Insight | Marketing

Why you can't afford to ignore structured data

Structured data has been around for over a decade, but do you really need to implement it for your website?

Search marketers have been talking about it for years, and search engines have been experimenting with results powered by structured data since 2009.

In the last eighteen months or so, however, there has been a major shift both in the importance search engines place on structured data, and the impact it is having on the SERPs.

As a result, structured data has now become an extremely important part of modern SEO. Despite this, it remains relatively poorly understood by most marketers.

If you want to learn more about what structured data is, check out our introduction to structured data. In this article, we’ll look at why structured data is so important for your business.

The backstory

Google brought out their first organic SERP feature powered by structured data in 2009: the rich snippet. It allowed websites to enhance their organic links with extra snippets of data (reviews, for example). 

Over time, Google gradually added more rich features, joined at a slower rate by the other major search engines.

These features steadily became more common, but as recently as late 2016, they were not a major feature in most of the SERPs, and for SEOs, the main focus remained on the ‘ten blue links’ of the regular organic results.

The change

With the growing popularity of voice search, however, we saw the beginnings of a major shift at the tail end of 2016, as featured snippets were introduced. This really kicked into another gear about midway through 2017, as both the volume and variety of rich results increase significantly. Rich results started to dominate the SERPs for popular queries, with a resulting impact on CTR (more on that later).

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Dec 2017 was when Google rebranded all of its rich search features under the umbrella term of ‘rich results’ and launched a new structured data testing tool specifically for rich results - an implicit signal that rich results were going to be a major, long term part of SERPs going forward.

Fast forward to late 2018, and these rich results have become an established part of organic results. 

To display these results, search engines rely on websites adding structured data to their pages. The benefits of structured data to search engines is significant: it makes their job of indexing, organising and comprehending the information on the web much easier.

They have been steadily pushing webmasters and content creators to use structured markup for sometime now, but the decision to prioritise rich features marks a much more concerted, even aggressive, push to make structured data the new norm. Through a combined carrot and stick approach, search engines (none more so than Google) are stepping up the pressure on SEOs to conform.

So, why should you be on board?

The carrot

In most cases, appearing in one of the rich results can bring some significant benefits for a site, including: 

Improved Targeting

The most valuable benefit to sites of adding structured data to pages is the improved targeting it can give them. Now at this point, we want to dispel the commonly held misconception that that having structured data on your site will give you a ranking ‘boost’. It won’t (at least, not directly). Structured data is not one of the factors Google uses to determine how to rank content. 

What it does do, however, is help search engines better understand the content of your pages, and therefore makes them more lively to serve relevant content (more about this in our other article).

Rich Results

The other major carrot Google is dangling in front of site owners is the prospect of appearing in one of the rich results. Structured data does not guarantee you will appear in the rich results, but it certainly makes it much more likely. 

This can bring a number of benefits, including:

Visibility

Depending on the search term, organic results, even position one, can be pushed remarkably far down the SERPs, particularly on mobile. Featuring in one of the rich results, on the other hand, can give great visibility, placing you at or near the top of the page. The engaging format of most rich results also boosts your overall visibility.

Linked to this, it is possible to effectively get ‘boosted’ rankings by appearing a rich result. Although Google very rarely includes a site in the rich results that isn’t already in the top 10 organic links, it doesn’t seem to discriminate between which of the top 10 it chooses. Being in a rich result, therefore, means you can appear at the top of the page, even if your normal organic ranking would place you lower down the page.

Boosted CTRs (not universally true)

Being in a rich result can bring major CTR boosts (some figures suggest sessions can improve as much as 500%)

This definitely isn’t always the case: rich results for sports related queries, for example, actively harm the CTR of those who appear in them. In many cases however, a good CTR boost still applies.

Exclusivity (esp. for voice search)

Particularly on mobile, being in a rich result can bring an enviable exclusivity as standard organic links get pushed further down the page. This is especially noticeable for voice search, where Google tends to only give one or two answers. It’s worth pointing out though that with voice search, Google generally tries to answer a user query straight from the SERPs, so it may not always equate to more clicks.

Authority

There is a certain authority given to rich results. However inaccurately, many users will tend to view pages featured in the rich result as having an unofficial seal of approval from Google. This is also true with featured snippets, which are often presented as ‘the’ answer, but you don’t necessarily need structured data to get a featured snippet.

The stick

So, if you manage to get into one of the rich results, there can be some significant benefits. Conversely, however, not being in one of these results can have some hefty negative consequences for your organic performance. These include:

Lowered click share

Organic click share has unequivocally declined since rich results were introduced. This decrease is not shared equally across devices, search query length, or industry, but the overall trend is negative. Those in the rich results will benefit from the offset of a boosted CTR, but standard organic links don’t do so well.

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‘No click’ searches

No click searches (where no link - paid or organic - gets any traffic whatsoever) are on the rise. Google’s policy of answering user queries straight from the SERPs might be good for the user, but it’s not great for content producers or the SEOs trying to market them. Jumpshot data puts the percentage of no click searches on mobile at a whopping 61%. Rich results don’t guarantee clicks but their CTR boost does help offset this fairly brutal impact.

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Crippled CTR

Whilst being in the rich results can give you a CTR boost, a combination of both the lowered click share and increase in no click searches means that results not included in the rich results can experience significantly lowered CTRs. Even ranking on the first page now is not enough to protect you from this. Once more, the only real way to offset that is to be one of the rich results.

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Top 5 vs bottom 5 of top 10

The CTR split between the top half of the organic links and the bottom half has always been notable, but rich results can exacerbate this by splitting the organic links and appearing midway down the page. 

The net result

It’s important to state that traditional SEO remains as valuable as it ever did, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Even with reduced click share, organic click share remains far higher than paid and a critical marketing channel. You do not need to completely change or discard long-standing SEO tactics to cope with these changes.

Nor, strictly speaking, do you actually need structured data. Normal organic results still work in the same way, and other valuable features like featured snippets do not need structured data at all. 

Two things, however, are beyond doubt:

  1. Search engines (particularly Google) have redefined how they intend to answer user queries, and the recent focus on rich results are a result of that change
  2. Search engines (again, particularly Google) want more websites to use structured data, and they are prepared to use a combined ‘reward and punishment by proxy’ approach to make this happen

Now, some brands, notably Indeed, have opted not to play Google’s game (LINK), opting instead for the tangible returns of clicks rather than exposure. It’s a bold and risky move, but in our opinion, this will likely only really work if you have a strong enough brand to get away with it.

Conclusion

The changes to the SERPs don’t mean organic marketing is any less important. What it does unfortunately mean is that it’s got a lot harder.

There are some positives. Long tail keywords have yet to feel the full force of the changes, and even the ‘chunky middle’ seems to be relatively well protected for now. Focusing on these keywords makes as much sense as it always has and should remain a fundamental part of your SEO strategy. 

For popular queries, however, the game has changed. The pressure is on to conform to the new standards and start using structured data on your site. In the current SERP market, you can’t really afford not to.

We hope this as been helpful. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Need help with implementing or optimising your structured data? We offer a comprehensive SEM service for clients across all different industries. Get in touch today and see how we can help.

Henry France

Written by:Henry France