We are in the age of big data and hyperconnectivity. An era where 1 in 5 people on the planet have a smartphone. Where every day, 17 billion location-tagged posts are published on Facebook and 500 million tweets are shared on Twitter. And in that same day, 2 million blog posts are written. The amount of content generated is growing at an insatiable rate; becoming too large, complex and dynamic to manage, share, or analyze with efficiency. There is literally, too much information.
Whose problem is this really?
More than two years ago, Google began encouraging webmasters to structure their website data in a way that makes it easier for them to understand. And if they can understand the content on a webpage or other entity, they can integrate detailed information called "rich snippets" in their search results, knowledge graph, and Google+ network with the overall intention of improving user experience.
At the time, this blipped on SEO's radar as a way to stand out in search results and increase click-throughs. While this is still a practical motive, we are beginning to see how structured data fits into the larger plan for search.
The "Hummingbird" Update
Last month, Google confirmed the rollout of their latest major search algorithm, dubbed "Hummingbird." Put simply, Google is looking to more accurately match the meaning of an entity (person, place, or thing) to a user's search intent - relying less on keywords and more on elements of trust, verified sources and the semantics related to hyperlocal and conversational search queries. All this is aligned with Google's effort of becoming the ultimate "answer engine."
So why structure your content?
1. It has staying power. At this point, we can consider it a foundational element for your website. The future of search is trending towards semantic or, in other words "entity search." Structured, machine-readable content helps support this initiative. As mentioned, it makes it easier for search engines to understand and attribute unique values to the content you publish. Because it is structured, it is disambiguated, more reliable, and can be cross-verified when compared with other structured entities. Bottom line, if your content is easier to understand and verify, it will be easier for search engines to match the meaning of the page to a user's search query or conversation.
2. Your content becomes a lot more clickable. Let me first say that structuring your content is not the silver bullet for SEO. Links, citations, co-citations, brand occurrences and co-occurrences will still play a crucial role in search rankings. But with a competitively strong author or publisher rank and quality structured data, your content will start looking rich in organic search results - displaying eye-catching images, star ratings, product pricing and availability, author profiles, event dates, and a lot more.
Below is an example of some of the rich snippets displayed for just one search query. You can check out all types of rich snippets supported by Google in their Webmaster Tools.
3. Structured content can become more sharable. If you have a brand that values word of mouth referrals and is active in social media, you'll want to follow the markup protocols from Facebook Open Graph, Twitter Cards, or Pinterest's Rich Pins. The requirements and capabilities vary for each but leveraging these will enable new, more engaging ways for your content to be consumed and distributed.
Here's a visual example of how Goodreads is using Facebook's Open Graph, to tell a more detailed story while encouraging deeper brand interactions.
4. It's versatile. We are beginning to see some very cool ways structured data is being used to support direct marketing initiatives. Pinterest, for example, recently announced the ability to notify its users when a product they "pinned" drops in price. This is a great added value for retail brands that use Rich Pins and are active on Pinterest.
How to get started with structured data
Structuring your content requires additional coding for your web pages. If your site publishes a large amount of content and will continue to do so, it's best to get your development team involved to ensure the right code can be deployed at scale. Otherwise, for smaller sites, it would involve adding some basic HTML around the data you want structured or using the recently launched Data Highlighter from Google, allowing webmasters to simply tag data fields with a mouse.
The most commonly supported markup vocabulary can be found on Schema.org, but you can also read up on structuring data for search in Google Webmaster Tools. To get started in social media, you'll need to review the requirements and unique markup language for each channel. Here's where to start:
Feel free to spring any questions and thoughts in the comment section below or by tweeting us at @BFMweb.