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A Call To Search Engines to Reduce Dependence on Microformats

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Over the past decade microformats have been playing a larger role in how search engines read websites and display information in the SERPs. For sites that have been able to keep up with and incorporate these recommendations, the benefits have been substantial. For end users, seeing additional information included in search results or Facebook timelines has made knowing what to click on easier than ever.

So What's the Problem?

hCard, Open Graph Protocol, Schema, RDF, hRecipe, hReview, geo-extension, rel=author – the list goes on. Each of these requires unique implementations that generally need to be handled by somebody with a fair amount of technical knowledge, and very few sites take advantage of these improvements. Even sites that embrace and attempt to implement microformatting often do so incorrectly.

How Bad is the Problem?

It's bad. Conductor recently did a survey of the top 250 tech sites to see how many have correctly implemented Google's authorship markup tags. The rel=author tags are what causes an author's photo to appear in Google’s search results, next to a listing for a blog post they write.

While there have been studies that show click-through rates rise dramatically after implementation, less than 10 percent of the tech sites surveyed have correctly implemented these tags as the Conductor graph illustrates.

conductor-rel-author-implementation

Similarly, I surveyed 20 travel sites that have hotel specific pages. They included online travel aggregators (OTAs) like Travelocity and Orbitz, opaque sites like Hotwire and Priceline, and brand sites like Hilton and Best Western. Out of the 20, only half had any microformatting on their individual hotel pages.

Without microformatting, Google includes no star ratings, testimonials, breadcrumbs, addresses, images or other rich details for these sites on the search results pages - likely leading to much less brand engagement on the SERP and fewer clicks to their websites.

Some of the smartest people in the online space manage these travel sites. They “get” digital marketing and invest tens of millions of dollars per year into driving traffic and revenue through their sites. These companies employ scores of seasoned Web and application developers who know the exact value that incremental clicks provide and generally have resources to implement microformatting.

If they cannot get simple semantic markups implemented correctly, how can Google and the rest of the search engines expect people managing much smaller sites to do so?

Is There a Solution?

There isn’t an easy one. Recently, a business.txt file was proposed on Github as an alternative to hCard or schema.org business formatting, offering a place for sites like Yelp, Citysearch and Google to gather information about that business.

While this would certainly be easier to implement than any of the existing microformats, I’m still skeptical that most business owners with websites would be able to create the file correctly and know how to add it to the root directory of their website.

Robots.txt files have been around since the mid-'90s, and the amount of websites that do not have one dwarfs the sites that do. In addition, many sites that create a robots.txt file continue to make mistakes that have a negative impact on how that site is indexed, defeating the entire purpose of the file. If this indicates how well the business.txt file would be adopted and integrated, no problems will be solved.

In a Google+ thread, Paul Kinlan, a Google employee, stated that instead of adopting this file “Yelp and all similar services need to get smarter and do the page scanning and indexing automatically.” I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment.

I only wish that Google would devote more resources to this exact issue; asking any small business to implement microformatting – even something as simple as hCard is unrealistic and unlikely to provide Google with the depth of information they would prefer to have in their index.


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