Here Are the Only Meta Tags That Matter

Do you prefer to browse the internet by category or keyword? In the early days of the internet, there were two conflicting search paradigms: the directory and the crawler. It was Yahoo’s directory approach against Google’s crawler.



graphical user interface, application: Vector illustration of programming and coding icon on computer screen


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Vector illustration of programming and coding icon on computer screen

The directory used a structured approach to organizing websites, whereas the crawler would take unstructured data and look for keywords in it. The crawler-powered search engines won, and internet search became keyword driven.

Today, the leading search engines are still crawlers, but they’re gradually adopting more and more structure in their data. They work with structured entities behind the scenes to provide better search results. And they also accept structured data input from websites. This has the potential to improve the search experience for users because search results become richer.



graphical user interface, text, application, email: Search results for "ice cream" on Google


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Search results for “ice cream” on Google

Overview: What is structured data?

The one piece of structured data people often talk about in relation to SEO is “meta tags.” Crawlers use information in two meta tags: “meta keywords”, and “meta description.” Meta tags can be defined as “information about the information” and are supposed to make it easier for crawlers to rank and present websites.

But people would stuff content in the form of a long list of keywords into those tags, hoping it would make their site rank better. And after a while, search engines started completely ignoring meta keywords. The importance of the other structured data type, meta descriptions, has declined too.

Think of structured data as something in a spreadsheet with column and row labels. Unstructured data is what you see in the text on a webpage, or in an article you are reading. In structured data, there are names for your information, like the “keywords” and “description” mentioned above.

The use of structured data for SEO is really the return of the meta tag. Only this time, it’s not about keywords and descriptions, it’s about valuable pieces of granular information, about what appears in your page.



treemap chart: Illustration of structured data for search engines and social media.


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Illustration of structured data for search engines and social media.

135 types of structured data

There are hundreds of types of structured data in schema.org. Many more than 135, but I didn’t count them all. And schema.org is only the reference library for the search engines Google, Microsoft, Yandex, and Yahoo. Many social networks use the OpenGraph vocabulary for structured data. It can be found at ogp.me.

Going through the library of entities in schema.org that are relevant for your business can be long and not necessarily fruitful. Let’s look at the question the other way round. What are some types of structured data that can be useful for your SEO?

Today Google takes structured data for a number of information types. It uses the data for things such as the rich results, but can also use it to build things called the knowledge panel and featured snippets. Let’s look at some of the item types Google uses for rich results for businesses.

1. Local businesses

Businesses with a physical location have a particular marketing challenge: driving people to that location. This is one of the big challenges for local SEO. For this purpose, structured data allows you to precisely connect your website with your physical location. You can carry your star ratings from a trusted provider into your page description as in the ice cream example above.

Additional business information can also be provided, including opening hours or menus in the case of restaurants.

@id aggregateRating
address department
name geo
geo.latitude
geo.longitude
menu
openingHoursSpecification
openingHoursSpecification.closes
openingHoursSpecification.dayOfWeek
openingHoursSpecification.opens
openingHoursSpecification.validFrom
openingHoursSpecification.validThrough
priceRange
review
servesCuisine
telephone
url

2. Products

For individual products organized in a database, the ideal solution for your site is to integrate structured data markup into your CMS. Many of the properties for markup are already present in your database, but it would be useful to add things like the product rating to the database and then have the CMS publish the structured data dynamically.

name aggregateRating
Either review or aggregateRating or offers brand
description
image
offers
review
gtin8 | gtin13 | gtin14 | mpn | isbn
sku

3. Articles

Most of the information you can add as structured data for publishing articles is available at publication. Many CMS systems will automatically publish this data. It’s worth checking whether the relevant data is being processed as part of your website management process and published on your pages.

author dateModified
author.name mainEntityOfPage
datePublished
headline
image
publisher
publisher.logo
publisher.logo.url
publisher.name

Google also takes structured data for events, TV episodes, book reviews, movies, and software applications, including more detailed elements such as image carousels or breadcrumbs for navigation. The list is expected to grow in the future. You can keep track of the full list of possible markups for Google in their Search Gallery.

How to use structured data to improve your website’s SEO

Let’s get practical and see how you can improve your SEO with structured data by going through the six steps below.

1. Identify rich results for your keyword set

When you run a search for your main keywords, do you see results that are different from the ordinary URL+title+description? These are rich results. They may have images, additional lines of text, and stars like in the ice cream example. You can get a better overview of the landscape by using a search marketing tool, as they typically indicate the presence of rich results for your site or your keywords.

Take note of the type of rich results you see to get an idea of where your own site can improve. This sort of analysis is typically carried out in an SEO audit which you pay a provider to conduct.



graphical user interface, application: Screenshot from SEMrush for the term ice cream.


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Screenshot from SEMrush for the term ice cream.

2. Find more relevant schema markups for your site

Now you have a good idea of the types of markup you could create for your site. Head over to schema.org to explore all the relevant markup types for your site. It may be a bit complicated to get your head around if you’re not a developer.

3. Try the Google markup tool

A simpler approach is to apply Google’s markup tool directly to your site. You can apply it to individual pages if your site belongs to one of the primary categories: Articles, Book reviews, Datasets, Events, Job Postings, Local Businesses, Movies, Products, Question & Answer Page, Restaurants, Software Applications, or TV Episodes.

If your page belongs to one of those categories, you can apply the markup visually and extract an html file to insert into your page. This is a viable solution if your site is relatively small and has all the relevant information readily available via the Google interface.

4. Define the content of your markup tags

Now that you’ve found the type of markup you can do on your website, the next step is to define the content for the markup. In the case of the ratings, it would be the number 5, for showing a five-star rating. If the content isn’t rich, there’s no guarantee it will improve your website traffic.

The content can be composed of individual pieces of information for individual pages in your website, or it can be data extracted from a database for insertion into many pages. If the data is likely to have updates, make sure you document the process for updating your website and set reminders for updating the page when the data changes.

5. Code it or use a plug-in

And now it’s time to call in the webmasters. If you used the Google markup tool, you can download the html code which gets inserted into your webpages. You can do this manually on each page, or if you use a CMS such as WordPress, you can find plug-ins for entering the values.

For more complex integrations, consider this website development. In a database-driven CMS, this will be a one-time integration, and data will update automatically if you update the database.

In practice, you have a number of ways to code structured data markup. Search engines like a format called json-ld. Facebook uses something called OpenGraph, and other formats exist with funky names like Microdata and RDFa.

6. Validate your markup code

Once your website is updated with structured data, you can go through a validation to make sure it’s working correctly. Google has created a rich results verification interface for this.



graphical user interface, application: Screenshots from the structured markup validation interface.


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Screenshots from the structured markup validation interface.

An example of structured data

We started out with that wonderful ice cream example, now let’s see what it looks like in practice. We’ve opened the page to view its source code, which is available in any browser. You can see in the code, how a reference is made to the schema.org markup protocol, and further down, you can see the code responsible for those wonderful stars from the listing.



text: The source code from an article in the NY Times.


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The source code from an article in the NY Times.

Prepare yourself for the semantic web

Structured data is not just for SEO. Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks use it to find the right photo and to show when you add a link to a post. Structured data is the hidden improvement of the web, hiding behind pages. Some call this the semantic web. It can have a huge impact on your SEO strategy if used correctly, and it can help other web services better present the riches of your website.

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