Structured data is a way for website owners to tell search engines like Google what the content on their website means. It adds context to content.

The way we discover websites has gone through several changes over the years. To begin with, to visit a website, you just typed it into your address bar. Soon there were directories organised by topic or industry.

Search engines revolutionised website discovery and remained the way most of us find new websites to visit. But they too have progressed from merely searching the text on each page to see if it matches what you are looking for.

Nowadays, a contextual search is much more significant. Any written text – and any web page – has a specific purpose, whether it’s to educate and inform, to persuade (including persuading people to buy something), to entertain or to instruct (e.g. a recipe).

Structured data uses several different methods to add this contextual information to a web page, so the search engines – notably Google – know if it is a review, recipe, contact details, opening hours, and so on through a long list of other formats.

How does structured data work?

You can add structured data to a web page in several different ways:

  • JSON-LD. This is Google’s preferred method and uses JavaScript notation embedded either in the head or body of the page using a <script> element.
  • Microdata is used directly in the page HTML to add structured data to elements on the page and can also be used in the page header.
  • RDFa is an HTML5 extension again used on user-visible page elements and can be placed in the header or body.

Objects have specific required properties that you must include if you want your page to achieve an enhanced listing in Google’s search results.

However, it’s important not to include extraneous information for the sake of filling all the properties, especially when it comes to the optional additional properties.

What is Schema.org?

You may have heard of Schema.org concerning structured data. This is one of several ‘vocabularies’ that defines the properties you can give to a particular page object and how to specify them.

If you include structured data specifically to achieve an enhanced listing on Google, it’s worth remembering that some attributes are designated as required within Schema.org, but are not mandatory for Google.

Therefore, developing structured data content is all about what you want to achieve. For full compatibility, you might want to include all of the required attributes for both Google and Schema.org, even if an attribute is only mandatory for one or the other.

How to test structured data

Google provides a Structured Data Testing Tool that can check your page content for valid structured data.

The tool can check snippets of code by pasting them directly into the page, or you can provide it with the URL of a page you have already published, and it will retrieve and check the full page.

You should also see statistics for structured data start to appear in Google Search Console under the Enhancements category – but only if you have structured data that has been successfully indexed by Google.

You may also see errors listed in these reports. These can help you to diagnose any problems with your structured data, but they don’t necessarily mean your pages won’t already get an enhanced listing on Google.

Why is structured data important?

The search engines, including both Google and Bing, are increasingly focused on understanding the context of a search query so they can provide the most relevant results to users.

In some cases, that means embedding information directly into the search results – such as the information like opening hours, address and contact details that you sometimes see when you search for a company.

For business owners, using structured data is a way to make sure this information is correct. You can support this further by claiming your Google My Business and Bing Places for Business profiles, checking your location appears on Google Maps correctly, and so on.

For other content types, it’s equally important to use structured data. This can ensure that 5-star ratings appear in results pages, that recipes are indexed appropriately, and so on.

This additional context is something your competitors might not yet be doing, so it’s an excellent way to overtake your rivals when trying to improve your SEO.

Does structured data affect Google rankings?

The official line is that structured data in itself will not make your page rank higher, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial for SEO.

SEO is not just about ranking higher in the results – it’s about every aspect of your ranking, including anything that can make your result more eye-catching and encourage more people to click on it.

Structured data has significant implications for this, as it can make your result much more prominent than others on the page, especially if your page is chosen as the primary featured rich snippet.

Even if people don’t click through to your website, you could still gain more brand awareness just by being featured in Google results in this way.

So does structured data affect Google rankings? Maybe not directly. But does it affect your overall presence in Google’s search results? If done correctly, it absolutely can.

Is structured data future-proof?

The future of the internet is uncertain, and new technologies emerge all the time. Still, structured data is based on broad standards that are not unique to Google and have many potential benefits and applications.

Whereas some past SEO techniques have fallen by the wayside, the inclusion of contextual data in search results has so far only gained more considerable significance over time.

By including this contextual data in your website now, you unlock the potential of achieving an enhanced listing in the search results – something you certainly won’t get if you don’t put the additional properties into your page.

In the future, even if Google stop using this method to determine the context of a web page, it is highly unlikely ever to have any adverse effect on your rankings. For all these reasons, it makes it a great contender if you’re looking for future-proof SEO techniques to try.