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What Is Structured Data And How to Use it for Better Performance in SERPs

What Is Structured Data And How to Use it for Better Performance in SERPs

Inside this article:

Ranking on the first page of Google is big. But it’s still just one battle won.

To win the whole SEO war, you need the precious clicks. 

Don’t get me wrong. Ranking high in the SERP does guarantee higher CTR and more organic traffic

After all, the average click rate for the first position in Google is 28.5%, and it keeps dropping from position to position, ending up as a mere 2.5% for number 10. Anything beyond that has even lower results.

But there are other ways to get a few more clicks even if you’re not number one. Or—gasp—occupy more than one place in the SERP. Or to make your links look so attractive, people would click them instead of the boring number one…

After all, would you rather click this:

plain link in SERP

Or this?

rich snippet in SERP

(Provided that you’re hungry and love pasta, of course).

It’s quite obvious what I clicked!

Your pages can look just like that thanks to structured data.

But what does structured data even mean in the SEO context, why is it valuable, what might it look like in the SERPs, and how to implement it?

That’s what I will cover in this guide.

Let’s get right to it!

What is structured data?

“Structured data” is what we call any type of data that is organized under any set of criteria.

It’s the core of all relational databases that are managed by SQL (Structured Query Language).

But let’s focus on what it means for websites and SERPs.

In the words of the mighty Google themselves,

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.

Without this information, your website will be harder to understand by the bots.

To make the job easier for them, you need to add a proper markup to your code (more on that later).

The markup will:

  •  make crawling your website easier,
  • you’ll be classified correctly (and appear in search results for the right queries),
  • and increase your chances of looking much more attractive in the SERPs.

Schema.org, the kingdom of structured data

Schema.org is a semi-official language of structured data everywhere on the Internet. 

According to their website,

Schema.org is a collaborative, community activity with a mission to create, maintain, and promote schemas for structured data on the Internet, on web pages, in email messages, and beyond.

All schemas are divided into types, further divided into categories.

Schema.org vocabulary for restaurant

For example, if you run a website for a restaurant, schema.org will help you mark the reservation system, menu, cuisine, ratings, and much more.

Schema.org’s vocabulary works for different encodings and makes the developers’ (and SEOs’) jobs easier.

The formats of structured data

Google officially supports three formats (syntaxes) of structured data:

Formats of structured data supported by Google
While all of them are valid to use, Google recommends JSON-LD!

It’s also the best choice if you’re not a technical person since it doesn’t demand you to go deep into code.

How does structured data change the look of the SERPs? Real-life examples

Okay, so we discussed what structured data is and how it can help your website get classified better.

Now, let’s talk about how structured data influences the look of the SERPs.

First, I should warn you: the terms SEOs use for categorizing the different SERP enhancements aren’t unified. “Rich results,” “rich snippets,” “SERP features,” and “featured snippets” have slightly different definitions and scopes depending on who uses them.

So when you discuss them with your team, always make sure you’re on the same page!

By using structured data, we can make ourselves visible on Google in two different ways. I will call them rich results and SERP features.

What are the rich results?

Rich results are the standard search results but visually enhanced. They include elements other than the usual link + description combo.

Rich results claim more real estate in SERPs and make links more visually appealing.

What does it mean, exactly?

This is a plain Google link, with no additional information:

plain link in SERP

And this is a similar link on steroid:

rich result in SERP

Now, let’s talk about how exactly you might enhance your search results.

Reviews (stars)

One of the most popular elements of rich results. It displays the average “number of stars” left for a given result. Social proof served on a silver platter!

rich results with stars (review)

Local business details 

Apart from the review part, you can also see the price range to decide if you want to click the link.

rich result for a local business

Recipe details

A review plus a yummy-looking picture, preparation time, and calories!

rich result for a recipe

Product details

A review, price range, and current availability.

rich result for a product

Event dates

You can see the dates of specific events—and all the links are clickable.

rich result for an event

Breadcrumbs

Easy to miss in SERPs because we’re so used to them!

According to Google’s definition, 

Breadcrumb trail on a page indicates the page's position in the site hierarchy, and it may help users understand and explore a site effectively.

