Your Guide to Structured Snippets for SEO

Google is known for its commitment to continually improving and refining its search results, from making regular updates to the ranking algorithm, to the format of the results that appear. Rich snippets, the informational text lines that appear beneath the heading of every search result, recently underwent an upgrade in the form of “structured snippets,” a more fact-driven format for certain search queries.

Google’s intention is to provide users the best possible Web experience, and in this case, that means giving users some of the information they need before they even click the link. As a collaborative effort between Google Research and WebTables research teams, structured snippets are going to change the way people find information on the Web, and you’ll need to adjust your optimization strategies as a result.

What Are Rich Snippets and Structured Snippets?

First, it’s important that we define exactly what “rich snippets” and “structured snippets” are. Some marketers have been using the terms interchangeably, but this is not accurate. Structured snippets are a type of rich snippet, and will not apply to every query.

Rich snippets exist to enhance the results pages and give users more information about what they’re searching for. For example, searching for a movie could result in brief excerpts of reviews or a synopsis of the film. This allows the user to, at a glance, get some preliminary information about their search query before clicking on any links. Rich snippets are pulled from specially formatted data on websites, which Google actually helps you build, so you can include information that you want your potential searchers to see.

Currently, Google offers rich snippet support for several types of content, including:

  • Information on people
  • Product specifications
  • Business and organization information
  • Reviews of products and features
  • Recipes for food items
  • Events and music
  • Video content

Structured snippets, on the other hand, offer specific information about a given query based on aggregated Web results. This means it can completely ignore meta data structures, and instead search for key information sitting out there on the Web. For example, if you search for the movie Die Hard, Google could search the Web for significant pages about Die Hard (such as IMDB and Wikipedia entries), and produce a structured snippet with information like the release date, main cast, and director.

The best example currently is one you can try yourself — search for “nikon d7100” and scroll down to the dpreview.com entry. You’ll see a handful of facts, including the camera’s resolution, weight, and display size.

How Will This Affect Click-Through Rates?

Some search marketers are justifiably concerned that offering more information on search results pages will reduce click-through rates, and therefore organic traffic. After all, if a user finds exactly what he/she is looking for on the first page of Google without the need to click any links, why would he/she?

The simple answer is that it probably will affect your organic traffic, with all other factors remaining equal. But you probably don’t need to worry about it affecting your bottom line. For example, if a user is only looking for the dimensions of a given product, that user is unlikely to buy your product whether they find that information on the SERP or whether they click through and find that information on your site. True, you’ll miss out on a bit of brand visibility and a few opportunities to convert on-the-fence users, but for the most part, structured snippets shouldn’t affect the number of people going through the sales process on your site.

How Do I Make Sure My Snippets Are Accurate?

Rich snippets and structured snippets differ in several ways, but the most important for search marketers trying to take action is this: rich snippets require you to structure your data in a way that Google can read, while structured snippets are automatically pulled from aggregated site data, regardless of how it is marked up. That means it’s far easier to control your rich snippet information than any structured snippet information that appears.

If you’re trying to build the most enticing and informative snippet possible for your Web pages, focus on optimizing for rich snippets. As explained by Google, there are three steps to creating rich snippets that provide valuable information to your customers.

Step One: Select a markup format

Google reads three formats of microdata for rich snippets, and it’s up to your personal preference which one you choose for your site. Microdata is the most popular and most recommended format, but Microformats and RDFa are also acceptable.

Step Two: Apply your markup format

Once you’ve selected a format type, you can apply it to any or all of the content types supported (listed above under “What Are Rich Snippets and Structured Snippets?”).

Step Three: Test

If you think you’ve got everything in order for the rich snippets you need, there’s just one more step: testing. It’s important to test your work because there’s always a chance that a coding error or an improperly formatted set of data is interfering with the way it’s displayed. Fortunately, Google offers a free, official Structured Data Testing Tool that can give you an accurate preview of any URL as it would appear (snippets and all) in the SERPs.

If you do want to make sure your structured snippets provide the most accurate information possible, all you can do is write the most accurate content. Google uses machine learning algorithms and complex crawling analyses to pluck out the most relevant information on given pages. That means there’s no direct way to control what appears in the SERP entry; you can only give the Google bots the best information to work with.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Search?

This addition once again demonstrates Google’s unflinching dedication to providing users with the best online experience, regardless of how it affects businesses who have built their strategies around search marketing. It also shows us a peek at Google’s long-term strategy: building an artificial means of understanding abstract, unorganized information and presenting it in an organized, meaningful, and concise way.

For the average Web user, structured snippets are a step in a futuristic and exciting direction. It takes us one step closer to a reality where one input can give us exactly the information we’re looking for, with no click-throughs or browsing necessary. But for businesses, that’s a scary eventuality. Right now, structured snippets only give users a handful of basic facts, meaning conversion rates won’t significantly drop and Web traffic will only be affected minimally. But what if the Google Knowledge Graph starts to produce more and more information, antiquating the old style of clicking on a link to learn more information? It’s a realistic possibility, if a far-off one.

Still, as a search marketer, it’s a little too early to be talking about a search marketing doomsday. Structured snippets are an enhancement to current search results — nothing more. Do what you can to provide the most accurate, relevant information to your site visitors, optimize your site with proper microdata formatting to get quality rich snippets, and maintain your adherence to best practices for user experience. Even with the interference of structured snippets, your search marketing campaign should continue to remain effective.

Image via Shutterstock.

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