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Structured Data, Microformats, and SEO

The other day I suggested that Google was way ahead of SEOs. After receiving a few emails asking me “what do you mean?” and “What are they working on that we don’t already address?” I decided to step back and ask Social Media to do the leg work on this one. I am not an SEO Tools vendor, so it is very hard for me to justify publishing insights into competitive search engine optimization. The only rewards for doing that seem to be free speaking gigs at Pubcon and SMX, kudos from up-and-coming SEO peers, and high follower counts (which I’m not monetizing).

I’l let the writers and promoters in the SEO community create the “Ten Ways to SEO with Structured Data” and “10 Myths about Microformats and SEO” and “How to Rocket Your Sales and Boost Your Traffic with Microformats” posts. I’m an SEO. I’m busy implementing. So I’ll just report the following:

  • Search engines have invested a great deal of effort into structured data (including micro formats), including naturally structured content (parsing and understanding our natural content) and artificially structured data (such as those addressed by webmaster guidelines or requirements, or emerging standards)
  • Like it or not, your published content is and has for some time been parsed according to rules of structure, some of which has been used to assign relevance scores and adjust search engine inclusion as well as ranking
  • Many SEO bloggers still reveal through their writing that they don’t understand how Google considers web sites like blogs, directories, and portals differently than say brochure sites or forums. I doubt they are in a position to speak with authority when they suggest that certain aspects of content impact/improve/detract from search optimization. Careful what you trust when you read your daily SEO feed. Just because they are your friends does not mean they are correct with their SEO presumptions.
  • Google is not the only game in town, and certainly not the most committed dependent upon structured data. Bing is of all things a major structured data play, as was Wolfram’s engine. is in financial trouble, but not because it didn’t do a good job structuring its data. Following the new rules for making your data accessible to search engines is not necessarily a high road to profits, and may be just the opposite.

The more you structure your data, the easier you are to disintermediate. BUT, the less search referred traffic you get in this search-engine-controlled marketplace, the less likely you are to survive. Sensing the icy cold sting of the double-edged sword? Of course you are…

In tough economic times, those with the power exercise it. Google’s virtual monopoly of the search box, Microsoft’s virtual monopoly of the desktop, and the Yahoo! emerging virtual monopoly on the crossover of tabloid press and social media? Every one of them needs your participation. Every aspect of that participation can be commoditized if it can be structured. Webmasters have responded to nickel rewards for years now with Google’s AdSense program, so why shouldn’t these players expect you to respond to promises of search traffic?

Go forth into Social Media and start talking about the future of SEO in light of the present status of search engines and audience participation:

Q: Does structured data improve SEO outcomes?

Q: Do micro formats enhance local? Do microformats improve SEO?
Q: Do sitemaps and webmaster consoles and content guidelines really help webmasters get indexed and rank, or is that a myth supported by incomplete, misguided, or sloppy SEO reporting?

If you try to actually investigate for yourself, and work at it beyond the basics, you just may find yourself enjoying actual, honest SEO work.


  1. Nebraska wrote:

    You know, I had no idea what you were talking about when you mentioned Structured Formats and Microdata. I was a little worried that I had completely missed something very important. That is until I followed your links (thank you very much) and discovered that I have been implementing POSH for some time now. I have also been very successful with many clients in some highly competitive areas.

    I think my sales letter will look a little more hip when I start using my new words! POSH isn’t everything, but combined with the right internal/external linking structures, content that flows ideas (using POSH) and a healthy does of trying new things on test sites it (POSH) can make a big difference. Being willing to buy the right domain may be the best thing you can do right now…but that is another conversation.

    When Threadwatch was killed off I stopped wasting my time on the SEO sites and started developing my own techniques based upon what the search engines were doing. I do miss the interaction, but my bank account is thanking me.

    Nice post John!

    – Joe

    Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 9:22 pm | Permalink
  2. Ari wrote:

    As always, you keep raising the bar and passing the Litmus test. I think I’m a johnon groupie :-P

    Wednesday, July 1, 2009 at 11:07 pm | Permalink
  3. Thanks for this thought-provoking post (which, among other things, compelled me to seek a definition of “disintermediate”).

    I’m a sucker for structured web data (perhaps because I used to be a librarian), so was naturally taken with the search engine’s seeming support for microformats.

    However, the investigations I’ve undertaken to date suggest to me that microformats are anything but an SEO panacea. Indeed, what empirical data I’ve been able to collect so far indicate that Google is so far basically ignoring microformats, favoring instead websites possessing structured data that they have *already* figured out how to parse. A double edged sword indeed for SEO: structured data “works,” but not necessarily the structured data that Google itself requests from webmasters.

    Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 6:31 am | Permalink
  4. aaron wall wrote:

    Great point John. The more you structure the more value you give away to the intermediary, which will display it all in their SERPs without giving you much value.

    As search engines continue to consume the web I think that trend highlights the increasing importance of social networking & branding & building direct trust. If the only way a person adds value is through creating perceived value then they are still miles ahead of the person creating tons of value and giving it all away.

    Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 8:19 am | Permalink
  5. Gab Goldenberg wrote:

    Wow. Love it.

    Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 12:02 pm | Permalink
  6. yvonh wrote:

    Is it useful to mention that microformat and structured can be gamed? The more sophisticated the engine become, the more room they leave you to spam.

    Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  7. john andrews wrote:

    @Nebraska I never did like the moniker “posh” because I find it a contradiction between self-deprecating (“plain old”) and promotional (“posh”). Too odd to get traction, IMHO.

    But I agree many of us have seen the value of structured markup for a long time. Cue the links to old “how to abuse abbrev tags for keyword stuffing” posts. But I see quite a gap between those who recommend good, valid structured HTML and those doing search optimizations, and the gap involves intent. I don’t use the quote tag because I want my quotes to be found in search. Blame Google, but my article about Mimi’s Garden will not (currently) be returned as a match by Google if that possessive apostrophe is “properly” marked up. Cue the link to my old “a simple WordPress Plugin to turn off texturizer” post.

    Identity is big right now… reviews are big…images, videos… the search engines are pushing their rules out to us and if webmasters are not aware of the potential downsides associated with strict adherence to these “good webmastering” guidelines, we’ll be forced to choose between silent censorship and wholesale acceptance of our marginalization (thanks Todd!)

    Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  8. Nebraska wrote:

    I am thinking that Structured Data and Microformats have a snappy sound to them. Corporate types will love those phrases. It gives them something to hang their hat on. I have found that when I can describe processes in labeled chunks it is easier for management to follow and approve.

    Identity is big, very big. I am always shocked by the refusal of most clients to pay much more than reg fee for a winning domain that almost locks up identity by itself. They drop $2000 for a 60 second video, throw it on YouTube and then are surprised when social media traffic doesn’t rain down upon them. Meanwhile, ask someone to drop $3000 on a domain that will rocket to the top of Google and they just can’t pull the trigger.

    Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 7:30 pm | Permalink