How to win in Organic Search in 2021 using Structured Data

Here’s how to occupy some of the most valuable real estate on the search results pages.

Looking at click-through rates by search rankings

Most of us rely to a greater or lesser extent on organic search to get traffic to our sites. And we know that the majority of traffic comes from the top places. Ignite Visibility reports Breakdown of Google Click-Through Rates in 2020 By Position:

Position 1 – 43.32%
Position 2 – 37.36%
Position 3 –29.90%
Position 4 – 19.38%
Position 5 –10.95%
Position 6 – 10%
Position 7 – 5.28%
Position 8 – 4.13%
Position 9 – 4.13%
Position 10 – 3.11%

But that’s based on an old idea of what the SERPs look like, with Organic listings starting almost at the top of the Google search results like this:

Old-style SERPS

I had to use a comparatively obscure search to find an old-style search results page.

Increasingly, pages look like this, though:

Google SERPS today

with local SEO, FAQ, Reviews, People Also Ask, Video Carousels, Knowledge Graph and Featured Snippets. The key findings from SEMrush’s Featured Snippet research, published in November 2020, show that 19% of mobile SERPs in the US have featured snippets and more than 50% of a mobile screen is occupied by one. That means even your high-ranking search results won’t be seen unless the mobile device owner scrolls down.

In the study, AJ Gergich defines a featured snippet as:

…a dedicated section of selected content located at or near the top of a Google SERP. It features text or video from a website that aims to directly answer the search query. The viewer can click on the answer in the featured snippet to learn more on the website itself.

It isn’t just Google

Things are moving that way on Bing, too:

Bing search results

Since Google has been packing the top of its results pages with featured snippets and other SERP features for quite some time, this challenge is hardly likely to go away. And where Google goes, so do the others.

I anticipate seeing that 19% increasing in 2021, as Google and many of the other search engines seek to more often ‘directly answer the search query’, and that’s without all the rest of its SERP features. I can see the majority of searches returning a SERP feature that occupies vital screen real estate – especially on mobile.

People searching may increasingly miss your site.

Don’t give up

Many have who think Organic Search is no longer viable for them and their website, think again. As always, the game has evolved, and we need to keep up with it. You can still drive significant organic search traffic to your website.

Your goal is grabbing a place for your site in a SERP feature so that you can get even better exposure than before.

In principle, success in Organic Search in 2021 means focusing down precisely with your content, and really understanding the needs of your customers, clients or readers. Your content needs to answer their search queries, so you’ll have to nail your Key Phrase Research.

You may need to develop new content to target featured snippets. Or you may already have content that is performing pretty well but not well enough. Now’s the time to edit it and potentially add some more text that helps answer those searcher queries.

Use structured data to outrank your competitors

If you already use structured data – schema.org – for, say, local SEO it’s not a big step to the adding some more. The right choices will give your content a chance to feature prominently in the results that aren’t business or geographically-based.

There’s a range of schema.org that can help you rank in the SERP features, including:

  • FAQ
  • Price
  • How-to
  • QAPage

And others which I’ll cover later on.

Adding more structured data to any content will not guarantee it will appear on the featured snippets. You’re not the only people who have heard about adding it. You need to be performing somewhere in the top few ‘normal’ organic positions – contrary to what you may hear, you don’t have to be at Number One.

Google’s specific criteria for featured snippets may just fit one of the (slightly) lower-ranking pages better.

When you should use structured data?

There are two views as to when you should add structured data to your content:

  1. When Google is using SERP features for the key phrase you’re targeting. You can do a quick Google and see what comes up, or if you’re examining a batch of key phrases – perhaps as part of your Key Phrase Research – a paid-for tool such as SEMrush will tell you which features are appearing for which key phrases
  2. All the time. If there’s a piece of structured data that you could add to your content, you should. The argument is that we never know when Google will add SERP features to a given set of search results, so you should make sure you’re ready for when they do. I think that’s pretty persuasive.

Is structured data good for SEO?

There is a common misunderstanding that structured data is ‘good for SEO’. You must understand that using schema will not boost the website’s overall organic search performance.

It’s not a ranking factor for Google. All it does is to help Google make sense of what’s on the page.

So why bother?

Google uses structured data to understand the content on the page. You can help us by providing specific information about your site, which can help your site display in richer features in search results.

From: Explore the Search Gallery

I think of structured data as being a way to amplify the central theme of a piece or something important within it, such as a FAQ.

Working out your structured data should also help you clarify your content’s focus and help you with your editing and final polishing. Remember that these days the quality of your content is so important. And every little thing that enables you to boost its quality adds to its traction.

As we’ve said, appearing in these richer features is valuable. They stand out on the page and normally appear above the regular organic search results.

You should also bear in mind that having schema markups does not guarantee inclusion in the search features. Bing says:

The presence of annotations alone does not guarantee Bing will use your annotated content to generate a visually rich snippet. At all times, we will take the relationship between the annotated content and its surroundings into account.

Things To Keep In Mind

So you need a valid schema.org markup and quality on-page content. The same applies to the other search engines, of course.

Schema.org 101

If you’re confused by all this, let’s go back the very beginning. In SEO, we’re talking about a specific form of schema – not that used in psychology or databases. And, Structured Data is a big topic. One that’s too big for a single blog post.

