Using Structured Data To Improve Your Content Marketing

How do people find your content? According to the Content Marketing Institute, the most common channels are Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube. But we cannot ignore the humble search engine, those librarians of the internet who work tirelessly to bring up the information we need.

For a long time, search engines have used different context clues to decide how to link content to queries and rank those queries. But unlike a library, there’s been no overarching system of classification for pages.

If you step into a university library, you might be bewildered by all the different classification systems for different kinds of media. But a librarian, or a skilled browser, can find what they need because of the different classification systems.

Could something like that happen to the internet’s content? Possibly. Structured data is a new SEO concept that search engines are leveraging to bring more relevant content to the top of searches. Businesses are noticing that pages that correctly use structured data are gaining access to powerful new search engine features that can throw content right to the top of the page.

What Is Structured Data? 

Structured data is a method for giving search engines explicit clues about the content of a web page. It is a standardized format for providing information about a page and how it should be classified. The main organization creating these classifications is called Schema, which is a group founded by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Yandex to create a new way to classify the web. Companies have also created extensions to the basic classifications for more specific kinds of data.

This information isn’t visible to users, but it is used by search engines. By reading the entries in the structured data section of the page, it gives them much more information to work with. Furthermore, sites with the right kinds of structured data entries on the page might gain access to search engine features unavailable to pages without them.

Have you seen the Top Stories carousel on Google before? That’s powered by structured data. Breadcrumb information is also powered by it. So is corporate contact information features. Here is a current gallery of the special features, so-called “rich results” that Google offers websites who use structured data.

If you’ve run into these entries before in your browsing, you know that these results are often right at the top of a search. Thus, if you’ve been struggling to grow your organic reach with your content then structured data will help you shortcut your way up there.

Who Is Using It?

Structured data had limited uses a few years ago, but now its importance has grown. Google has some case studies of how structured data improved some major brands to boost traffic, conversion rates, time on site, and other metrics.

Structured data may sound like an SEO tool, but it promises to be something more fundamental than that. It is the beginnings of a new kind of library science that can handle the linked contents of the web in a more formal way. If you can get used to adding structured data to your pages now, you’ll be ready for when search engines leverage that data to improve their results rather than playing catch up.

What Does Structured Data Look Like?

If you try to read through the different types, it can get bewildering quickly. There are hundreds of Schema types. There are also three different accepted ways to encode them into your website. 

Let’s take a simple example of how we might mark up this article using a structured data format called JSON-LD, which is the formatting preferred by Google:

If the code intimidates you, don’t worry. There are several schema generation tools that can help you create the code. Here’s just one example. If you want to get into the weeds, ask your local Javascript developer about creating JSON code. 

Let’s walk through this code snippet and see what it reveals.

The script tag (the stuff in <>) is HTML code that tells your browser to expect some non-HTML code. The type attribute tells your browser that we’re going to give them JSON-LD data. Between the script tags is a set of entries contained between {} characters. Each entry is a bit of structured data, consisting of properties on the left side of the colon, and values for those properties on the right. Each combination of values is separated by a comma.

The @context property tells search engines that you’re using the classifications set forth by The @type property tells them what type of content is on the page and what kind of properties to look for. These are the only required properties, but we want to give more information than that. In this case, we tell the search engines the headline of the article, an image we want to strongly associate with the article (and will show up on Google’s carousel), as well as the publication date.

The full list of possibilities for the Article type is quite large. Don’t panic! It’s better to give more accurate information with fewer properties than to use every property with junk data.

But What Structured Data Properties Should We Have?

This is a tricky question. We don’t know which properties may or may not become useful in the future to help search engines discover our content. But not all hope is lost. Google provides guidelines on which properties they like to see with different Schema types. Take a look at the listing on the left under Structured data for the major listings. You can also browse through the gallery linked earlier.

Google also gives great detail on exactly how they want properties formatted. This must be followed precisely. Why? Because Google will take manual actions against your pages if they have structured data that doesn’t follow their guidelines. A “manual action” is code for removing your pages from the search engine, the opposite of what we want!

How do we avoid this? Use Google’s structured data testing tool. You can give it a web page or paste in  the script snippet like in the example above for validation. The tool will tell you if there is anything missing that Google wants.

At the time of writing, if you put in the code snippet into the tool we get some warnings back that say we’re missing some required and recommended properties:

Google wants us to add an author and a publisher, as well as a dateModified entry. The mainEntityOfPage property is a bit trickier. If you have a page with multiple types of data on it, you use that property to tell the search engine which one is the main one.

So, for instance, if we had multiple articles on the same page, we could use that entry to tell that they are all on a generic WebPage type, which might have its own properties (e.g. a permalink ID).

If there are particular properties in a type that you think would help the search engines that aren’t required, feel free to add them if you have the data for them. But if you’re just getting started with structured data then stick with the required things.

Is There A Catch?

There are certainly obstacles. There are obstacles to adding structured data. Not all CMSes have easy support for adding structured data. The required and recommended properties might change over time so audits will be necessary (though they can be folded into an SEO audit). And there is a risk that malformed structured data could get some pages delisted.

There is another danger that we’ll be writing about in a future piece. If your content is extremely good, you might notice that you’re getting a lot of impressions but a lower CTR. Here’s what happens. Google loves your content and throws it up to the top. Let’s say it’s an FAQ. You explain something so clearly that the searchers get everything they need through Google’s features. You get the impression because they looked at your data, but they never click through to your site.

There are ways around this, but there are currently no best practices. One way might be to add in links with further information about a topic on your site. This could be an early form of Structured Data Optimization, though you’d have to be careful not to let Google think you’re redirecting them to something that isn’t relevant.

There’s a cross-purposes game here. The more that Google can keep people on a SERP by showing great answers in a useful way, the longer users will look at PPC ads. However, unless you’re leaning into more complicated types like FAQs and how-to’s, this isn’t a concern.

Structured data will revolutionize how search engines categorize the content of the web. Rather than making guesses based just on keywords and popularity, site owners will be able to give engines more accurate information about what’s on a page. This lets search engines develop new features that will help searchers find what they’re looking for faster than ever before and with higher quality. 

If you haven’t added structured data to your toolkit yet, this is the time to get in on the ground floor. Look over Google’s guidelines on it and give it a try on your site.