To put it simply, they are links that show you where you are in relation to the homepage.

Like this:

breadcrumbs on macy's site
Source: https://yoast.com/breadcrumbs-seo/

Breadcrumbs help Google navigate and categorize your site. They also look neat in the SERP.

breadcrumbs in a SERP

What are SERP features?

SERP features are all sorts of results that look different than the traditional link + description (+ other rich result properties listed above).

There are a lot of SERP features out there, and Google keeps adding new ones. Here, I will cover a few most common ones.

Featured Snippet

A Featured Snippet is precisely what it says on the cover—a fragment from a page followed by a link.

When appearing on top of the page, Featured Snippets give you a so-called “position zero.”

There are four types of Featured Snippets:

  • definitions, 
  • lists,
  • bullet points,
  • and other media types (typically a video)

Google doesn’t specify how it chooses the materials for the Snippets, but typically you must rank high first to have your site appear as a Featured Snippet.

Knowledge panel

Knowledge panels are boxes that include all the general information about the search query.

a knowledge panel for apple

The  data for knowledge graphs comes from high-authority sources. While it’s tough to become a knowledge graph source for general queries, you can try to get a knowledge graph about your company!

Knowledge cards

Knowledge cards are more concise versions of knowledge panels. They typically appear on top of the SERPs. 

a knowledge card for the length of nile

Image/video packs

Sometimes, Google displays a bunch of images or videos at the top (or middle) of the SERP:

a video pack in SERP

Clicking a picture directs you to Google Images while clicking a video leads you straight its source (most often YouTube).

If a video or image from your article shows up on the first page of the SERP and your link is already there too, it helps you claim more real estate!

Twitter cards

They’re tweets you can access directly from the SERP.

Twitter cards in SERP

They usually appear for brand-related queries. You can use them to promote your company’s official Twitter account!

Shopping results

Shopping results display offers from different stores around the web.

shopping results in SERP

They’re a part of Google ads called Product Shopping ads—so this time, a proper markup itself isn’t enough to try to appear among them.

Important tip: trying to optimize for each of these results will demand different actions from you. However, they all have one thing in common: adding structured data to your website! Later in this guide, I will show you how to do it.

Why should you care about structured data?

Structuring your data is a must in the modern Internet landscape.

If you don’t do it, Google will have trouble understanding your website’s content. And you don’t want that.

But is it worth it to optimize for specific rich results and SERP features? How do they influence SEO and CTR?

Let’s answer these questions.

Controversies around structured data

Let’s start with the bad news.

Last year’s research by Sparktoro and Jumpshot revealed that over 50% of all searches don’t end up in a click at all.

And that’s not all: year by year, the number of clicks on SERP results keeps decreasing.

graph showing Google CTRs and zero-click searches

It’s not surprising at all. Just think about it: if Google shows you the answer to your question right away, why would you waste your time clicking a bunch of different sources?

Structured data is also NOT a ranking factor. While useful for Google bots, it doesn’t directly affect your SEO.

Structured data is a gateway to higher rankings, CTR, & branding

Still, there are many benefits of structuring your data for rich snippets and even SERP features.

  • While not a ranking factor, structured data makes your content easier to crawl for Google, which might improve your rankings in the long run. The better Google understands your page, the better for your SEO. Adding more structured data can only help.
  • Rich snippets may increase the CTR. Not only does your link take up more space and become more visible, but you can also get some valuable social proof (think star reviews).
    You can become the most visually exciting link in your SERP of choice, or maybe a site with the best results!
  • For some keywords, Featured Snippets increase the CTR.
    It’s all in the keyword research! Using tools like Ahrefs, you can quickly check which queries result in many clicks and pick them as your polygon.
  • Thanks to other SERP features like video/image carousels, your website can appear on the first page more than once. 
  • Even though some SERP features like the knowledge graph can steal your traffic, they can benefit your brand. They increase brand awareness and credibility.
  • Want to dominate voice searches? You MUST get a Featured Snippet. According to Backlinko, 40.7% of voice search answers come from the Featured Snippet.
  • Think about it this way: if YOU don’t optimize for that Featured Snippet, somebody else will claim it sooner or later. And then, you won’t get the clicks anyway.
    You might just as well just go ahead and fight for higher rankings and more real estate in the SERP to build authority!

