Over the last few years, search engines have become very good at understanding pages by looking at them in much the same way as human visitors. Many of the techniques used in the past to influence how pages are indexed are now simply ignored. For example, it’s been many years since the “meta keywords” tag has had any effect whatsoever. This does not mean, however, that there aren’t bits of code that can be added to web pages that affect how they are displayed both by search engines and social media. Here are a few of the different types of “semantic markup” that you should be aware of.
Schema and structured data
This type of code is defined by the standards body schema.org. It is added to a web page so that machines reading it (like Google search bots) can learn more about the content. According to Google Search Central:
Structured data is a standardized format for providing information about a page and classifying the page content; for example, on a recipe page, what are the ingredients, the cooking time and temperature, the calories, and so on. Google uses structured data that it finds on the web to understand the content of the page, as well as to gather information about the web and the world in general.
Types of structured data that Google understands includes:
- Book reviews
- Job postings
- Local businesses
In the best case, this data from your site is displayed on Google search results for relevant search terms, making your site an authoritative resource. And in any case, it adds to Google’s body of knowledge about your website.
Another type of structured data, sitemaps list all of the pages (and sometimes images) in your site in a machine readable format. While access to this data won’t affect your search engine ranking, it will ensure that all of the site’s pages are available to be indexed. Sitemaps can be submitted to Google through the Search Console and Bing through Bing Webmaster Tools.
Open Graph was created by Facebook and is also recognized by Twitter and LinkedIn, to represent the content of a page. Using it provides some degree of control over how Facebook displays links to your pages, including the title, description and image to be used. The Facebook document A Guide to Sharing for Webmasters describes it this way:
Most content is shared to Facebook as a URL, so it’s important that you mark up your website with Open Graph tags to take control over how your content appears on Facebook. For your website to be shared correctly by our crawler, your server must also use the gzip and deflate encodings.
Without these Open Graph tags, the Facebook Crawler uses internal heuristics to make a best guess about the title, description, and preview image for your content. Designate this info explicitly with Open Graph tags to ensure the highest quality posts on Facebook.
You can preview how your pages will be displayed using the Facebook Sharing Debugger.
Making it work
Assuming that your site uses WordPress (as more than 40% of all websites do), these data structures are added automatically either by plugins or themes (sitemaps are now built in to the WordPress core). Themes tend to handle lower level bits of the schema, like headers, footers and menus. Plugins are generally used for more precise control over structured data and Open Graph.
SEO plugins like The SEO Framework and Yoast SEO can manage all of the data types mentioned above in a single admin interface. There are also many single purpose plugins to handle data types individually. Just make sure that code is not being duplicated in your web pages by multiple plugins. This confuses the bots’ little pea brains.
If you are using a content management platform other than WordPress, you’ll need to dig into the documentation or contact tech support to find out which of these data types is supported and how to manage them.
While these tools may be a bit more technical than some website owners are comfortable with, they are worth understanding because of their strong influence on how search engines and social media display your site.