Search engines band together in support of microformats

In a bid to further enrich search results with useful data, the three major search engines Google, Yahoo and Bing and have banded together to create and support a new microformat standard.

Confused Google robot

A problem faced by all search engines, is making actual sense of the data they are presented. Since nearly every website uses a unique set of HTML tags and attributes, it is practically impossible for a bot to properly parse and render the structured data that is represented. Let’s take one of Amazon’s product pages for example:

Amazon product page in Google

Amazon product page

A quick scan of this snippet shows a total of five prices. For a human, these prices make sense: the product has a list price of $99, is discounted to $79,79 and with that you save $19.21. Further, Amazon also offers the same item through third-parties for $73.94 and has five used items in stock for $54.99. Not exactly rocket science. However, imagine being a robot. Robots can crawl and index this data, but cannot understand it. A robot sees five prices, but cannot know which one is the one it should list. Therefore, in the interest of user friendliness, it lists none:

This makes perfect sense; list nothing rather than list an arbitrary price that might be the wrong one. However, wouldn’t it be far more user-friendly if the search engine was able to list the actual price of the item? This is where the new schema.org standard comes in. This new collaborative standard allows a webmaster to define structured data in a unified way, giving search engines access to details they were previously unable to parse in plain HTML. This allows for richer listings in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs), since search engines now actually “understand” what a specific bit of information means.

What the new standards allow you to do

The new standard allows for formatting of a great many data types. For example for a restaurant, one can now list, amongst other things:

  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Opening hours
  • Payment type accepted
  • Prince range
  • Cuisine

The implications for this are many. A search for “restaurants Sydney” takes on a whole new dimension when you can limit your search to Thai food, or restaurants that accept reservations or places that accept your Visa card. Think of what you can do with events, recipes and even persons (schema.org hosts a full list of available schemas).

Although not live yet across the spectrum presented by the standard, we can already see some examples of rich listings when searching for reviews. For example, let’s do a search for one of my favorite Thai restaurants in the city, Home Thai:

Note the star rating, the number of reviews and even the price range listed. This is microdata in action. Generally, richer snippets mean a higher clickthrough rate on the snippet in question. Note that I emphasised the word ‘generally’ here, since presenting too much information might actually be detrimental, as users get so much information through the search engine that they no longer need to visit the website.

Potential drawbacks; when are you sharing too much?

Providing the search engines with so much rich information is slightly controversial and might be worth a little discussion. After all, don’t you want the user to visit your site for all the information, instead of just Google’s? For e-tailers this might make less of a difference than for informational sites, which mainly draw income through ad revenue. These websites want people to visit their site to obtain the information they have on offer, rather than do a quick search on Google and learn everything from there. Also, do we really want all this information to be in the hands of just a few companies?

As with anything, there is also the potential to game the system. Why not give your own establishment a five-star rating and set up some powerful pages to berate your opponent? Search engines will need to exercise some control over who gets to display what and where, as the potential for blatant misinformation is enormous.

Where do you draw the line? Could you be shooting yourself in the foot by sharing too much? How do you see search engines keeping tabs on who publishes what? Voice your opinion on these and other questions below.

Mentioned / additional resources

Want to get started on implementing rich data microformats? See below sources for more background information  and documentation on actually implementing the standard on your website:

June 7, 2011 by Filed in SEO
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