Hey Google: advance structured data

Google Must Advance Structured DataDuring the Google I/O conference in May 2013, Amit Singhal, presented on the future of search, explaining that “a search engine’s three primary functions will need to evolve and that search will need to answer, converse, and anticipate.”[1] Although Mr. Singhal no longer works at Google, these concepts still drive the company’s vision of its search product. How close is Google to these 2013 ideals? Not close enough!

The road to the future

For Google’s search engine to extend its reach to the conversational, the Internet must have a more formal structure. After all, when you are having a conversation, there is no time to wait or search for an answer. For Google, answers must come quickly and without pause. Therefore, if Google is going to become genuinely conversational, the Internet must be super-fast.  It also needs to be structured in a way that produces answers that are clear, accurate and precise.

Introducing Speed as a ranking factor

With this vision, Google launched PageSpeed Insights, which allows webmasters to measure how quickly their web pages load. It also provides tips to help programmers and webmasters improve the load time for their pages. Google embraced AMP and in 2010 announced that the load time of a web page was a ranking factor in its algorithm. It followed that up recently with a ranking factor announcement specifically for mobile websites. On January 17, 2017, Google said that it was planning to use page speed in mobile search ranking.   Speed has become a buzzword, and some website owners have been scrambling to improve their PageSpeed Insights score so they can rank high in Google’s SERPs (search engine result pages).

Big media websites fail PageSpeed Insights

Even with all the buzz, it is difficult to tell how much the ranking of a website gets improved in Google based on their PageSpeed Insights score. For many sites, work that is done to improve speed may never appear in the actual SERPs because there are too many other factors at play in ranking websites. Furthermore, after testing a few top-ranked sites using Google PageSpeed insights it is easy to conclude that PageSpeed is a waste of time and money.

On October 17, 2017, the following websites received ratings of poor or needs improvement:

[supsystic-tables id=’1′]

Speed and performance are only one ranking factor, but it seems for many websites, Google is not giving enough incentive to make optimization a priority.

The beginning of structured data

To become an ideal search engine that better serves our needs, Google needs websites to be rich in structured data.  Google’s focus on structured data started in 2009 with rich snippets.  They then joined forces with Yahoo and Bing in 2011 to create schema.org, a universal platform and standard for structured data.  [2]

Google helps others by helping itself

In 2012, Google launched its solution to help non-technical professionals add structured data to their website using the “Structured Data Markup Helper.” [3] For Google, it was a useful tool giving website owners the ability to markup their website with structured data without hiring a web developer.  Google promoted this tool as a great advancement for structured data.  However further discovery unveils that as of right now, Google is the only search engine that can read and interpret the structured data created by the “Structured Data Markup Helper.”  No other search engine or website could use the structured data created with the “Structured Data Markup Helper.”  The rest of the Internet would just need to wait for people to add structured data to their website.

Slow rates of adoption

While I don’t begrudge Google for keeping the structured data to itself, Schema.org has been around for over eight years now, yet it seems that the number of sites that are using structured data is minuscule. In 2014 a study of 50 million domains by Searchmetrics showed that only 0.3% used structured data by schema.org on their web pages.[4]  According to Schema.org, there are over 10 million websites that use structured data to markup their web pages and email messages, and according to InternetLiveStats.com, there are 1.2 Billion websites online.  [5]  According to these statistics, the number of websites using schema is still less than 1 percent of all sites online.  Therefore, we can surmise from these figures that structured data is progressing at a snail’s pace.

Google is falling short of reaching it’s goals for structured data mostly because structured data and speed optimization are happening at a slow pace.  Most website owners have no overwhelming motive to optimize for speed or add structured data to their website, and as a result, they see no direct benefit.

Enhanced SERPs

Adding structured data as a ranking factor might help, but instead, Google decided to focus on displaying its results in an enhanced way. Google started using schema.org structured data to deliver knowledge boxes, cards, and carousels.  Enhanced search results may lead to a higher click-through, conversion rates, and search traffic.  Watch this video on Rich Snippets to learn more about how this is done in practice.

According to Searchengineland, adding structured data to your site will increase your CTR by 30%, [6] which is a fantastic way to get more visitors to your site without really doing much work.  This change had some impact on website design as many could see the potential for improved click-through rates.  But what about SERPs?

The problem is that structured data is not being used as much by the webmaster community.   Google has rewarded some websites for implementing structured data with improved SERPs, but they stopped short of announcing that structured data was a ranking factor.

Who is holding back structured data at Google?

Many in the SEO community have speculated that Google will eventually modify its search algorithms to favor websites that use structured markup.  This argument has been passed around in SEO circles since the beginning of Schema.org. Just watch this video by Google Spokesperson Matt Cuts in 2012 as he downplays the idea of Google using Structured data as a ranking factor, but he does not rule out this from happening in the future.

