Saturday, April 2, 2011

Semantic Markup for Local Businesses and eCommerce - Google's Rich Snippets for Better CTR

Google’s increasing emphasis this year on its “Rich Snippets” program (an observation obtained directly from one of their Client Account Managers) should encourage businesses, and especially local vendors and eCommerce merchants, to start using additional “semantic markup” for their HTML. “Semantic markup” is additional tagging (or labels) using structured data that are added to help parsers and programs that read your webpage to understand truly what specific content areas or fragments are about. Google currently supports labels about reviews, people profiles, products, business listings, recipes, and events. The labels are invisible to users, but not to search engines.

For example, a local business that states it’s located at “123 Reston Drive, Florida City, California” – might drive search engines or 3rd-party location apps a little nutty trying to figure out where it is. Likewise, a single product page may have testimonial content associated with both the product, and the company; which should show up as review summary in the search results?

Note – this blog entry only barely scratches the surface of years of debate, research and evolution of these semantic constructs and standards…there’s plenty to discuss, argue and find more information about at other sources, including Google.

Rich Snippets are the little gray text fragments that show up in Google place pages and search results, right under the title of the result and before the description of the page’s content (which itself is dynamically-assembled according to a number of inputs). The Rich Snippet text is assembled by Google (according to its own proprietary algorithms) from the Semantic Markup that’s applied within the page…using one of three currently recognized HTML extension standards: RDFa, Microdata and Microformats. Within these standard syntaxes, there are many vocabularies to use – for example, a rapidly-growing RDFa standard vocabulary for product descriptions is the “GoodRelations” vocabulary, whereas Google has created its own “Merchant Product Taxonomy” as a standard vocabulary for use with Microdata syntax.

These three standards are basically ways to describe (i.e. a “syntax”) specific concepts using standard or custom vocabularies. RDFa (Resource Description Framework – in attributes) is very powerful for use in web documents, but not specifically designed for common HTML usage (it enables extensions for XHTML documents only), so can be challenging to use across all the varying types of web pages on the Internet. Microformats were initially created to enable additional semantic labeling of HTML/XHTML documents for expressing contact info, geographic positions, calendar events, relationships, etc. You may have heard of “hCalendars” and “hCards” – these are Microformats used by many Internet products and search engines, including Facebook. Microformats have been leveraged to create a new syntax called Microdata, very closely associated with the development of the new HTML5 standard.

Wikipedia puts the relationship among the three standards very succinctly: “Microdata can be viewed as an extension of the existing microformat idea which attempts to address the deficiencies of microformats without the complexity of systems such as RDFa.”

Any of these can be used to markup HTML pages to influence Google’s Rich Snippets, and therefore enhance user experience, clickthrough likeliness and search results – but it appears that at this time, Google’s support of Microdata, the close association of the Microdata open standard with HTML5 evolution, and Microdata’s ease of use (in my own opinion) makes it a best choice at this time. This is, however, a best choice for marking up pages to ease findability on the web via Search Engines, and especially to enhance click-through-rates (CTRs) from Google - and may not be the best choice for other website intentions, audiences or 3rd-party interactions.

Actually implementing Microdata isn't too rigorous, for a few individual site pages - but if your site uses a CMS or has many product pages, that change often, it's important to establish a bit of a templated approach to the HTML tags utilized. Try not to add Microdata to any HTML that's hidden from users (except with meta tags), try to avoid adding additional SPAN or DIV tags (look for reusable DIVs or Section markers that are constant across pages), and be sure to consider which tags may change frequently (like monthly price specials), so your design takes this into account. Altogether, this is another reason, when designing or redesigning your web presence, to first carefully plan and design your Information Architecture, inclusive of the vocabularies to use in semantic markup.


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