Structured data is not a new concept. As a blanket term, structured data simply refers to pieces of information that have some level of organization. Sometimes referred to as a “structured markup,” there is a specific way of organizing the information on your site so that Google can pull in the information necessary to correctly index and present your site (and learn about specific topics).
There are a handful of ways that Google currently uses this information. First, there are “rich snippets,” which are pieces of information that Google includes as part of your entry on SERPs. For example, Google might pull in your meta description field to describe your page to search users or present dates and times for upcoming events based on specific queries. Second, Google can use your structured data to more accurately discern information about your site. For example, it might peruse your structured information to quickly find out what industry you’re in and what you offer your users.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly to Google, structured data is the basis for the Knowledge Graph. By categorizing information like dates, places, and events, Google can quickly learn facts about any topic and compare those facts to similar entries on the web until it has a sufficient understanding of the topic. At that point, it’s able to compile the information into a presentable format for the end user.
All of these methods share a common function; Google uses structured data to quickly gather the most important information about your site. Unstructured data is chaotic and hard to interpret, so Google’s algorithm naturally prefers content that is properly structured. But until this point, it’s only served as a “nice to have” quality. If you don’t structure your onsite data, you might miss out on some extra visibility on SERPs, but you won’t suffer any kind of ranking penalty. Now, it looks like Google is planning to use structured data as an actual ranking signal, and that could mean big changes for the SEO community.
For years, Google has made it clear that while rich snippets and structured markup can improve the look of your search engine entries, thereby increasing click throughs, there are no ranking benefits to including these structures. However, according to Google’s John Mueller, structured markup is something that Google plans to incorporate into its master ranking algorithm. In his explanation, Mueller acknowledged that pages with structured markup are both easier for the algorithm to identify as serving a specific purpose and are a clear indicator that the webmaster is trying to make the page as useful as possible.
As you might expect, Google is tight-lipped about any details regarding the change, including when it might go into effect. According to Mueller, structured data is something that should be included “in the long run.” This could imply that they’re currently working on something to release in the next few years, or it could imply that they’re a few years away from starting the work. As Google gears up for more and more mobile-friendly features and advanced search methods with digital assistants and social media integration, structured data as a ranking signal may be one of their lower priorities.
Though purely speculative, I would imagine seeing structured data emerge as a ranking signal sometime next year. Google changes at a rapid pace, and most of their hints and postulations come to fruition in relatively short order.
Before you drop everything to make sure your site is full of structured data, realize that the introduction of a new ranking signal doesn’t downplay the importance of pre-existing ones. In fact, structured data will probably be only a bit player—at least according to John Mueller. In his explanation, Mueller elaborated that structured markup is an indication that a site is technically impressive. Technically impressive sites are nice, but what’s really valuable are sites that have great content and serve a great purpose. In short, while the technical execution of your site is important, content and function are still more important to your overall rank.
If you haven’t yet included any structured data on your site, now is a good time to do so. You won’t suffer a ranking penalty or a significant drop if Google decides to follow through on making structured data a ranking signal, but even without a direct ranking benefit, this structured data will help you earn more visibility and more click throughs from your searchers. It doesn’t take long to implement, and once created, it doesn’t require much ongoing upkeep. It’s a non-intensive step that could drive more traffic to your site and possibly help you rank higher in the future—why wouldn’t you want to use it?
If you want to include structured data on your site but don’t know where to start, Schema.org is the perfect resource for you. A free and open resource, Schema.org provides templates and instructions for proper markup of all kinds of information, from basic page information to data on events, organizations, products, and reviews. The more of these you can include on your site, the better. As the years go on, this level of data organization will only become more important—to search engines and users alike.