Now that we know the pros outweigh the cons, let’s see what implementing structured data looks like in practice!

How to make structured data work

I will tell you a step-by-step process of implementing structured data in a well-thought, result-oriented way.

Just remember: implementing the right structured data DOESN’T guarantee that you’ll get your dream Featured Snippet or knowledge graph. It just makes it possible to fight for it.

Check which structured data elements are right for you  

The first step of your structured data journey should be checking what kind of search enhancements are available. Then, think about how they fit your site.

Not every link needs a review displayed next to it, not every type of information fits into a knowledge graph, and so on.

Check all the viable options first. It’s best to consult a Google guide on search galleries. 

Google SERP feature list

It will show you all the structured data options and technical guides on how they work and how to implement them!

Perform keyword research and carefully check the SERPs

As with all things SEO, keyword research and keyword difficulty evaluation are the necessary first steps.

After all, not all SERPs are created equal. And putting extra work into structuring your data for a particular keyword might not be the best use of your resources.

Some SERPs are skimpy when it comes to additional features. Let’s take the “on-page SEO optimization” query.

We’ve got a simple Featured Snippet: 

A featured snippet for on-page SEO

And that’s about it. Even if you shot a great video about on-page SEO, trying to make it appear in a not-yet-existing video carousel in this SERP probably won’t work. Your only option here is taking over the Snippet.

But what if you run a website with Italian recipes and want to rank for your amazing Fettuccine Alfredo recipe? Let’s check.

This SERP (just like all culinary-related queries) is a real heaven of structured data.

First, we’ve got a recipe carousel. Mouth-watering pictures, good reviews—hungry me would click this in a heartbeat!

 a recipe carousel 1

And what happens when you click the “show more” button?

a recipe carousel 2

A lot more recipes! Even if you’re in position ten or nine, you might still make it to this graph and double your chances of getting clicks!

And that’s not all. Every link is a rich snippet with recipe-specific information (rating, preparation time, calorie count).

recipe rich snippets

We’re still not done, though. There’s a People Also Ask box in the middle of the SERP.

a people also ask box for fettucine alfredo

And right below it, we’ve got a video carousel.

a video carousel for fettuccine alfredo

You can optimize for either of these SERP features—or all of them!

Studying your SERP of choice will tell you the best course of action for structuring your data.

Spy on your competition

Careful analysis of your SEO competitors is always a good idea.

If your competitors made it far in the SERPs, they must have done something right. 

And you need to do at least just as good to stand a chance.

This rule applies not only to rankings but for structuring your data as well.

Tip: It’s worth checking how your competitors structure their sites even if you don’t need rich snippets and aren’t fighting for the Featured Snippet. Structured data still helps Google understand and classify your website better. Make sure the bots crawl it right!

Surfer’s SERP Analyzer lets you take a peek at your competitors’ site structure.

To show you how to do it, I’ll create a query for the yummy example from the previous point—the Fettuccine Alfredo recipe.

a query in Sufer SERP Analyzer for fettuccine alfredo recipe

There are two places that I can check to get an idea of which structured data the competition uses.

Next to each link, right by the “audit” button, you can find an icon that will show you all the 

schema.org markups the page uses. Just hover on it:

structured data in Surfer SERP analyzer

While the number of markups for the first link is impressive, there are fewer of them on the second site and almost none on the third.

Now you can get inspired by the one you like most and increase your chances of Google bots interpreting your site in the right way.

And who knows—maybe if you play your cards right, you can make your recipe look so attractive that it will surpass the higher-ranking links when it comes to CTR.

Additionally, you can see all the structured data types on the graph and compare them to each other—you just have to choose it from the bar on the left:

structured data category in Surfer SERP analyzer

35 out of 50 results from the top 50 has the “recipe markup,” so you should have it too!

Now you can see how many structured data types your competitors have in total and which are the most popular.

a graph showing popularity of different types of structured data in Surfer SERP Analyzer

Implement structured data (and optimize for Featured Snippets if you want them)

Now that you know which types of structured data you want, it’s time to implement them.

