Old Card Catalog

Structured Data: Architecting SEO Magic

I am fond of saying that I love to “put things in things.” I am a serial organizer, who can’t go anywhere near a Container Store. By trade I’m an architect, which means organizing and structuring information into logical constructs. In this regard, my brain is a lot like a search engine; seeking comprehension through pattern identification. There are patterns you’re probably familiar with if you think much about SEO. The order of your heading tags, for example. But one you may not be as familiar with is structured data.

“Structured Data” is best defined as schemas that are used to describe the contents of a web page. You can think of a schema like a highly structured form you fill out. On a form, you have a series of labeled fields and you fill in a snippet of information next to each one. Your first name, your last name, your address. Structured data does this with blocks of information on your web pages.

This concept was developed by the major search engines — Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Yandex. The schema are all available on Schema.org, the de-facto standard for using structured data. By using these patterns, search engines are more easily able to parse, rank, and understand your content. And because they have so much more information about what your page contains, they’re better able to serve it in rich placements right within the context of their results pages.

Schema are implemented in a variety of different technologies. There are three major ones in play.

Microdata – this is the format originally used on Schema.org. Microdata feels a lot like regular attributes in your HTML. You apply it in the context of the markup already in your page. If you can’t read HTML, you’ll have a hard time understanding and debugging Microdata.

RDFa – RDFa feels very similar to Microdata, but it is XML flavored. Again, it’s inserted in the markup that already exists around your content. And it’s equally difficult to make sense of it if markup isn’t your thing.

JSON-LD – This is the new kid on the block, and it has a lot going for it. As a JSON-based format, it’s an object that lives outside the context of the content it’s defining. It can easily be injected into your document. While it creates a little redundancy and is dissociated from your content, it’s much easier to insert into an existing project, and it’s easier for a human to read.

Not all the schema are created equal when it comes to SEO. Search engines care more about some of them than they do about others. And not every search engine has adopted JSON-LD as of this writing – for example, Bing doesn’t technically recognize JSON-LD (although they actually do seem to be parsing it in some limited contexts, like recipes). And while Schema.org has detailed notes on what information is “required,” search engines may be looking for different things. Google provides a great introduction to structured data coupled with a Structured Data Testing Tool that are hugely helpful if you want to get started with how to best leverage schema on your site.

All that said, if you’re just getting started with structured data, I’d recommend implementing with JSON-LD first. It’s the emergent standard and ultimately the easiest option to maintain.

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Working with structured markup and JSON-LD in Drupal or WordPress

For Drupal, check out the Schema.org Metatag module. It’s still pretty new, but the contributors have done great work here. I’m excited to see where it goes. Drupal Core ships with RDFa support, which is fantastic! But it isn’t mapped to Google’s expectations, and extending it ends up getting you into custom code pretty quickly.

For WordPress, check out the Schema or Markup plugins. They support slightly different schema out of the gate, so one or the other may be optimal depending on your needs.

A deeper look

I gave an overview of Structured Data at BADCamp 2017, introducing these concepts and talking about what’s available for use when you’re building sites in Drupal. Feel free to take a look. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback, and to find out how structured data is working for you and your organization. And if you need our help with your data, contact us.