The Advanced Guide to Structured Data for SEO

Jonas Sickler SEO Manager
Key Points
  • Structured data helps search engines understand how to display content.
  • Schema.org supports JSON-LD, Microdata and RDFa.
  • Structured data is used for rich snippets, rich cards, AMPs, knowledge graphs and more.
  • Structured data isn’t a direct ranking signal, but it can help to increase CTR.

Shift your SEO mindset and think BIGGER than the first page of Google. You don’t just want to be on page one — you want to dominate page one. If you want to stand out in the SERPs, then you need to take up more real estate. Fortunately, you can do precisely that if you strategically implement structured data markup.

WHAT IS STRUCTURED DATA?

Structured data is any data that lives in a fixed field within a file. Within the world of SEO, structured data is the markup that helps search engines understand how to interpret and display the content. The site Schema.org contains a standardardized list of markup that the major search engines — Google, Bing, Yahoo and Yandex — have collectively agreed to support.

One example of structured data is a relational database such as a table. In this instance, a structured query language (SQL) is used to interact with linked data in the table. But schema also has much broader use cases that are incredibly useful to your customers.

If you search “bookstores in oklahoma city,” you’ll see a result like the one below:

how structured data markup makes SERPs better

If you use a search engine like Bing, you’ll find a similar result.

Before we get into Schema.org, let’s stay with the high-level structured data definition to explore its properties. At its core, it’s simply organized information. But what’s the difference between structured, unstructured, and semi structured data?

Structured data vs. unstructured data

If structured data is organized information, unstructured data is everything else: PDFs, images, videos, files, presentations, etc. (There are forms of schema markup you can use to help search engines learn about these different assets, but on their own, they’re unstructured).

If you manage your to-dos by dumping every possible idea or task into a backlog as it emerges and building priority tasks into your weekly workflow, then you’re familiar with moving from unstructured to structured data.

Structured data vs semi-structured data

Semi-structured data is, as you might expect, a cross between structured and unstructured. This is data that doesn’t have a rigid structure, but instead relies on using tags, attributes and meta data to quickly communicate information, like HTML. Most of what we produce on the web is, by itself, unstructured. But combine that unstructured information with a way to organize or find it — metadata on web pages, attributes on links — and the end product is semi-structured data.

This is true for offline information, too.

A Word document by itself? Unstructured. A Word document with the document properties updated so you can view the author and date created when you right-click the file? Semi-structured data. 

Pictures in your photo library by themselves? Unstructured. Pictures tagged with the date and time? Semi-structured data. 

Moving way offline now: a book on your bookshelf with no words on its spine? Unstructured. A book with a title and author? Semi-structured data.

Web pages are semi-structured: unstructured content with meta data to help the search engines understand what we’re showing them. Then, just like a card catalog, search engines file all of those web pages so people can access them.

What do we see on our end? A blue link in the SERPs. And where the meta data makes those blue links possible, structured data in the form of schema markup kicks them up a notch. Schema markup ensures that what appears in the SERPs is more useful, more tailored to the user’s needs and more capable of communicating information quickly.

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Google structured data for SEO

If you use the high-level definition, there are as many types of structured data as there are systems of organizing and quickly identifying information. But in the context of your SEO strategy, structured data refers to one thing: Schema.org markup.

It’s worth mentioning that Schema.org technically isn’t the only SEO-fluent markup vocabulary in town. Some websites use Microformats.org markup for product reviews or physical locations. But Schema.org is much more common.

Schema.org

Schema.org is a universally supported and consistent language across all search engines. In fact, there are over 800 different definitions (or “classes”) within the framework of Schema.org. And each one has 20+ properties to define them with more being added all the time. Between the spring and fall of 2019, Schema.org added four new rich result options, five Google Search Console Enhancement reports and seven vocabulary releases.

But the language, or code, dictates how the web page (not the search engine) functions.

Structured data communicates to the search engine how to show the page (or rather, it suggests it). That moves us into search engine behavior, and there’s no rule that all search engines have to behave the same way. In fact, there’s a pretty good reason they don’t.

Coming together to agree on common code snippets that can change how the search engines perform means webmasters don’t have to add 500 different snippets to each page on their site. And it’s not how things usually work — if companies did this more often, you wouldn’t have a junk drawer full of mystery computer chargers.

Supported formats

Schema.org supports many markup formats, but the most common ones are JSON-LD, Microdata and RDFa. Here’s a quick run-down of the top three formats for structured data in seo:

JSON-LD

JSON-LD uses a Javascript object to insert the markup into the head of your page. We highly recommend using this lightweight, simple format because you can add it to your site without breaking anything. This is also the format that Google prefers.

Microdata

This used to be the recommended SEO format, but JSON-LD has since advanced. With this format, the structured data is integrated into the main HTML of your page, which is why it’s a little more likely to crash a page without proper implementation. If you’re comfortable with code, it probably won’t do that, but even your non-coding intern could add JSON-LD without hurting anything.

RDFa

RDFa uses the HTML5 format to publish data linked in HTML5 documents. This option works too, but it isn’t our top choice because it’s not Google’s preferred option.

What is structured data used for?

Thanks to Schema.org’s open community, there are hundreds of types of markup. It’s likely that any specific markup you use will broadly fall into one of these categories: 

Rich snippets

Want your website to display location data? Reviews? Images? These are all rich snippets, or styling enhancements that change how a page appears in the SERPs. If you’ve ever been guilty of swapping “schema markup” with “rich snippets” in casual conversation, it’s because rich snippets are so often the type of markup we use. 

Note that a featured snippet is not the same thing as a rich snippet. A featured snippet is when Google deems your information so helpful that it features it at the top of the search results, like this: 

rich snippets example

There is no structured data for featured snippets; Google alone determines the most useful content to display. (And in case you were wondering, there’s not a way to keep a kitten entertained for long, either). 

