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June 2, 2014

How to Use Schema Markup to Improve Your Website Visibility in Search

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Schema markup has become quite a hot topic among SEOs, especially since Bing’s Sr. Product Manager Duane Forrester confirmed that schema markup is a ranking factor. Google also encourages the use of structured data. It’s the newest form of website optimization that hardly anyone is using. In a recent study, Searchmetrics revealed that only a small fraction of domains incorporate schema markup (less than 1 percent!). However, more than a third of Google search results contain rich snippets, which are extra bits of information that make a result stand out, as the images below show.

apple-pie-recipe-search-results-red-box-snippets

Bottom line: Internet marketers and SEOs have a huge opportunity to jump ahead of their competition by implementing schema for rich snippets.

This article will help you understand what schema markup is, how it works, and why it’s important for making your website more visible in organic search results. I’ll also show you how to mark up content yourself and point you to some handy resources you or your webmaster can use. If there is one thing you do today, mark up one of your web pages and see what kind of impact it has on search results.

What is Schema Markup?

Schema markup can be an Internet marketer’s new best friend. It’s a unique set of HTML tags, or metadata, that can be added to your HTML web pages around specific pieces of content to help search engines get a better sense of what a particular page is about. This makes it easier for people to find exactly what they are looking for online and thus have a better search experience. Using microdata derived from Schema.org, which has become the industry standard for structured data language recognized by Google, Yahoo! and Bing, you can help search engines better understand the data on your website with more detailed information that provides additional context.

While most HTML tags tell search engines what your website says, schema markup tells search engines what your website means, which helps them deliver better quality search results to users. When you define item types and item properties on your site, you give search engines the structured information they need to create richer search results. Without semantics, search engines end up having to interpret your website data on their own — and you’re left with a listing that may not be the best representation of your site.

 Why Is Schema Markup Important for SEOs?

Schema markup is probably the most under-utilized tool for SEO. Here are just a few reasons to start using structured data if you want more eyes on your website:

  • Schema helps search engines interpret the data on your website with more accuracy in an organized, structured way.
  • Rich snippets make a listing more attractive and increase click-through rates by as much as 15 to 50 percent.
  • Websites using schema markup tend to rank higher in search results.
  • The more types of schema you use, the more opportunities you’ll have to appear in search.
  • Less than 1 percent of websites currently use schema, which means major opportunities.

Despite all the SEO benefits of using schema, its adoption has been slow moving. It may not necessarily be due to a lack of awareness as much as a lack of technical know-how. This creates yet another amazing opportunity for businesses, especially those with marketing and IT departments working synergistically together for a common goal. Marketers may understand why it’s important to use structured data markup, but webmasters are usually the ones implementing it since they have more advanced knowledge of HTML. This schema markup guide will hopefully set you or your webmaster off on the right path.

Structured data markup helps search engines clearly identify what your website is about for the most relevant search results. Photo by Beth Kanter (CC BY 2.0)

Your Schema Markup Guide for Rich Snippets

There are actually two ways to go about incorporating schema to boost your SEO efforts. If you’re familiar with basic HTML, then learning how to use schema markup will come easily. If you’re not familiar with HTML, then you can use Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper to identify elements on your website and simply tag them with the appropriate semantic vocabulary. Kissmetrics has a really great post on getting started with schema using this very tool. As for those of you who like to play with HTML code, here’s what you need to know about using semantic markup to improve the visibility of your website.

Basic Elements of Schema Markup

Now, on to the technical part of this schema tutorial. Structured data has three basic elements: an itemscope attribute, an itemtype attribute and an itemprop attribute. Let’s explore each of these attributes in further detail using Bruce Clay’s content marketing book as an example.

The itemscope attribute indicates that the content between a set of <div> tags is about a particular item, so your opening <div> tag would look like this:

<div itemscope>
<h1>Content Marketing Strategies for Professionals</h1>
</div>

But it’s not enough to label an item as an item without specifying what that item is exactly.

