social media networks are incorporating it into their results.

Matthew Brown

Matthew Brown, founder and principle, AudienceWise

2. You come from a publishing industry background. Structured data like authorship markup is especially useful for publishers. I believe that all businesses and brands these days can be publishers. When does it make sense for a business to implement authorship markup?

I think it’s an idea worth considering even if you’re just launching a single person blog on your Ecommerce site. Right now, we tend to measure the success of authorship by the metric of ‘Do I get an author thumbnail in the search results’? That’s obviously the biggest payoff right now, but as suggested in the articles I linked to above, Google is trying to establish AuthorRank over the long term. This means that tying what you publish to established connections of who you are and what you contribute should increase your trust with Google, Bing, and Facebook.

From a bigger picture, this is one way Google is trying to hedge against their dependency on ranking sites and content based solely on links and keyword relevancy. Like it or not, you’ll increasingly need to ‘show your ID’ to rank content in the coming years.

3. Everyone wants to leverage Facebook for their business these days. Facebook Open Graph: who needs to be looking at this opportunity?

If you’re running a single person blog on Blogger, maybe you can skip this answer. Everyone else should definitely at least be considering how to leverage social integration into their website or application. The light bulb for me went off when I heard Mat Clayton of Mixcloud speak at Mozcon in 2011. Here’s his deck on social integration. It’s a bit confusing without hearing him speak, but the essence of it is that by connecting your site or application to people using Facebook, you can capture a very nice stream of traffic. Here’s a compelling case study illustrating Tumblr’s connection with the Open Graph. By tapping into Facebook’s timeline and ticker, you are pushing to a very strong channel.

The optimization part comes into play by making sure Open Graph tags are used on your site for titles, descriptions, and images. Think of this as conversion optimization for your content within Facebook, or something similar to how we’ve been using META titles and description for SEO. The next level is to determine whether or not there’s a Facebook strategy around actions for your site. Do you have something that users can ‘listen to’ or ‘cook’ or ‘watch’? Think about how services like SocialCam exploded on Facebook by allowing Android users to share and watch videos and push that activity to be posted on Facebook.

As for the possibility of Facebook search and Open Graph, Ian Lurie writes a smart article on why it may be best to ignore Facebook search for right now. Ian’s probably right, but I’m a marketing speculator and I like to get first mover advantage on big growth marketing areas rather than waiting for our industry to validate. That means getting a jump on Open Graph tag implementation, building authority in the Social Graph ecosystem, and gauging how search and advertising differs in social versus search. If you want to get in on this category, paying attention to Social PPC and everything Marty Weintraub says about psychographics is key.

4. You’ve recommended that online marketers pay attention to new data sources and schemas as they become available so you can be the first to offer useful applications and presentation of data. Where should we look for this kind of thing becoming available? Can you give any tips for brainstorming creative new presentations of data for your audience?

For Schema.org, you’ll want to bookmark the W3C Schema.org Proposals page. Occasionally, something makes it to the blog page of the Schema.org website, but it’s rare. This is also the way to give feedback to the organizers prior to a specific vocabulary extension being launched. For many verticals, you’ll want to jump on a specific new markup as soon as it is launched. The theory obviously being ‘first to rich snippets’ means ‘better CTR’ means ‘more links’. Another good source to follow is http://www.semanticweb.com – that’s the de factor news blog for the semantic tech sector.

If you’re jumping into the data presentation game, a good first resource is the Content Marketer’s Guide to Data Visualizations, by Jon Cooper. This is a good framework for developing data presentations and finding data sources. The W3C also has a good page on publicly available Linked Open Data. Getting up and running with these data sources is a bit of a steep climb, but acquiring data skills will be increasingly essential for good marketers going forward. There’s a lot of open data becoming available every day that forms the concept of the semantic web, and I’m very interested in the technology stack behind it.

5. When I was at SES San Francisco earlier this year, I took these notes during a keynote with Matt Cutts:

“Knowledge Graph is Google’s attempt to make search faster. They’ve added results for queries like [California lighthouses] and [Tom Cruise movies]. Matt’s group used to be ‘search quality’ and now it’s ‘search knowledge’ because that’s what they’re trying to deliver.”

Google’s relatively new Knowledge Graph is the topic of a session of yours. As a technologist and a marketer what do Matt’s comments mean to you? How do foresee direct answers in search affect how business is conducted online?

Google has clearly been moving in this direction for years now, starting with the inclusion of things like distance and measurement conversions at the top of the search results. Knowledge Graph is another step forward in including semantic data they’ve accumulated into the search results rather than sending users to websites. It’s definitely a step away from the true definition of ‘search engine’ and more towards a content portal. Although this is another challenge Google is putting in front of web publishers and marketers, I imagine a lot of users will view this as a positive development.

I believe days are numbered for page view strategies around queries that are easily displayed in places like Knowledge Graph. For example, the annual competition around What time is the Super Bowl? is likely to be an opportunity easily squashed by semantic results. Google will know exactly what searches mean by the entity ‘Super Bowl’ and they’ve seen a ton of traffic around that specific query. Game over.

On the positive side, I think Google will be opening up the sources for what appears in Knowledge Graph results. I’m keenly watching what sources they currently include, and which data markup types those sources are using. It’s interesting that I’m observing lots of Open Graph markup included in Knowledge Graph results, where you might think that Schema.org would dominate. There’s really no substitute for accumulating your own data specific to the verticals you’re competing in.

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2 responses to “Interview with Matthew Brown: SMX East Sneak Peak and Structured Data Primer”

  1. Claudia Bruemmer writes:

    Hi Virginia,
    Enjoyed this and want to give you a scoop on another story about semantic seo since it’s a hot topic. Barbara Starr <barbarastarr2009@gmail.com) has been a member of the semantic web community over 10 yrs & now writes for Search Engine Land, is presenting on semantic markup at SMX-East. She was involved in the development of siri, watson and other AI programs. Knows schema, RDFa, rich snippets inside out and has the tech markup knowhow that all seos need to learn and will be giving classes on it in SDiego. She'll also be doing a series on semantic markup for SEL starting this week. BTW, is Susan still there? Used to work with her.

  2. Virginia Nussey writes:

    Very cool, Claudia. Thank you. San Diego area folks listen up: http://www.meetup.com/SanDiegoAI/members/9459203/

    As for Susan, we couldn’t stop her from leaving to listen to the imaginary voices in her head. Yep, finally writing that novel she always wanted to write ;) http://www.bruceclay.com/blog/2011/07/susan-esparza-leaving-bruce-clay/



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