The starting point of all this process started was the foundation of schema.org, the de-facto standard for Linked Data development, developed by and for search engines. While structured data implemented through Schema is a critical element for successful SEO campaigns; to enable a brand to resonate via Google’s search results, it becomes crucial to leverage open linked data standards.
Following an EU regulation introduced first in France, Google used structured data as implicit consent for content to become open on the web. In short, structured data enable publishers and content creators to have wider control over their content and how they want Google to repurpose it in its search results (read structured data as an opt-in mechanism for rich results).
Thus, schema.org and structured data become a wider mechanism than what we see from rich results. They enable publishers of content to have:
wider visibility for their brand
more control over their content.
The rise of synthetic queries
Another key element is given by the fact that Google uses structured data to generate queries in its Knowledge Graph. What Bill Slawski called synthetic query, as we discussed in the interview with him here. What that means is that if Google doesn’t have enough volume on a query, it might still create it by scraping structured data.
Therefore, you can generate demand for your own brand by using structured data.
Structured Data and Voice Assistants
With Speakable Schema Markup it’s possible to prompt answers within the Google Assistant, which are fetched from website content, thus making the content prone to be reused within Google Assistants.
Now it’s possible also to claim Actions from the structured data provided from the content of a website, which makes it possible to build custom experiences within the voice assistants.
Let’s see what it is all about and why this was just the last of a set of chain reactions started with an EU copyright regulation.
Google enabling publishers to specify how they want their content to show on the rich results
Google’s update explained:
Google uses content previews, including text snippets and other media, to help people decide whether a result is relevant to their query. The type of preview shown depends on many factors, including the type of content a person is looking for and the kind of device they’re viewing it on.
And it continued:
Google automatically generates previews in a way intended to help a user understand why the results shown are relevant to their search and why the user would want to visit the linked pages.
Before the update, Google automatically and for the most part generated previews from content extracted from publishers’ websites. A classic example is a featured snippet, or snippet of text extracted from articles on the web, with limited control from the publishers providing the content:
A featured snippet (one of the rich elements showing on Google’s search results pages) explaining “what is structured data” from the WordLift blog. We’ll see why structured data matter so much with the current Google‘s update.
The Google‘s update specified that when “the robots meta tag is added to an HTML page’s <head>, or specified via the x-robots-tag HTTP header” it is possible to specify four types of information:
nosnippet: the publisher can let the search engine know (through the HTML) that no snippet needs to be shown for that page.
max-snippet: enabling the publisher to specify the maximum number of characters Google can take from that page text to show a rich snippet.
max-video-preview: this new feature enables the publisher to specify the maximum duration in seconds that Google can show as a preview on the search results pages.
max-image-preview: enabling the publisher to tell what is the maximum size of image preview to be shown for images on the page.
While Google gave the options to a publisher to specify and have more control over what and how much of the information extracted from their pages would be featured as rich result. On the other hand, it also specified that those are not applicable to the use of structured data, where the publishers can instead give way reacher information to the search engine, compared to the simple HTML tags:
Content in structured data are eligible for display as rich results in search. These kinds of results do not conform to limits declared in the above meta robots settings, but rather, can be addressed with much greater specificity by limiting or modifying the content provided in the structured data.
Opting-out from the designation of European Journalistic Organization
As publishers concerns were growing over the last years; as the number of no-click searches has been increasing substantially and European regulators passed a new copyright law to prevent Google to keep freely extracting content from web pages. To defend itself from potential legal risks, Google took into account a mechanism to allow publishers to opt-out from these rich elements.
Indeed, as Google highlighted in the same update:
We recognize that site owners may wish to independently adjust the extent of their preview content in search results. To make it easier for individual websites to define how much or which text should be available for snippeting and the extent to which other media should be included in their previews, we’re now introducing several new settings for webmasters.
As the update was rolled out, publishers around Europe (especially in France) started to receive emails from Google explaining that they were designated as “European Journalistic Organizations”
As Google announced the new update, publishers in Europe started to see a notification in their search console (in the picture an example of an Italian publisher) where it stated that either the publishers changed the HTML specifics to explicitly tell the search engine to show rich results. Or opt-out from rich results through a new section of the search console.
