Posted by Paul Williams, Sr. Specialist, SEO
There’s a lot of talk in content marketing circles about “atomizing” your content – that is, breaking it up and making it accessible in small chunks to appropriate syndication partners, media, and communication channels (e.g. social media, apps, blogs, etc.). Your content is the most important representation of your product and service types on the Internet, so it makes sense to try and spread it around to as many places as possible, right? Most of the time, however, content strategists reference a conscious and manual effort to chop up content and push it out. What if there was a way to truly atomize your content and make it machine-readable by any partner or application, down to the tiny bits of content like longitude and latitude, hours of operation, inventory, movie times and other things that are often buried in databases or dumped into text blocks on your site?
One of the most advantageous methods for marking content and data on the Internet – especially to address these new digital channel needs – is through structured microformats. Once limited to the arcane interests of the semantic web development community, microformats have recently jumped into the mainstream consciousness of the broader webmaster community as an important and powerful mechanism to lay the groundwork for a fully connected world attached via the social operating system. As digital channels and online commerce evolve, content must remain effective, flexible, and visible. As mobile phones and their apps marshal strength against the stalwart desktop, content must adapt to more localization, specialization, and accessibility. The growing support and implementation from browsers, search engines, web services, and mobile developers more than justifies microformats’ employment for relevant content; the way these digital channels are using it yields tremendous advantages as well.
Giving Your Content an Upgrade
What exactly is a microformat? In a nutshell, it’s a kind of standard markup language used in your site’s code to identify content based on universally-recognized “types” which helps the content to be aggregated more easily into meaningful layers of application. Microformats and their utility range widely based on content types. Data such as reviews, recipes, addresses, products, listings, contact information, and audio all have representative microformats (see the full list of microformats). Wrapping data types with appropriate microformats better organizes your content for versatility and visibility across platforms, including search engines, web services, mobile/tablet apps, answers engines and mashups. The microformatting reference site Schema.org operates as an official venue for “shared vocabularies webmasters can use to mark up their pages in ways that can be understood by the major search engines.” It is endorsed by Google, Bing, and Yahoo – who are finally cooperating after years of the industry attempting to struggle over who owns the standard. The site declares:
“By adding additional tags to the HTML of your web pages—tags that say, ‘Hey search engine, this information describes this specific movie, or place, or person, or video’—you can help search engines and other applications better understand your content and display it in a useful, relevant way.”
Since a variety of channels and platforms can employ data wrapped in microformats, the markup can improve the semantic value of your products, services, locations, and other valuable data types. Just look at the hugely successful microformat implementation by Best Buy’s web development team – you get a sense of its importance for data and its interpretation by web services. When search engines and Web apps crawl properly marked content, they can easily decipher that data and do a number of things with them as a result – which includes pulling aggregate reviews (five-star scale) on the SERP, images/descriptions/prices of apps, recipe snapshots, and geo-location information. If the recent SEOmoz SERP eye-tracking study is any validation of an obvious point, unique listings and visual cues on a SERP drive magnetism in searcher focus that can quickly segue into clicks that overpower higher ranking organic results.
If your products rely on social interaction and network integration, it’s good to know that the top social networks are implementing them in user profiles (so Web services can interact with them) and user activity feeds (so that information can easily be embedded for convenience and use).
Though Schema.org is the new authority for metadata employed on the Internet, it doesn’t hurt to have marked-up content in the previous generation of microformatting, either. If you already have data formatted with Google’s rich snippets, for instance, there is no rush to transition (Google will continue to support these). Moving your data under the Schema.org umbrella, however, will smartly jumpstart your content for the future.
A Few Caveats Before Hitching to the Bandwagon
There are, however, disadvantages to using microformats. They will require the implementation of additional markup throughout your website. Whether the resources for this kind of task are feasible for its end benefits depends on the kind of product types and locations integral to your business. And since there are a limited set of data types supported by microformats, your data type may not even be fully supported. (Be sure to check data support types and properties at Schema.org.)
Additionally, other microformats exist apart from those ordained by Schema.org. Several of these other microformats can be found at Microformats.org and, until recently, Google’s own rich snippets (Google says it will still support these kinds of data formats, but suggests using Schema.org because it’s “a vocabulary that Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! can all understand”). An example of the differences in data type support by microformats is the location/content markup for hCard (older microformat) and LocalBusiness (Schema.org-approved). Since there has been much greater saturation of hCard-formatted addresses for business locations (especially useful for local SEO), it will require additional work to either reformat or add LocalBusiness microformatting to the same addresses.
Optimizing for the Future
Based on the important move of the collective cooperation of the major search engines and social media, we advise using Schema.org microformats going forward. The important Internet players are beginning to leverage this additional data mark up to dramatically improve their services, and can only continue to do so if Web developers provide them enhanced metadata as needed. In time, microformats will enable a virtuous circle to allow your content to be visible, more easily transformed, and deeply personalized to connect with more people in more places than ever before.