Google Introduces SEO tools in Lighthouse with SEO tools that test structured data

Although Google did not announce that structure data was a ranking factor, it did include structured data as part of an official SEO Audit.  This is seen when a website is tested in Chrome using the Lighthouse Developer Audit tool.   If a website is successful with a passing score it produces the following message for structured data in SEO.   “Structured data is valid.  Run the Structured Data Testing Tool and the Structured Data Linter to validate structured data. Learn more.”  Hence Google is stating that structured data should be considered for improving SEO but it does not make structured data an official ranking factor in search results.   The question remains, should it?  We feel it should.

What are the stakes?

Structured data is not just about the webmasters; it is about achieving a better search engine experience.  By rewarding webmasters who use structured markup with significant improvement to PageRank, everyone wins; webmasters who comply (see more traffic), search engines (help more people), and the users (get help faster).

The goal of Schema.org was to make the Internet better by delivering answers and relevant content to users without them having to visit a website. Most would agree that structured data has produced real benefits for Google.  After all, getting instant answers without having to click through to the website results in real time savings for everyone.

However, as of right now, Google isn’t doing enough to encourage the web designers to implement schema. The private sector has some motivation because traffic and sales are needed for any business to survive. The public sector and small non-profits can do without structured data since there is no pressure driving sales. Therefore, a substantial percentage of webmasters just have no incentive to implement structured markup at all.

So, what can Google do to encourage structured data?

Bottom feeders to the rescue

A controversial way to approach the implementation of schema-driven search would be to work with what is already available. Content aggregators have been around for a long time. Typically, Google pushes them to the bottom of the search results because they are full of duplicate content, frowned upon by many as bottom crawlers of the web.

What if Google adjusts its algorithms to reward aggregators that use structured markup with better search engine rankings?  Wait, why should webmasters be listed first in search results for publishing someone else’s content? Because the primary objective of the search engine is to show the most relevant, high-quality search results. Content aggregators that use structured markup are contributing to this goal, thus benefiting the overall search economy.

In fact, one can easily argue that although controversial, this is at least a logical approach to creating a more structured Internet because businesses would not want their content hijacked by scrapers and aggregators.   A decision like this would prompt webmasters to implement structured data as soon as possible.

Crowdsourcing can help

A less controversial method is to use crowdsourcing.   Currently, Google’s “Structured Data Markup Helper” tool requires a verified search console account before someone can identify structured data.   Why is this ownership verification process even needed?  Besides, the Structured Data Highlighter does not modify the content of the website.

Google already has a large volunteer community in its Google Top Contributor program.  By allowing Google’s volunteer community to participate in tagging, we will have a fully structured Internet in no time.   All Google would need to do is create a structured data expert group.  Then give them encouragement to start tagging.

To facilitate this, Google could include the ”Structured Data Highlighter Helper” tool as a free Chrome browser extension.  This feature could also make it so anyone can tag data.  Google top contributors could moderate volunteers to make sure the results are of high quality.   Wikipedia is proof that volunteers can create a fantastic resource.   Google should do the same to make the Internet a more structured information resource for everyone.

It’s time for a structured data revolution

“Hey Google,” if you are listening, it’s time to focus on getting everyone to use structured data.   This effort is not just for you, but for the entire Internet.   What would it be like if searchers never had to click through to a website to get help?  Everyone could have the information requested neatly displayed in the search results.  What if we no longer hear Google Home say, “Sorry I don’t know how to help with that.  I am learning more each day?”  One thing is sure, having more structured data markup will produce more answers at the tip of our fingers.

Structured data is the way of the future. More and more Artificial Intelligence solutions are using it to provide answers to the users’ questions.  The success of Google depends on structured data and enhanced search results.  Therefore, Google needs to push more structured data.  What we see right now is just not enough, and this technology is too beneficial for everyone to remain underutilized.

 


[1] Jessica Lee (May 16, 2013). “OK Google: ‘The End of Search as We Know It'”. Search Engine Watch. Incisive Interactive Marketing LLC. Retrieved May 20,2013.

[2] Introducing schema.org: Search engines come together for a richer web, Google blog, 2 June 2011.

[3] Introducing Data Highlighter for event data, Google blog, 12 December 2012.

[4] Over a third of Google search results incorporate Rich Snippets supported by Schema, Searchmetrics 2 April, 2014.

[5] Total Number of websites, Internet Live Stats, 05, November 2017

[6] How To Get A 30% Increase In CTR With Structured Markup, Paul Bruemmer, 29 December 2011

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