In other words, to avoid legal troubles in Europe, and more specifically in France, where the copyright law is getting rolled out. Google‘s team started to roll out this update:
In the wake of new copyright law in France, Google will change the way it presents search results for European press publications to people in that country. Specifically, Google will no longer present snippets and thumbnail images in France for these publications unless publishers displaying content in France have specified how much of this content they want to show in search results.
In short, it means that unless publishers have explicitly opted-in to rich results, is Google consider them as part of the new copyright law (the copyright law didn’t give a specific designation of the publishers involved) it will designate them as European Journalistic Organization, thus the publishers will be excluded from Google advanced functionalities (Featured Snippets, Top Stories, Google News and More), with subsequent disastrous consequences on the traffic of those sites (many publishers’ traffic is dependent on these new features).
Structured data as implicit opt-in to Google’s rich results
Text snippets and thumbnail images can help people who are looking at your result by giving them a preview of your page and a better sense of how it relates to their search. To enable these text or image previews, usemax-snippet or max-image-preview directives. You can enable other special features andrich resultsby usingstructured data.
As in the update, Google specified that structured data would work in alternative to HTML tags in the text, Andrea Volpini asked Danny Sullivan, whether publishers could safely assume that by using structured data they were automatically opting-in to Google rich results:
Andrea Volpini from WordLift asking Danny Sullivan Schema Markup and Structured Data would automatically elect the publisher as opting into rich results, thus avoiding any negative results and traffic drop caused by the new European regulation.
And he called for John Muller to double-check. John Muller replied:
That’s correct. Regardless of designation as a European press publication, if you use structured data in the way that meets the requirements in the developer docs, then the page can be eligible for being shown as a rich result.
In short, that means structured data might work as an implicit opt-in mechanism for publishers to get Google‘s rich results, even in case they might have been designated by Google as a European Journalistic Organization.
Beyond traditional search: The importance of open data
The team at WordLift has been advocating for the use of open data since its inception. At its core, open data enable machines to talk to each other, not only by enabling a clear understanding of the information provided on web pages. But also by empowering relationships among the data contained in these pages. Structured data, as they are fully accessible, making open data possible.
Thus, granting access to machines of the data provided on a web property. That is why structured data become more and more important on the landscape of evolving search, where we move away from the traditional ten blue links, toward a richer navigational experience. Therefore, structured data become important not in its own sake, but as a tool that enables open data to become accessible to machines.
What do you need to do next?
Just to recap what we said so far.
Google is enabling publishers to have more control on what to show in Google‘s rich results, by adding HTML tags and structured data on their pages. At the same time in light of a European Copyright Law Google is giving the options to European publishers to opt-out, so that is what you need to do:
Don’t do anything: If you haven’t been designated by Google as a European Journalistic Organization.
Opt-out: If you have been designated by Google as a European Journalistic Organization but you do want your content to be featured in Google‘s rich results.
Google is enabling publishers to have more control about the kind of information they pass as Google‘s rich results by using HTML tags.
While these tags are important to assert more control on what or how much of the content from your pages can be extracted by Google. The update also highlights that as an alternative, and more powerful way to do so, there is structured data markup (Schema markup) which can be used as a more granular way to pass detailed information about web pages.
As France is among the first countries to roll out a European copyright law (so-called “Link Tax”), to cover itself from legal risks Google started to roll out an update also to other European countries. As the copyright law didn’t specify what publishers could be designated to be opted out from Google extracting the content and repurposing it as rich results. The tech giant started to select a group of publishers as European Journalistic Organization. In short, where regular publishers automatically opt-in to Google rich results. European Journalistic Organizations need to explicitly opt-in to Google rich results.
European Journalistic Organizations can prevent this designation, either by explicitly opting-in to rich results, or by simply making sure to have structured data tags.
This update shows the growing importance of structured data for Google, in order to extract specific content for users. It also shows how search is becoming more divided. In short, as we go on the gap between the traditional index (with its ten blue links) and Google‘s rich results actually widens. And while the two are still connected today, we can imagine a day (not too far in the future) where the traditional index, won’t talk anymore to the other index, that related to rich results.
In the new way of thinking about search, and discovery online, structured data as a tool that enables open data to thrive becomes a key component for machines and search engines to evolve. And with that publishers need to adapt.
And a more political consideration. The web is a global phenomenon, there is no escape from that. A regulation issued by the EU has the potential to influence how Google works on a global scale.