The itemtype attribute provides search engines with a little more context indicating that the content between a set of <div> tags is in fact about a particular item, or in this example, a book. This is done by using the itemtype attribute immediately following the itemscope, so your opening <div> tag will look like this instead:

<div itemscope itemtype=“http://schema.org/Book”>
<h1>Content Marketing Strategies for Professionals</h1>
</div>

Note that the item type is presented in URL format with a link derived from a list of schemas found at Schema.org.

The itemprop attribute is the last piece of the schema puzzle. It’s used to provide search engines with even more information about an item by labeling all the properties associated with it. For example, to identify Bruce Clay as the author, you would add itemprop=“author” to the piece of content referencing his name. This would make your HTML code look like this:

<div itemscope itemtype=“http://schema.org/Book”>
<h1>Content Marketing Strategies for Professionals</h1>
<span> Author: <span itemprop=“author”>Bruce Clay</span> and <span itemprop=“author”>Murray Newlands </span>
</div>

Note the use of additional <span> tags to ensure the item property attribute is associated with the right piece of content. It’s a convenient HTML element that prevents changes in the way a page appears in a browser.

For those of you feeling ambitious, you can also embed an item type within an item property if the labeled property can also be another item with its own set of properties. For example, we can specify that the author of a book is also a person with properties that include a name and a birthday. Visit Schema.org to learn more about embedding items.

One thing that is important to note when marking up your content is to stay away from marking up hidden text so as not to look like spam. Instead, focus your energy and attention on the content elements visually displayed on your website.

Most Commonly Used Schema Types

There are all sorts of schema types recognized by Google, Bing and Yahoo!, among the hundreds you can find at Schema.org. New item types are being defined regularly, but the most commonly used schema types include authorship, articles, blogs, products, reviews, movies and events, just to name a few. No matter what type of data might be presented on your website, there is probably an associated item scope and item type for it.

Not sure which schema types you should be using? The laundry list of schema types may be expansive, but before you go off on a schema markup spree, keep it simple by starting off with broad item types before narrowing down to more specific ones.

Testing Your Schema Markup

To make sure your schema markup can be read by the search engines, use a structured data testing tool to see how your content will appear in search results. You’ll even have the opportunity to edit HTML right inside the tool if you want to update the schema and test it again. Once you’ve tested your schema implementations and are happy with the results, search engines like Google will be able to read it the next time they crawl your website and interpret your website data more effectively, so you’ll have more opportunities to be visible in search results. In this example, you’ll see that the authorship markup is working.

Structured Data Testing Tool

Key Schema Markup Takeaways

You don’t have to be a programmer to add markup to your content. Schema.org is an excellent resource for getting started.

Get familiar with the available schema types by visiting the Organization of Schemas page and start optimizing your content for rich snippets. There are literally dozens of markup categories to choose from, so find the ones that best represent what your website content is all about.

Lastly, add as many markup elements as are relevant to your website. The more you mark up your content, the better your chances of improving your visibility and increasing your traffic.

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11 responses to “How to Use Schema Markup to Improve Your Website Visibility in Search”

  1. Vicki writes:

    Less than 1% of sites are using it? This tip has a lot of value for those looking to move up the rankings … love new fresh tips rather than old rehashings of the same old tips that might not even work anymore!

  2. Gaurav Sharma writes:

    Hey, Niki,

    Its a great article on schema and indeed I agree with all points especially that schema improves CTR which in turns increases the traffic and conversions. Moreover, schema enables the floodgates to any site but it should be used thoroughly on the website and most importantly its in the control of Google that whether they want to show rich snippet or not. Lastly, I have recently done the analysis on Structured data which you can find out here http://theninehertz.com/detailed-study-semantic-markup-structured-data/ and hope you may like it.

