Recommendation Update: From Microdata To JSON

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This post was originally made on the 4Ps Marketing blog.

I’m all about the structured data markup over here. In a world increasingly driven not just by users searching for immediate answers, but by artificial intelligences like Siri and Cortana performing searches on behalf of their users, the ability to have rich information easily machine readable and machine processable is of increasingly vital importance.

lthough the official line from Google (and others) continues to be that structured markup has no direct “ranking impact” or is not used as a “ranking factor” (although rumours continue to circulate that it will be part of the algorithm one day), evidence continues to pile up in favour of its implementation as an SEO consideration. Studies like this 2014 one from SearchMetrics consistently show a correlation between the use of structured data and high organic website performance, and Google themselves say that use of the markup helps increase the chance that you’ll appear favourable in rich snippets and enhanced listing types in organic SERPs – things like Knowledge Graph cards and rich answers. As these result types often pip conventional results to the top of the SERP, that’s a pretty powerful message for potential exposure of your brand.

What Is Structured Markup?

In its simplest terms, structured or semantic markup turns a webpage from a bunch of text and images into a set of things with each have their own properties. Rather than relying on search robots and algorithms understanding the concept of a pair of shoes as a product for sale (rather than a webpage that contains lots of text about shoes and £ symbol), for example, structured data lets us explicitly state this in the form of additional markup in the source code of the page. This means that machines reading the page (including things like search robots and other “parsing” things like Siri/Cortana et al) don’t need to work as hard to understand what it is about – they can see all the information and attributes laid out in a way they can nicely understand.

As we all (should) know, a search bot that doesn’t need to work as hard is a happy bot. Happy bots generally mean visibility boosts, one way or another! So think of structured markup as the bot equivalent of tasty chocolate…

Happy Robot

Implementing Structured Markup

In the past the generally accepted and most widely-used manner of implementing structured markup has been using microdata. This is generally simple to implement into existing HTML templates as it essentially just adds a bunch more attributes (in the form of itemscopes and itemprops) to your pages.

Microdata Markup Example

This approach can often be tricky depending how complex your templates are, and a bit of jiggery pokery is often required to get things to nest correctly, and often you need to include a bunch of meta tags to make sure all the needed attributes are present and in the correct format. It works fine most of the time though, and there are often plugins available for the big, mainstream content management systems which make life easier.

Switching To JSON-LD

JSON-LD, or JavaScript Object Notation for Linked Data (which is what its mother calls it when she’s angry with it), is essentially a way of encoding structured data – including schema.org markup – using the JSON data interchange format. That’s a posh way of saying, in very simple terms, that it lets you put your structured data bits and bobs into a script element that sits independently to the existing HTML template of your website.

JSON Markup Example

There are a few advantages to implementing structure data with JSON-LD rather than microdata:

  • It keeps the structured markup independent of your template layout, so if your site’s page templates change you won’t need to redo the markup each time because your nesting breaks or the entire thing starts producing errors
  • It is much easier and more efficient to mark up complex nested objects and concepts in JSON than it is microdata, so you can implement more comprehensive markup to take advantage of more potential opportunities
  • You can pull fields and properties directly from your content management system without needing to play about with meta itemprops and other formatting pain
  • You can even (with the right analytics consultant to help) link up your JSON deployment with your data layer to start tracking properties as custom dimensions in one neat package

Most importantly though – and the number one reason I’ve made the switch to formally recommend to all clients and prospects going forward that they utilise the JSON-LD markup method from now on – is that Google itself has switched from am ambiguous level of “we support any schema.org formats” to specifically recommending the use of JSON-LD above the other markup techniques.

Google JSON Recommendation

We’ve already seen evidence in the past that Google has been more inclined to properly pick up and parse JSON implementations of things like the sitelink search markup, so this isn’t particularly shocking, but with the new advice on things like Rich Cards and the change to Google’s developer documentation on the subject – not to mention the pain of having to rebuild the microdata spec every time a template is tweaked slightly – I decided it was time for a formal change of recommendation.

There’s no evidence (thus far) that Google is going to stop supporting microdata implementations of structured markup, but this is one of the rare cases where the search giant has provided not only general guidelines but a clear preference for a particular implementation. So in the name of future proofing, not to mention an easier life, I’d suggest the following:

  1. If you haven’t implemented any structured data on your site yet (and why not?) then make sure you get this into your technical roadmap soon, and use JSON-LD when you do.
  2. If you’ve got structured data implemented already using JSON-LD, run it through the revamped structured data testing tool to be safe – Google has tweaked and expanded some of its own specifications, such as for Articles and Recipes, in ways that diverge slightly from the core specs on schema.org, so it is worth checking.
  3. If you’ve got structured data implemented on your site using microdata or RDFa, don’t panic! Google does still support these, but you’ll probably want to look at getting a revamp in JSON-LD into your technical roadmap within the next 12-18 months to be safe (and you can use this as a good time to overhaul the markup to make sure you’re taking advantage of all your opportunities, too).
  4. If you’ve got structured data implemented on your site using some other vocabulary than schema.org, such as microformats, you’re running a risk of both losing any benefits you still have (as Google has firmly thrown itself into the schema.org camp) and are probably missing opportunities too, so make the switch to schema.org (with JSON-LD implementation) as soon as you can.

To find out more about the benefits of schema.org markup for your search marketing and brand promotion efforts, take a look at the newly refreshed Google documentation which is a good read for both developers and less technical marketing types.

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