The recent announcement that Google, Bing and Yahoo will be working together on a universal set of schemas, or html tags for how the popular search engines index and categorize information, has kept the search marketing world buzzing. The implications for how these new set of tags could improve search engine visibility for anyone with a website is fairly obvious. Those using schemas in their code will more than likely get their content indexed and categorized quicker.
What is Schema.org?
Schema.org is a comprehensive set of HTML tags in the microdata syntax developed collectively by the major search engines Bing, Google and Yahoo. The purpose of these schemas is to more clearly describe the precise content of web pages in a machine-readable format.
Currently, search engines attempt to classify web pages not only by their self-described content but also by how web visitors choose to interact with the pages. Search engine spiders “crawl” through websites on a regular basis and classify different objects into discrete categories in an effort to help web surfers find what they are looking for. Search engines have always had difficulty parsing unlabeled images. They also frequently have trouble understanding what is meant by a term that would not be ambiguous to a human eye.
As an example, a term like “gardener” may refer to a company that specializes in providing lawn care services, or it may be the name of a little-known song by a musical group. A human visitor will be able to infer what the term means based on the surrounding visual or textural content of the website. A search engine, however, is not quite sophisticated enough to make this link between unclassified imagery and text. schemas allow webmasters to specify what such a potentially ambiguous term refers to by using a whole series of new classifier tags, including “itemscope” and “itemprop.” An itemscope tag traditionally is inserted into the tag in HTML code in the following manner:
<div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/organization"> <h1 itemprop="name">Acme Brick Company</h1> </div>
This terminology would help distinguish the lawn care company from the musical track, which would have language like this:
<div itemscope itemtype="http://schema.org/MusicRecording"> <h1 itemprop="name">Popular Hipster Band</h1> </div>
Schema org has several different categories to describe itemtypes, including:
- creative works
- embedded non-text objects
- events and organizations
It’s important to note that the itemtype language currently uses a Schema org web address as a way to classify the largest categories. Itemprop tags help distinguish individual items within the section by delineating their relationship to the larger itemscope tag. These tags include:
A full listing of the different categories, including a detailed breakdown of how one item relates to another in the Schema org hierarchy, can be found here: http://schema.org/docs/full.html
The commitment of the major search engines to using one agreed-upon classification language enables websites to engineer a more consistent cross-platform reach. However, will this consistency translate into higher conversion rates?
How Does Microdata Effect SEO?
The effect of microdata on search engine optimization or SEO is not entirely clear. Some experts in markup language feel that the unified approach by Google, Bing and Yahoo makes the tags incredibly valuable to websites that wish to cement their reputations as the provider of a given service or product. Other experts feel that the benefits are mixed at best, citing the relative success of certain data-rich categories of searches such as recipes on Google with the flagrant failure of other search categories. While there is no doubt that the terms will help search engines more accurately classify individual items on a web page, the question is if this greater accuracy will automatically result in richer descriptions on the primary search results page.
There are several variables in play that make a clear prediction of the relative future success of microdata difficult. The first is the introduction of HTML5. This advanced version of the perennial markup language allows webmasters to fluidly move between traditional desktop-based browser windows and mobile viewing platforms such as smart phones and tablet computers. The language does this by introducing more automated actions and allowing programmers to embed media content without relying on a third-party provider such as Flash. In many ways, HTML5 is the first markup language that includes most of the features webmasters use to create a typical dynamic site without the need for additional programming languages or plug-ins.
I look at the new microdata tags as an extension of HTML5. They provide richer detail and a more widely understood classification language that can be shared among major search engines. The more popular HTML5 becomes, the more likely schemas will become increasingly desirable as a way to unambiguously distinguish different elements within a web page for a search engine.
Keeping this in mind, SEO has increasingly become one of the most important aspects of any website’s success. A website must be designed to be accessible by search engines while offering enough personality to be engaging to human visitors. The search engines have continually revised how they categorize and rank websites based on a number of different performance factors. In general, those websites that have a high number of outside links and consistently high page view times tend to fare better in the estimation of search engines than those sites that have very little organic activity. Much as keyword stuffing a landing page with the term “best deals on cars” will not necessarily result in a website becoming the number one destination spot for people searching to buy a car, it is unlikely that labeling each element of a website with schemas will necessarily lead to an explosion in traffic.
However, if the labeling is carried out in conjunction with a comprehensive SEO campaign that uses organic results, social media marketing and other technical optimization techniques, the website will experience an overall positive benefit. In other words, schemas function as icing on the cake. In of themselves, they won’t necessarily help a website achieve greater dominance. When combined with other SEO elements, schemas provide a professional polish that will help distinguish the best website from its merely competent competitors.
The competition for the highly prized virtual real estate of the first page of search engine results will likely only increase in the next few years. Any techniques that help a company more clearly proclaim what it has to offer potential visitors will only help that website attract more traffic. Professional organizations and companies have nothing to lose by implementing the schemas into their website content.