  3. Niki Payne writes:

    Hi Vicki, thanks for the comment. I’ve been viewing the source code for many of the “expert” blogs and websites I visit regularly just to see if they’ve hopped on the schema bandwagon and have noticed that virtually none of them are using schema markup. It’s definitely something more prevalent among retailers and recipes, but I believe there is a lot of opportunity for experts and consultants in all sorts of niches to rise up to the competition.

  4. Randy Bonds writes:

    Great article and extremely important to do. It is good to understand that Google does not automatically display the new updated results and seems to be making it more and more difficult for newcomers. I am dealing with this currently with a new client who wasn’t taking advantage of markup and all their competitors are. Even with it implemented for over 2 months and the fact this client is an authoritative figure in the industry it is still not being displayed. In conclusion – get this done ASAP as it typically will not be immediate and gives HUGE advantages over competitors.

  5. Niki Payne writes:

    Excellent point, Randy. It’s so huge that I can’t believe I overlooked it, even after having a discussion about it with the content team. How rich snippets are displayed are entirely at the discretion of the search engines, which is why it’s generally recommended to include as many markup attributes as are relevant to your site.

    Google seems to only support rich snippets primarily for reviews, people, products, businesses and organizations, recipes, events, music as well as video content (as evidenced here: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/99170?hl=en). This doesn’t necessarily mean that Google won’t support rich snippets for other types of content down the road, but it does mean that if you’re marking up multiple pieces of content on the same page, then Google (and other search engines) are going to pick and choose which ones best describe what your page is about.

    Additionally, there is no guarantee that rich snippets will appear in search results even if structured data is marked up and the test tool shows everything is okay. If your rich snippets are not being displayed after two months of implementation, then try reviewing your structured data to make sure the semantic mark up used isn’t potentially misleading and best represents the main content on the page. Also, if you have too few pages marked up, then it may not have made it on Google’s Rich Snippets radar yet.

  6. Brent Carnduff writes:

    Great article Niki. Schema markup has been on my radar (and list) for sometime now. You make a good case for moving it up and getting it done. Have you come across any good plugins for WordPress? Also, I’ve read that there is location based schema that can be helpful for “Local” search.

  7. Niki Payne writes:

    Thanks for your comment, Brent. Though I have yet to use them myself, I did do some research on schema WordPress plugins I believe are worth trying out: The All In One Schema.org Rich Snippets plugin and the Schema Creator by Raven plugin. The former has twice as many downloads as the latter, but they both have pretty good ratings. Has any one else had experience with either of these plugins? Any other recommendations? Would love to hear them.

    Location-based schema is definitely helpful for local search. Schema.org structured data markup will help the search engines correctly identify your business address and content information. I believe it’s primarily used for location pages. For examples of how location pages are using schema.org, go here: https://developers.google.com/webmasters/business-location-pages/schema.org-examples.

  8. Matt writes:

    Hey Niki, thanks for this article! Definitely learnt a few new things.
    I do SEO for a number of local businesses and have implemented schema on most of them, but have noticed that data seems to be getting pulled from Google+ for some of them, is this possible?

  9. Sam Mudra writes:

    Structured data is a great mechanism to tell search engines about different parameters of your business (blog/website). But Schema matters on ranking? This is something I never noticed at least not in Google. Yes, schema helps to generate better CTR and that can return you a good ranking over time (provided the site has a lower bounce rate).
    There are certain types of businesses or websites which must use schema. Like, Ecommerce, restaurants, event booking companies, tours & travel businesses, local businesses etc.
    Personally I am a big follower of schema and used rich snippet markups in many projects and got very good results and also teach people how they can use structured data on their websites.

  10. amy josline writes:

    Nice information about schema markup, before get into the topic i really don’t have idea about the schema markup. thanks for making me to understand the importance of schema markup.

  11. Benjamin Marc writes:

    Hey Niki, great article, i love that were able to showcase reviews or recipes but i think it would be cool for businesses like mine, where i specialize in web design and logo to show my recent samples, so if someone is going to look for vendors in my niche they can look at my work before entering my site. What do you think? Too much?



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