This might seem like a complicated, technical task, but it isn’t. There are ways to do it easily, even if you’re not a developer.

Let’s see your options!

Option 1: Use Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper

Google’s Structured Data Markup Helper tool is an easy way of adding structured data to your site. It doesn’t require any technical knowledge.

All you need to do is open the tool, select the data type you want to mark up, and paste your URL.

the first menu of google structured data markup helper

When you confirm, you will see your page on the left and data items on the right.

data items in google's structured data markup helper

Start highlighting elements of your page and assigning tags to them. The list from which you can choose depends on the data type you select in the first step.

tagging data types in google's structured data markup helper

When you’re done, click “Create the HTML.”

You will see a piece of code named “Structured data as JSON-LD Markup” on the right (you can change it to Microdata if you want). 

script block in google's structured data markup helper

You can then add the script to the head section of your HTML.

If you need help, you can click the “Article” button on the right (the name will differ depending on which data type you chose).

Then, click the “Finish” to see the next steps recommended by Google.

Option 2: Use an SEO tool or plugin

If you work on a popular CMS like WordPress, chances are you can find SEO tools that will help you implement structured data.

For WordPress, you can use plugins like:

Each tool has its properties. Their advantage over the Google tool is that you can implement more types of markup in a more personalized way.

Option 3: Get straight to the code

You can find ready-to-go code bits in Google’s developer guide or schema.org.

a piece of code from Google
Source: https://developers.google.com/search/docs/data-types/article

However, to implement them, you need a developer or programming skills. You can’t just copy and paste the code willy-nilly.

According to Google, “the most common issues are syntax problems (especially missing or required commas) and forgetting to add a required or recommended property.” Not to mention the code needs to remain consistent throughout the website.

This most ambitious way of data structuring will work for every markup.

Optimize for the Featured Snippet

Optimizing for Featured Snippets needs a special mention. You can increase your chances of getting a Snippet with a few changes to your copy.

  • Format your content for the Snippet you’re after. How you do it depends on the SERP. If you want to replace your competition, simply opt for the same Snippet type that already appears in the SERP. If you’re a trailblazer, use: paragraphs for definitions, lists for “how to” questions and listicles, and tables for data and data comparisons.
  • Are you writing a paragraph? Keep it short and concise. Moz discovered that “the optimal length of a featured snippet paragraph is roughly 40 to 50 words.”
  • Keep the structure clear. Just like you always should be doing, use H2s and H3s consistently. It’s also a good practice to include the question you're answering in the H2.
  • Take good care of your above-the-fold. You can include a summary-like list of contents so that Google can snatch it directly for a Snippet.

Just remember: you still need structured data for Google to understand your website!

Validate your structured data

To find out if all markups are implemented well and your site is eligible for rich results, use Google’s Rich Results Test. 

It will show you “which rich results can be generated by the structured data it contains.”

Monitor the structured data in Google Search Console

After the bots crawl your page, the structured data elements will appear automatically under the Enhancements tab in Google Search Console. 

Upon clicking the category you want, you’ll be able to see their performance and check validity! 

It’s worth doing it every once in a while to check if you have everything under control.

Summary

And here we have it: a short guide on implementing structured data.

Structured data helps organize your website so that Google bots can better understand and categorize it.

Google also uses structured data to display SERP features and rich snippets. Thanks to them, you can take over more real estate in SERPs.

While not a ranking factor on its own, structured data can help and supplement your SEO efforts. It makes your website easier to crawl by Google, may increase your CTR, enhance brand awareness, and help you dominate voice searches.

To check which structured data will work for you, learn which markup types exist, carefully inspect your keywords of choice, and spy on your competition. It will help you make an educated guess on which SERP enhancements you can try to take over.

Then, it’s just a matter of implementing structured data (how you do it depends on your CMS & skills), validating it, and monitoring your results.

Structuring your data is a must. If you don’t do it, it will make your site hostile for the bots and unprepared for modern SERPs. 

Jump on the structured data bandwagon and help your on-page SEO efforts!