Ever since I’ve started speaking about SEO, I’ve always put up a blog post version of my talk so that people who were there can go back and reference it later and get a bit more detail than they would with just the slide deck alone. Today I’m keeping this tradition going with the blog post version of my SMX East 2013 talk on “Why Structured Data & Semantic SEO Are Important”. Sure it’s about a month late, but it was a crazy October. Enjoy!

    A little over a year ago, I’d never done any speaking or presenting, I’d never written a YouMoz post, I had a couple hundred Twitter followers, and none of my work ever got submitted to Inbound.org. SMX East 2012 was the first speaking gig of my career, so I started out my presentation with a question: “Does anyone here know who I am?” Of course, no one did.

    My talk was about Google Authorship and why claiming your online identify was important. My point in asking the audience if they knew who I was was that Google didn’t know who I was either. However, through something like Google Authorship, I could tell them. So, one year later, I could have started out my presentation the same way: “Does anyone here know who I am?” Aside from which blog posts I’ve written, what do you really know about me? There’s so much more to this entity than authored work.

    Last year, authorship was the system that answered the identify question. Google authorship leverages a semantic tag, one that carries meaning with it.


    It’s a property: really, a relationship. Google authorship turned out to be the tip of the iceberg for me and I soon discovered the world of semantic markup and structured data; something ridiculously bigger than a single, narrowly focused tag.

    Since then, I’ve become a huge geek for structured data and semantic markup and everything that this has the power to convey, to do, to revolutionize. I’ve literally woken up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat with an idea of how I could apply semantic markup to a piece of rich content. I ended up sitting in the kitchen for the next few hours exploring schema.org and running code through Google’s structured data testing tool (the result). So, I guess it goes without saying that I’m really stoked to be talking about this stuff.

    What’s Wrong with the Web Anyway?

    I’m trying to convince people that semantic markup and structured data are important, but that invariably brings up the question: “what’s wrong with the web anyway?” Sure, it seems to be working pretty well, but it could be so much better.

    What happens if I search Google for “conferences with Jon Henshaw speaking in October 2013”? I don’t get SMX as my first result, even though that’s the only event Jon’s spoke at in October. It’s because as much as we like to think engines have advanced, they’re still predominantly “string-focused”. While engines are definitely incorporating authority indicators into where things rank in results, those rankings still hinge on the string appearing in the content. When I do that aforementioned search, Google’s looking to see which pages have these words in their content:

    • Conferences
    • Jon
    • Henshaw
    • Speaking
    • October
    • 2013

    What search engines should be looking for is this:

    • “Conferences” means EntityType == Event
    • “with Jon Henshaw speaking” means PerformerName == Jon Henshaw
    • “in October 2013” means StartDate == 10/01/2013-10/31/2013

    The reason that’s not happening is because without advanced analysis, it’s hard for programs to understand what pages are about. Hopefully the Hummingbird algorithm was the start of something like what the web needs, but that remains to be seen, in my opinion. Search engines still struggle with understanding what content means.

    So that leads us to do this kind of crap. Exhibit A.

    Semantic markup beats keyword stuffing

    I really want to show the search engines that my about page is about an “Oregon Marketer”. I’ve done stuff like this before: keyword stuffing and over-optimization. Okay, maybe we, as SEOs, aren’t that bad anymore, but who’s done something like that at least a few times in their career? I know a lot of us have, and we did it because it freaking worked! But there’s good news; we might not have to do that crap ever again.

    Semantic Markup Changes Everything

    With tools like semantic markup, we now have a mechanism for creating meaningful data. Semantic markup helps search engines understand what our content, our data, means. Do you remember in the first Terminator film where the T800 had that really cool red-tinted heads-up display that could scan any object and get a read out about it? Semantic markup lets search engines do that!

    Semantic markup acquired

    In fact, the engines are already doing that pretty often. Pretty much, as often as they can find the data. There hardly even seems to be filter for quality that your site or page needs to pass to be eligible for rich snippet display (though that’s changing according to Matt Cutts’ Pubcon comments). That’s how hungry engines are for it.

    At SMX, there was a lot of talk about where all this is heading in the future, but here is stuff that’s happening right now! We’re seeing all kinds of structured data being pulled into our results: events, recipes, ratings, reviews, authorship, and breadcrumbs. We’ve also got new stuff like in-depth articles and organization logos. All that stuff is based off of semantic markup we apply to the data on our sites.

    Semantic Markup is Everywhere

    From Documents to Data

    So what is “data”, exactly? We should probably clarify that before we delve any deeper.

    Data is information.

    Data can define objects, like a person, a place, an event, a product. Basically, any THING. Data can also define properties that those objects have. Think color, dimensions, age, and ratings. Finally, data is also relationships. The event’s venue is a relationship between the event and the physical location. An employer is a relationship between a person and an organization. All objects, properties, and relationships are data.

    What is Data?

    The vision of the semantic web is to move from documents to data. Right now we’re creating websites that host a collection of webpages, i.e., documents. What can you do with a document? Pretty much all you can do is read it. What if you want to reuse or repurpose pieces of that document? You have to get out your scissors, cut it up, you could get paper cuts…it’s a huge pain, right?

    Data, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be permanently grouped into a rigid template like a document. The data is independently defined and can therefore