Back to the subject. In SEO, schema are sets of standardized code that help the search engines make sense of the content on your web pages. More specifically, the website at schema.org says:

Founded by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Yandex, Schema.org vocabularies are developed by an open community process, using the [email protected] mailing list and through GitHub.

So schema.org is recognised by Google, Bing, Yahoo and Yandex.

If you want to dive more deeply into schema.org, in addition to the information on https://schema.org Google provides a lot of information. Here’s a good place to start.

Google Search works hard to understand the content of a web page. You can help us by providing explicit clues about the meaning of a page with structured data.

Structured data provides a way to standardize information about a page and classify the page content. We also use structured data to enable special search result features and enhancements. For example, a recipe page with valid structured data can be eligible to appear in a graphical search result, which we call a rich result in a host carousel:

A recipe rich result in search results. It shows a video of the recipe in a card that shows how to make apple pie. The review stars, amount of reviews, time it takes to cook, and the calories are visible in the rich result.

Recipe videos showing in the Google SERPs features.

Google specifies you can add schema.org to your site in one of three ways (don’t go mixing them up, though):

Table containing information about using JSON-LD, Microdata and RDFa to insert schema.org data into your website.
From: Understand how structured data works

Google recommends using JSON-LD. If you’re not a developer (and I’m not), you’ll be glad to know the easiest way of using schema.org is actually through JSON-LD. There are a number of free tools that help you set up your scripts available from Google and other websites.

If you want to understand Bing’s view of structured data, you can read Marking Up Your Site With Structured Data.

How can you use schema.org in your marketing?

In Explore the Search Gallery, Google lists the following opportunities to use schema:

  • Article
  • Book
  • Breadcrumb
  • Carousel
  • Course
  • Critic review
  • Dataset
  • Employer aggregate rating
  • Event
  • Fact check
  • FAQ
  • Home activities
  • How-to
  • Image License
  • Job posting
  • Job training (beta)
  • Local business
  • Logo
  • Movie
  • Estimated salary
  • Podcast
  • Product
  • Q&A
  • Recipe
  • Review snippet
  • Sitelinks searchbox
  • Software app (beta)
  • Speakable
  • Subscription and paywalled content
  • Video

Take a look through the list to see where you may be able to use schema. And, remember, Google is always adding to the list, so keep on top of developments to keep ahead of your competitors.

Coding structured data

So those are the opportunities. Now, we’ll look at how you implement schema.org. You’ll need to add some code to your page.

There are, in fact three ways you can do this:

  • JSON-LD (my favoured approach)
  • Microdata
  • RDFa

For the purposes of this blog post, I’m not going to say much about the Microdata and RDFa. Google recognises them, which is great. But they both use HTML and are embedded in the main body of your page code. That means they usually change the appearance of your page, but equally problematic is that they are more difficult to edit while you debug the code and when you want to change it at a later date.

Using JSON-LD gets over both problems by being put in the page’s header section, on its own, making it easy to find and just as easy to change.

You don’t have to write code

If you’re a digital marketing person like me, you’ll be glad you don’t have to become a developer and write code. There are plenty of tools out there that can do the job for you.

I’m going to give you a few suggestions to get you going, rather than write one of those awful 400 Structured Data Tools listicles.

Get your JSON-LD written for you

If you want something that’s clearly designed and easy to use, then I’d recommend the Merkle Schema Markup Generator. But if you want something that’s more powerful, allowing you to set up more kinds of schema.org, there’s Rank Ranger’s Schema Markup Generator.

With these tools, you generate the code and then cut and paste them into your page. All my sites use WordPress, so I use the WP Headers and Footers plugin to enable me to get the code into the right place in my pages. It’s simple and does the job.

Another alternative is to use a plugin to generate and insert your JSON-LD. Front runners here include All in One Schema Rich Snippets and Schema. It’s up to you, but I prefer the more hands-on approach of using a tool and pasting into the page header.

And test your work

And, once you’ve placed your code on your website, you can test your schema.org using the Google Structured Data Testing Tool or the Google Rich Results Test. Google is deprecating the Structured Data Testing Tool, but after howls of pain from the SEO and development communities, it is going to be moved to schema.org in April 2021, so you can continue to use it, if you prefer it.

Don’t spam

With great power comes great responsibility is an idea that goes back to the French Revolution (sorry Spiderman fans), but it applies in spades when it comes to Structured Data. You must ensure the code represents what’s on your page. If it doesn’t, then you’re spamming. You must resist the temptation to quickly insert some Structured Data rather than write some content.

If your schema.org isn’t consistent with your page content, it could lead to a nasty Google penalty that could take considerable effort to remove.

Up your content marketing game this year

I can’t leave you on a down note. The message is that there are great opportunities in organic SEO and search, if only you know how to seize them. Structured Data should be part of your toolkit this year.

Do you need help with ranking your content or with Structured Data?

Drop me an email at [email protected] or set up a meeting right away. Here’s a link to my calendar, so that you can find a convenient time to talk.

Some of this blog post appeared in David Rosam’s Digital Marketing Thing. Let me send it to you regularly so that you can stay up to date with Digital Marketing and my ideas about it.

Photo by Rob Wingate on Unsplash

CEO at David Rosam Digital Marketing | + posts

David Rosam has been working on the internet for 25 years, after a career in direct marketing copywriting for the tech and financial services industries.

Today, he specialises in Content-Focused Search Engine Optimisation—from audits, through research and strategy to implementation.

He may have been the UK’s first SEO Copywriter.