Structured data, in short, is content that has been formatted for use in an organized database. It’s sometimes known as schema, although schema is technically a subset of structured data. Implementing structured data on your website can provide information to search engines and social outlets that they can integrate to their results pages. But what is it exactly?
Structured vs. Unstructured Data
If you were to read my juicy, sordid (and forever unwritten) memoir, you’d read all about the place and date I was born, where I’ve lived, all the cool crimes I’ve allegedly committed, etc. That would be an example of unstructured data.
If a search engine were to read that looking for information about me, it wouldn’t be in a particularly useful format. It’s just a huge pile of words without any structure or credibility to it.
Contrast that with my driver’s license. My driver’s license has all the essential data about me labelled and ordered without any of the irrelevant (and juicy) details. That’s structured data.
If a search engine read my driver’s license, it would immediately see all of those relevant details about me in a consistent, readable format.
Why Structured Data Matters
Without structured data, your web content is like my (very unwritten) memoir. It's just a pile of words. Whether it’s a help article, news article, review, FAQ, or your great aunt’s recipe for barbecued turkey, structured data helps the search engines understand your content faster and, in some cases, take the information you provide and display it prominently on the results page.
Structured Data in Action:
A while ago, the bigger search engines (Google, Yahoo!, Bing, etc.) all got together to come up with a standard for accepting structured data from web content. The result is Schema.org, 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.”
It’s basically a big list of different things that we can describe using structured data and the types of information we want to know about these things.
Here’s an example: if your web content is describing a Person, here’s a list of structured data points that we can use in our web content.
That’s an awful lot of data points. Not all of it will be relevant for your specific use. I’d wager that deathPlace and workLocation probably won’t be used at the same time too often. But if you were to provide all that information, Google would be able to take all of it and present it however it wants.
Try searching for George Washington on Google. In addition to your normal search results, you’ll also get this vertical information card listing a bunch of structured data about him.
It will only list a few things though. Here’s a list of structured data about George Washington available from Wikidata. You can see that there’s a lot more here than is visible in the Google result. The lesson here is that just because you’re using structured data, that doesn’t mean the search engines are going to display it the way you want.
Getting Started with Better Structured Data
While most major web publishing platforms will automatically create some structured data for your content, support for the most effective and rewarding types of structured data is largely missing. That means that (for the time being) a good structured data strategy will require a developer's help to implement.