On June 2, 2011, Google, Yahoo, and Bing announced the launch of schema.org, their cooperative alliance providing a universal baseline of support for microdata types.
Microdata are HTML5 specifications enabling webmasters to embed semantic data inside the code of existing web pages. Schema.org, which employs microdata, is an organized markup with common vocabulary. This enables webmasters to efficiently place machine-readable data in their HTML5 code. Aaron Bradley did a fantastic write-up on schema.org and the implications for SEO and beyond.
The shortest explanation of microdata is: "It helps all three engines understand the semantics of your site." As an example, microdata formatting sends clear signals that your site is about bats (the flying mammals) vs. bats (the clubs associated with baseball games). Giving the search engines specific predefined machine-readable data eliminates confusion about the content of your website. While usage of microdata is very limited, we can get a glimpse of how it may impact the SERPs when applied, by looking at an area of Google where microformatting is currently being applied liberally.
Example 1: Standard Google search for the keyword phrase "surf n' turf recipes."
Example 2: Same search with modifier "shrimp" clicked to "yes."
Microformatting allows sites to provide additional information like key ingredients, cook times, calorie counts, as well as user reviews. All of these elements enable users to customize their search to meet their specific wants and needs. By adding a single modifier of "shrimp," the SERP order revised significantly. Microdata are a further extension of microformatting, allowing for even deeper definition of products, services, and information. Having that information applied to your site increases the potential that you'll climb to the top of the appropriately defined searches and therefore increase the likelihood of a higher click-through rate.
So now that we see how microdata can potentially modify and impact the SERPs, the question then becomes, "are microdata right for your site?"
The answer is, "maybe." As with much of SEO, there's a continuum of stages for websites. The challenge is assessing where your site lies on that continuum. Knowing this enables you to make a decision. There are instances where it makes sense to move quickly to implement microdata into some sites. There are other circumstances where a webmaster can probably get more bang for their development time. So here are some broad categories and thoughts on the application of microdata.
New site - go for it! If you're in the process of building a new website, or even doing a major overhaul of an established site, then why not? Be an early adopter. Integrate microdata into the structure of your site and use every tool available to improve the potential that the engines will better understand what you're trying to communicate.
Industry leader in SEO - probably not. If you're one of the elite sites that absolutely dominates your SEO space, crushing the competition across all three engines in the top three positions for much of your keyword set, then you may not need to invest the time in microdata…yet. Your time might be better spent sticking to your current strategy - continue to generate quality content that folks inherently want to link to. Ensure your site is prominent in popular social media channels and deliver that content as fast as systematically possible. Just don't take your eye off your competition! If you see microdata becoming prominent in your space, get a plan in place on how you're going to implement.
The rest of the web lies between those two extremes. Ask yourself: Is my site in a space that is well-defined in schema.org? For example, schema.org has detailed fields available for areas related to creative works: movies, television, people/celebrities, food/recipes, and entertainment. If you're in those spaces, then it's worth keeping microdata on your radar. Next, conduct an objective site audit. If you're comfortable with your site's performance in terms of fundamental SEO: number of pages indexed, site speed, content quality, no duplicate content, minimal crawl errors and HTML suggestions from Google Webmaster Tools, link quality and quantity, and engagement in social media, then putting attention on microdata may be a tool that further helps separate you from the competition. However, if there are any areas in that fundamental SEO list where you're not ahead of your competition, then that may be a better area to concentrate on for now.
There's no doubt that schema.org is pretty big news and it has the potential, if widely adopted, to vastly improve the semantic web, and that's a good thing. However, if your site still struggles from fundamental SEO issues, then those are the areas where a developer's efforts should probably be applied first.
Crispin Sheridan is the Senior Director, Global Search at SAP. As part of the digital team, he established and leads the search and testing practices at SAP. Crispin is responsible for paid, natural, and mobile search and all online testing. Search and testing at SAP are fully centralized and globally funded and run under a hybrid in-house and agency model.
Crispin has proven that search learnings and keyword insights work hand in hand with social media marketing and together can effectively drive B2B lead generation. Furthermore, the development of the SAP.com Test Lab has contributed significant success to SAP's digital marketing efforts.
A frequent guest speaker at conferences, including SES New York, San Francisco, Toronto, London, Delhi, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, Crispin was appointed to the SES Advisory Board in December 2009. He has also been a guest speaker at the e-Metrics Summit and ad:Tech, and is a member of Google's B2B Technology Council. You can follow him on Twitter at @crispinsheridan and read his monthly SEO column on ClickZ.
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