We used to be able to treat this primo spot as a bonus on top of our existing slot in Google’s ten organic listings. But on January 22, 2020, Google put an end to the double-dipping and announced that sites included as featured snippets would not appear again in the ten listings on page one. 

rich snippets statement from google

The change doesn’t affect your structured data strategy.

Rich cards

Rich cards are a variation of rich snippets built specifically for the mobile SERPs. To borrow an image from Google’s own post about rich cards, here’s what that looks like: 

how structured data impacts rich cards in the serps

As you can see, rich snippets will still appear in the mobile SERPs. But rich cards are mobile-first. We recommend adding both types so you can give users a complete mobile experience. 

Knowledge graph

Google a person, place or company and you might hit a knowledge graph or knowledge panel — a helpful aggregate of information pulled from sources deemed reliable: 

example of knowledge graph

You won’t have any control over whether Google creates a knowledge panel for your brand in the first place. But once they do, you can control the information they share by connecting them to information on your site via structured data. Simply scroll to the bottom of the panel until you get to this:

claim this knowledge panel button

…And follow the instructions provided.

Breadcrumbs

Some types of markup will help a site appear in the SERPs along with organizational links to other priority pages on the site. Almost always, breadcrumbs appear only for branded searches. If the query is more specific than that, Google will just send the user to the most relevant page on your site instead.

Interactive search results

Google a recipe, job posting or event, and you might see something like this:

how structured data creates interactive search results

Also called enriched results, these interactive search results let you filter your search criteria further, much like a product filter on an ecommerce site. And how does Google create an advanced filter feature that includes thousands of different websites? By letting users search across various properties that are specified in the particular structured data item made for this purpose.

If you want your recipe, job or event to appear in this prime real estate, you’ll need to add the corresponding markup and make sure it’s as complete as possible.

AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages)

AMP stands for Accelerated Mobile Page, a lightning-fast version of your page that can be swapped in for the original page in mobile results. These pages can appear in AMP carousels, a coveted location for publishers and bloggers. But first, you’ll need to add structured data markup to the AMP page and its canonical page. There’s more on this under the “Publishers” section when we look at industry-specific structured data. 

Social cards

When you link to a web page on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest or other social platform, the platform generates a default image, title and description for the page. Those descriptions and images don’t always hit the mark. You can control what gets displayed on social media sites using social cards, a form of structured data that communicates with social platforms.

Common misconceptions

There are many advantages of structured data, but it isn’t a magic bullet. Let’s clear up a few common misconceptions.

First of all, structured data is not a direct ranking signal. However, it can improve your website’s click-through rate (CTR) in the Google search results which may indirectly give you a slight rankings boost.

Another misconception is that structured data changes how you appear in the SERPs. In reality, only Google determines what your listing will look like—and that can change daily with each new update. So, think of structured data as more of a suggestion than a guarantee.

You’ve probably already concluded that it’s not a good use of time to add every type of structured data possible. In fact, Google has strict structured data guidelines, and they’ll penalize sites with markup that doesn’t match the content. Focus only on the item types that are useful to your customers.

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Industries most affected by structured data

Let’s put it this way: if your company cares about SEO, it should care about structured data. That said, certain industries and business types are impacted more by certain types of structured data. Let’s look at some examples:

  • Publishers: Publishers need to make sure their AMP pages function properly and then use the Article type to properly mark up their pages. Common article subtypes are NewsArticle and BlogPosting

AMP users, structured data implementation is a little more complicated for you than non-users. You’ll need to include the structured data markup on your AMP version of a page and add Article markup on your canonical version. After that, you’ll be set to appear in the AMP carousels. 

  • Local Businesses: This includes enterprise companies with brick-and-mortar locations. To get into the 3-pack you’ll want to make sure your local business profile is in order, but structured data can provide additional local information in the SERPs. LocalBusiness lets you specify your hours of operation and accepted payments. And if you take orders or accept reservations on your site, OrderAction and ReservationAction markup is for you. 
  • Structured data for ecommerce websites: Include Product markup on your product pages to display price information in the SERPs. Review markup lets you display product reviews in the SERPs. The markup pulls product reviews from your own site, not third-party sites, which gives you a little more control over what shows up.

Beyond that, structured data markup starts to get very specific according to the industry. Financial institutions can add FinancialServices markup to their locations. Airlines can display flight times and ticket information using Airlines. And for producers of creative work like books, music and even podcasts, there’s markup for that, too.

The best thing to do is look over the full list of item types and critically consider what would be helpful for your business. Again, the structured data used by your business and SERP competitors should be your #1 priority.

Structured data tools

There are a number of tools available that can turn structured data implementation into a quick and painless process. Some of the most reliable ones come from the search engines themselves. These include:

Other tools can also be helpful for handling your structured data-related tasks. These include:

  • Yoast: If you use the Yoast SEO WordPress Plugin, know that it can also auto-generate certain types of structured data for you. It’s most useful for FAQ and how-to content. 
  • Your keyword research tool: if you use Ahrefs, Moz or other popular SEO tools for your keyword research, they almost all include a SERP analysis that lets you know what structured data types are ranking for your keyword. 
  • Your SEO crawler: DeepCrawl and Screaming Frog will each crawl your site and show you the instances of structured data on the website. If you’re crawling your own site, the tools are also useful for debugging errors. If you’re crawling a competitor’s site, this is a great way to see everything your competitor is using.

The bottom line is, Google has a real incentive to push as many websites as possible to use structured data because it helps them provide a richer search experience. So they’ve done what they can to make implementation as easy as possible. Stay competitive by auditing your own structured data strategy regularly!

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