This is a guest post by Bryant Dunivan. Bryant Dunivan has been doing search marketing since 1999, he specializes in on-page optimization, social media, and seo copywriting. He operates the All Things Search Group, a marketing firm that provides search marketing services as well as traditional PR and marketing.
Arguably, the biggest search-related release of 2011 was the schema.org (Schema) markup. For those not familiar, Schema is a collection of tags designed to help supplement the information that the search engine gives to a user on the Search Engine Result Page (SERP). On the SERP, the searcher gets a result similar to this, which is a non-microformat result:
The information included in this type of result is basic; Google gives you a title tag snippet (which they are increasingly composing themselves) and an excerpt from the webpage if Google deems that the site’s description is unhelpful to the user.
Contrast this with a SERP with microformat information listed:
What we have here is a Google search result with a rating out of 5 stars, tells the searcher what kind of review number this rating is based out of, and the total prep time needed to cook this recipe.
What is interesting about Schema in and of itself is that it is a multi search engine supported tagging system. Google, Bing, and Yahoo have all worked together on this language format and all support it. We should remind you, that for some users, Yahoo’s use of these is minimal, as Bing serves the results for Yahoo. I have read a lot of “what to do in 2012” type threads relating to what is coming down the line of SEO, and am quite amazed at the widespread belief that Schema will be a major part of the algorithm in 2012.
Schema’s mission is an initiative to “improve the display of search results.” This is meant to give Google, specifically, a better chance at providing the user the answer to their question before even clicking on their result. This in theory is quite good, as a searcher can pick items on the search based on criteria that may have not been present. If I do a search for [bread pudding], Google gives me three recipe results. As a normal searcher, if I am looking for a recipe, I do not want a two star bread pudding on my desert table. I would want the best bread pudding I can find. The stars for each recipe do just that, but it is not perfect: a four star criterion gets a rating out of five stars on the SERP. What Google specifically is doing here with schema is highlighting other content that would be useful to the user without forcing them to click and on each result.
While it is tempting to jump on the Schema bandwagon, we must remember. This is not the first microformat markup. There was RDFa that, until the engines announced Schema, seemed to be the de facto leader of microformat markup. I have never seen RDFa define a SERP, and have not witnessed anything to decide placement to date. We are seeing a larger rollout with schema as a whole, there are a far greater number of Schema-augmented results in the past few months, but this is not solely because they are marked up with the Schema language. It also seems that valid RDFa markup are getting the benefit of this trend as well.
The fact that microformats have not been a part of the algorithm should be noted. Just because Schema has come out does not necessarily mean it will be part of the algorithm. Putting the same information in two ways on a site could be gamed by those who seek to manipulate the SERP and various algorithms out there. Viewing Google’s algorithm as a trend, I think that having Schema data is akin to having W3C compliant code – it make’s Google’s crawl of a site easier, but it is not a factor in determining a sites ranking on the SERP. The content that Schema seeks to highlight is already there on the page, with Schema being provide merely as a way to get this data on the SERP. It is hard to see the bots and crawler of each respective search engine “dumbing down” in order to focus on just Schema’s markup, so for the foreseeable future the typical non-Schema website it safe.
What if it becomes a Ranking Factor?
Schema in and of itself should bring an increase in traffic to those who deploy it, but the pressing question on everyone’s mind seems to be how will it affect ranking? This can go a few ways, but the most likely as of now would seem to be two fold.
For those interested in Bing/Yahoo (Bahoo), It could be an on-page factor, but Schema would bring some odd issues for their algorithm on its own. First, Bing uses impressions/click through ratio as a ranking factor. Schema poses a unique question for this type of ranking factor, as it could potentially cause an increase in impressions but decimate a once wonderful sites click through, especially for those on the mid level of the page. While some sites would see a great rise in the rankings, many high quality sites could feel the wrath of Bing if they implement schema as a ranking factor on its own. The more likely scenario would be to make schema a spam factor, much like the current implementation of the keyword tag. This could be a huge rank equalizer, as if a page content wise is on topic a, but schema properties say the site is on topic b, it could potentially show a spammy result.
Google is where things could potentially get interesting – the can augment the current algorithm to return more relevant results, but the question remains how they will implement it. Their implementation of Schema would be more involved – it would require a widespread implementation for it to be included. In the event that it is, it can become a ranking factor, but the impact would be minimal – much like the weight given to an h1 or h2 tag on the page. Schema will not define a page, but instead it will confirm the content and the value to the user.
The use of Schema that would make the most sense is to implement it in a form of vertical search. This would lend itself well to Google, as we know that they love having multiple verticle search results on a given SERP – in our example Google could also use Schema to create a dedicated recipe search, which Bing has already done to some extent.
If your site would benefit from a better-looking description with more information on the SERP, go for it – Google has provided a nice verifier for your schema markup. If you are interested in Schema in only a ranking capability, it would be wise to hold off until we can see how widespread the adoption is of the standard, but it appears that Schema will not be a ranking factor in the near future.