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Is Structured Data Worth the Hype?

January 4, 2018

My friend and colleague Nels wrote a great beginner’s guide to Schema.org structured data. It’s a fundamental how-to for marketers that wear many hats, including part-time webmaster. You’ll learn how to take full advantage of the real estate that search engines provide in search results.

As a reminder, structured data markup (aka Schema.org markup) is a set of uniform rules that Google, Bing, Yandex and Yahoo! created to help search engines understand webpage content and provide better search result snippets to searchers.

Just minutes after reading Nels’s guide, I saw this snarky tweet from Cyrus Shepard that inspired me to write this (only slightly cynical) retort to Nels’ thoughtful and well-researched article.

Cyrus, along with many others in the SEO community, had a bit of fun with the news that Google is now displaying up to 320 characters in the text snippet in search results (contrary to the long-held truth of a 160-character limit).

But the joke might have some truth behind it. I think (in some cases) there could be a real concern that having more information readily available in the search results may lead to lower click-through rates (CTR). If your site thrives on driving organic traffic because you answer straightforward questions that your audience often has, you might see growth start to level off. Instead of pulling your <160-character meta description, Google might now pull what they determine to be the best <320-character answer, put it in the text snippet and your audience will find the answer you provide, without ever clicking through to your site.

For example, Moz has a great SEO learning center where they educate readers on the ideal length of a meta description. In a search for “how long should a meta description be” Moz is No. 1 in the organic results, but their meta description (“Get SEO best practices for the meta description tag, including length and content.”) doesn’t appear anymore. Instead, this does:

Moz-Description-Tag-Example

Google just gave away the simple answer to the question and the searcher is probably satisfied and won’t click through to Moz’s page.

*Side note: I understand the irony of using Moz’s outdated definition for this example.

How does this tie to Schema markup?

That brings me to the second tweet that I couldn’t help but laugh at:

This tweeted screenshot (Photoshopped or not, I can’t tell) illustrates how Google is using human input from reCAPTCHA bot filters to build its machine learning datasets. It also made me wonder if a hot dog is a sandwich. But that’s a different discussion.

Much like the reCAPTCHA work users are inadvertently doing for Google, using Schema markup on your site does some of the hard work for search engines, too. By marking your page to enable rich snippets, you’re actually providing search engines the information that you’ve worked hard to develop and letting them put it out there for anyone to see, without ever landing on your site.

The risk is simple to see: You’re giving out the info a searcher is looking for, and taking away any reason for them to click your link and check out what else you have to offer.

Will using Schema markup hurt my search traffic?

Whether or not you’re using Schema.org structured data, Google uses Featured Snippets to provide what it believes to be the best answer to a user’s question. There aren’t any structured data elements you can use to target Featured Snippets, but by creating high-quality, relevant content for your audience, you give your page the best opportunity to get displayed there.

Here’s the Featured Snippet from that meta description length search I did (which I conveniently left off earlier):

Meta-Description-Search-Example

Still Moz’s result, still providing the same answer to the question. Don’t forget, the “People also ask” box, offers other questions a user might be curious about, with links to plenty of other sites, too. Both of these search features have nothing to do with Schema markup.

In addition to the plethora of non-Schema-related features, several articles discuss how rich snippets resulting from the use of Schema markup can increase click-through rate. The fact that your search result might be called out or look a bit different than another nearby result is a good thing from a UX perspective. You want to create something a bit more eye-catching, and users are more likely to click those eye-catching links.

Conversely, some new research presented by Rand Fishkin discusses trends in organic clicks over the last two years. The data illustrates a trend in decreasing organic click-throughs over the last year. The big caveat is that there are no verified conclusions from that research yet.

After all this, when you ask yourself the question “Are you sure you want to add Schema markup to your site?” the answer is yes. Providing a bit more information to take full advantage of your search result is always the best choice.

However, if Google does become an iframe of your site with ads, don’t say you weren’t warned. Until then, listen to Nels. He’s pretty smart.

January 4, 2018

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