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What is Structured Data? A Beginner’s Guide

This is what structured data is, how Google uses it for rich results, and why it can help boost traffic.

What is Structured Data? A Beginner’s Guide

This is an introduction to Schema.org structured data that explains what structured data is, in plain English. Once you finish reading this you should have a better idea of what structured data is and how it can benefit you.

The goal is to demystify Schema.org structured data.

Diagram of How Structured Data is Used

Illustration showing how structured data works, with boxes labeled Structured Data, Google, Rich ResultsStructured data is a way to organize information about a web page and to communicate it within that organized structure.

Definition of Structured Data

In the most general sense, Structured Data is information (data) that is organized (structured). Organized information is basically what structured data is.

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A major purpose of structured data is to communicate specific information about a web page so that it becomes eligible to be displayed as a rich result in Google’s search results.

Meaning of “Marking Up” Structured Data

When dealing with structured data you’re going to hear phrases like, “marking up structured data” and “structured data markup.

Marking up” structured data means creating the structured data code.

Markup means a computing language. HTML is a markup language.

HTML organizes the web page content that a site visitor sees and the code that helps the browser display that web page (code that the site visitor does not see).

The HTML also contains informational content meant for search engines. That content is called Meta Data.

Structured Data is a Markup Language

Structured data is a markup language, too. Like HTML, structured data communicates content (data) in an organized manner so that search engines can display the content in an attractive manner.

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Similar to the meta description element in HTML, structured data is also a form of meta data.

Meta data is information that is not directly seen by site visitors. The content in structured data is seen by search engines.

Structured data makes it easy for search engines to understand what images and content are about and to accurately display that content in the search results.

Examples of the kind of data that is organized by structured data is the name of a product, review content, ratings, and images.

Structured data allows a publisher to label the name of a product, review content, ratings and images for search engines.

With structured data, search engines don’t have to use algorithms to know that something is a product image. Structured data tells them it’s a product image.

An image is labeled as a product image, specific words are labeled as a product review, etc.

Rules Are Necessary For Organizing Information

In order to organize something, one needs rules. When organizing the laundry, we sort the clothes by color.

Sorting by color is an example of a rule for organizing something.

Libraries organize books in alphabetical order by topic. Organization by topic and alphabet is also a rule used to organize.

Similarly, structured data has simple rules for how the information (data) is organized (structured).

Schema.org and Structured Data

The official website for structured data is Schema.org. Schema.org is the organization that creates the rules that are used to organize information that is on publisher websites.

There are two groups in Schema.org that are in charge of developing the structured data protocol, the Steering Group and the larger Community Group.

The community group does the main work of discussing, proposing, creating and updating structured data. The Steering Group, a smaller group, manages the entire process.

Google’s Relation to Structured Data

Google publishes developer pages, support pages, that are about Structured Data. These pages are are focused on describing which structured data publishers should use in order to qualify for rich results in Google’s search result pages (aka SERPs).

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Google doesn’t define what structured data is. Google defines which structured data it uses for the purpose of showing different kinds of rich results.

The focus of Google’s developer pages is limited to the context of rich results.

Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller recently remarked that he thought it was a shame that the documentation was limited to the context of rich results.

He suggested that using structured data that does not result in rich results but helps to communicate what the web page is about could be useful.

But he also cautioned that it’s easy to go overboard by marking up information that does not help Google understand what the page is about.

Read: Extra Structured Data Could Be Useful for SEO

Screenshot of a rich result in Google's search resultsPassing along information with structured data is how to get displayed in Google rich results.

How Google Uses Structured Data

Sites that use structured data are eligible to obtain search results with stars, images and top placement in the featured snippet that’s located at the top of the search results.

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All of that can result in more traffic.

Using structured data is a necessity, it is not really optional. If you don’t do it your competitors will.

Why Websites Should Use Structured Data

Sites that are eligible for rich results will benefit from more traffic if Google chooses to use the information.

Screenshot of a Google rich result featuring imagesThese are the search results for how to make french toast. The images and other rich content is due to the structured data in use by the publishers.

The above search results for “how to make french toast” shows attractive rich results at the top of the page.

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The images of french toast, the review star ratings, the cooking time information, the website organization name, all of that information (data) was communicated to Google with structured data.

It’s not guaranteed that using structured data will result in a prominent featured snippet position at the top of the SERPs.

Using structured data only makes a web page eligible for a rich result.

How to Use Structured Data

Google’s preferred version of structured data is JSON-LD, which is called a script.

There are other kinds of structured data but they are more complicated to work with than JSON-LD.

Other forms of structured data alter the HTML of a web page. JSON-LD by contrast is independent of the HTML and can be placed anywhere in the code of a web page.

You can put it in the footer, in the middle of the content or at the beginning of the web page in the head section.

Editing JSON-LD structured data is easy because it’s a script that you can just copy and paste into whatever text or code editor you want and then work with it.

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That’s something that can’t be done with the older forms of structured data.

This information on a web page:

ACME Home Cleaning offers a variety of services in Massachusetts, including:

  • House cleaning
    • Apartment light cleaning
    • House light cleaning up to 2 bedrooms
    • House light cleaning 3+ bedrooms
  • One-time services
    • Window washing
    • Carpet deep cleaning
    • Move in/out cleaning

Will look like this within a JSON-LD structured data script:

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<script type="application/ld+json">
{
"@context": "http://schema.org/",
"@type": "Service",
"serviceType": "Weekly home cleaning",
"provider": {
"@type": "LocalBusiness",
"name": "ACME Home Cleaning"
},
"areaServed": {
"@type": "State",
"name": "Massachusetts"
},
"hasOfferCatalog": {
"@type": "OfferCatalog",
"name": "Cleaning services",
"itemListElement": [
{
"@type": "OfferCatalog",
"name": "House Cleaning",
"itemListElement": [
{
"@type": "Offer",
"itemOffered": {
"@type": "Service",
"name": "Apartment light cleaning"
}
},
{
"@type": "Offer",
"itemOffered": {
"@type": "Service",
"name": "House light cleaning up to 2 bedrooms"
}
},
{
"@type": "Offer",
"itemOffered": {
"@type": "Service",
"name": "House light cleaning 3+ bedrooms"
}
}
]
},
{
"@type": "OfferCatalog",
"name": "One-time services",
"itemListElement": [
{
"@type": "Offer",
"itemOffered": {
"@type": "Service",
"name": "Window washing"
}
},
{
"@type": "Offer",
"itemOffered": {
"@type": "Service",
"name": "Carpet cleaning"
}
},
{
"@type": "Offer",
"itemOffered": {
"@type": "Service",
"name": "Move in/out cleaning"
}
}
]
}
]
}
}
</script>

I know that looks complicated but it’s not.

Remember when I said that there are rules for organizing the information like when sorting laundry for the wash? The above code is just like that.

Once you learn what the rules are, the above code will make sense. And that’s the goal for the next article in this series.

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Further Reading

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Roger Montti

Roger Montti is a search marketer with 20 years experience. He provides site audits, phone consultations and content and link ... [Read full bio]

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