Today, I'd like to let you in on a secret, perhaps one of the biggest secrets in marketing today. A secret so impactful that it may very well change the way your customers interface with your brand.
Well, it's not really a secret, more of a grossly underutilized tool for SEO: Schema Markup.
Before you curse my name and click off this page, read the following two quotes from those in the know at Google and Bing/Yahoo!, companies that, according to comScore's March 2014 rankings, collectively control 96.2% of the search market:
"In general, the more markup there is - schema, video or whatever - the easier it is for search engines to be able to interpret what really matters on a page," Matt Cutts, head of Google's webspam team.
The sentiment is seconded in a recent post by Duane Forrester, Senior Product Manager for Bing:
...when your content is marked up, we can use that data to make richer search experiences...marking up your content does not itself lead directly to higher rankings...When we enable rich experiences in our SERPs, often powered by data which has been marked up, however, click rates on that content often outpace tradition CTRs. The benefits of this are obvious...
Schema markup gives search engines the structured information needed to improve search result quality; users end up with more detailed and accurate search results.
I'm no expert, but if something is good for search engines and end users (i.e. customers) alike, it's probably also good for businesses.
Sounds great; but what is schema markup, anyway?
Schema Markup in a Nutshell
Schema markup is a form of microdata used to embed structured HTML metadata ("data about data") within existing web page content in order to provide a richer browsing experience for end users. Schema markup uses a standard process and underlying vocabulary to add internal detail to the external content of web pages in order for search engines to more easily read and "understand" the content.
One of the pithiest descriptions of schema markup I've found comes from Neil Patel of Kissmetrics: "schema markup tells search engines what your data means, not just what it says."
In an effort to streamline the HTML markup process, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and now Yandex have come together to create a common markup scheme. The fruit of their collective labor is the schema.org website, which has an expressed goal of improving the functionality of the internet by creating a uniform structured data markup "schema" mutually supported by all of their search engines.
Here's (in part) how the schema.org explains its raison d'etre:
On-page markup helps search engines understand the information on webpages and provide richer results. A shared markup vocabulary makes it easier for webmasters to decide on a markup schema and get maximum benefit for their efforts.
Schema Markup and SEO
To fully grasp the impact of schema markup on SEO, it's helpful to first understand the integral relationship of schema markup and semantic search, the next-generation evolution of search technology.
Employed by all major search (and social) engines to varying degrees, semantic search elevates the existing, "static" system that recognizes search queries as groups of keyword "strings" to a more dynamic, context based system that understands references to actual "things," i.e. ideas or entities.
Moreover, by shifting to context-based algorithms, search providers like Google and Bing are stepping up the functionality of their search engines in preparation for the Internet of Things (IOT), a more digitally dependent world in which virtually every "thing" (humans included) is imbued with one or more tiny computers or smart sensors, all transmitting a flow of data onto the Internet (thus, the Internet of Things).
The extra information provided by a properly marked-up web page helps the semantically aware, proto-AI search crawlers better understand the contextual meaning of the page's content, helps them to recognize the content as a" thing" or an entity. Because a properly marked-up page clarifies numerous aspects of the page's content, the search engine is better able to produce more detailed information (commonly referred to as "rich snippets") about the page's content in its search results.
Here's an example of such a rich snippet, taken from an excellent eConsultancy post on schema markup:
The Schema of Schema.org
To accomplish such rich-snippet wizardry, Schema.org uses a microdata format to create a classification system of entity categories, or schemas, based on a set of specific characteristics or properties unique to each category. These categories, or "types" as the site refers to them, are arranged in a hierarchical structure from the broadest parent types (data type, thing) to detailed sub-entity types (plumber, movie theater, florist).
The list of schema types is rather large and seems to be growing almost daily; doubtless this will continue as more webmasters and developers work with schema markup. The best way to truly wrap your head around the concept of schema types and sub-types is to page through the full list on the schema.org website. For those interested in doing so, here is the link.
SIDE NOTE: For those of you who'd like to play around with schema markup but fear its complexity, Google has created this handy-dandy Structured Data Markup Helper.
Without getting bogged down in the minutia of schema markup (which is all too easy to do), in a broad sense, schema markup provides a win-win for three parties: 1) the search engines, who must continuously improve the user experience to keep/ grow their search market share, 2) the end users, who receive better search results, and 3) the businesses that utilize schema markup as the latest arrow in their SEO quiver.
Given this, I find it more than a little ironic that very few businesses are currently using schema markup. And when I say very few, I mean hardly any.
Schema Markup: Still Early Days
According to recent data published by Searchmetrics, while fully 36.6 percent of Google's search results include at least one rich snippet of information derived from Schema.org markup code, only 0.3 percent of websites are using schema markup.
For all of you non-mathers out there, that is less than 1/3 of 1 percent.
Here's another interesting nugget from the study. Even though the major search engines have yet to officially acknowledge the positive impact of schema markup on SERPs (search engine page rankings), Searchmetrics found that pages with schema.org integrations rank better by an average of four positions compared to pages without schema.org integrations.
Is schema markup the new SEO silver bullet? Probably not; the world of digital marketing has gotten far too diffuse and sophisticated for that. However, if your business is on the prowl for new and effective SEO strategies, schema markup offers a fairly straightforward, tangible way to improve the customer experience and appease the search engines.
Oh yeah, and no one else is doing it...yet.