Audio update on Google’s update from SEOisAEO podcast
If you are a publisher you might have noticed that in 2019 Google introduced a new report called Discover. With the WordLift team, we’ve been looking into that to understand the dynamics of Google Discover for our VIP clients.
And in this article, I’m showing you the latest findings, what is Google Discover, and why it matters so much if you are in the publishing business (or if content marketing is your primary acquisition channel).
While it might have passed unnoticed for many, Google Discover has become a critical source of traffic for many others.
Let’s start from understanding what’s Google Discover and why it matters so much.
Discover is a popular way for users to stay up-to-date on all their favorite topics, even when they’re not searching. To provide publishers and sites visibility into their Discover traffic.
As highlighted in the launch of Google Discover there are two key elements to take into account when analyzing Google Discover:
Google wants users to stay up-to-date.
It also wants to provide recommendations when they are not searching.
Therefore, Discover is a mechanism that enables users to find the most relevant content, in a specific timeframe, on their mobile device.
This is a revolution as it enables Google to move from pure search (where users need to type in keywords to retrieve information on the web) to a discovery mechanism where people can find effortlessly what they look for.
Why didn’t Google offer Discover way before?
For Google to make this step, in a scalable manner, it needed to develop two things: a database capable to hold a massive amount of information. And a powerful AI to be able to query this database to provide relevant information to users.
In 2019, both those technologies were finally available (at least for Google). The massive database is called a Knowledge Graph (Google has been building it since 2012).
And the AI able to query that database is now at the core of Google strategy (Google converted into an AI-first company already back in 2017).
In other words, if you were to master Google Discover you would enable your publishing business to double its reach in a relatively short timeframe (we’ve seen publishers doubling their Discover traffic in a few months).
So how do you do that? In the checklist below, Andrea Volpini has highlighted the key elements to take into account when optimizing for Google Discover:
I want you now to focus on the mindset you need to be able to grasp the opportunities around Google Discover.
Google Discover is also a new analytical tool which can help you unlock new insights
As Google launched Discover on the one hand. On the other hand, it also made visible to website owners a new report (with the same name) which enables them to look at the traffic coming from its Discover platform.
As Google specified:
We’re adding a new report in Google Search Console to share relevant statistics and help answer questions such as:
How often is my site shown in users’ Discover? How large is my traffic?
Which pieces of content perform well in Discover?
How does my content perform differently in Discover compared to traditional search results?
By looking at Discover you’ll find out a few important aspects:
Discover works more in a boom and bust cycle. It makes sense as Discover moves away from traditional search, as Google will be pushing your content on Discover if it is relevant at that moment for users that expressed interest on those topics.
You will notice also evergreen content entering Discover if it is interesting in the short term as there are more people searching for that topic.
If you speed up the creation of a shorter form of content as a companion for longer, potentially evergreen content (I’ll explain that in a second) you will improve your chances to be featured in Discover.
Understanding Discover: beyond search
Google Discover delivers a mixture of information based on users’ interests, coupled with what is trending and what Google believes is relevant for these users.
In short, Google wants to offer the most relevant content available for that user at that moment.
This requires even a better understanding of your audience, which goes well beyond keywords alone.
For instance, with the WordLift team we put together a Semantic Dashboard which pulls up information based on the topics that your audience finds most interesting:
As you will notice from the video there are no keywords in this dashboard, as most of it is done by analyzing cluster of content, that in the Semantic Web jargon are called Entities. Therefore, the Semantic Analytics Dashboard will tell you what cluster of contents is actually providing traction to a broader concept.
It is important to highlight that Entities go well beyond keywords, because they represent concepts which are taken from a context, and disambiguated (clarified) to the search engines through structured data in the form of Schema Markup.
When you optimize your content. But also when you do the research to understand what kind of content to write about you want to look at all the key topics your audience has been looking at.
Thus, rather than just optimize for a single keyword you can structure your content by looking at the concepts to cover. This is important as you won’t see the optimization process as a one-time thing.
And this mindset will push you to create formats that are interesting for your audience. And that can be systematized for more efficient creation of content.
But wow do you understand what content goes into Discover?
Shorter-form vs. long-form content?
In the SEO community, there is a lot of discussion around the topic of short vs. longer-form content. The reality is that discussion doesn’t even matter and it completely misses the point.
A shorter or longer-form content will depend upon the search intent (another buzzword in the SEO world). In simple terms, if I’m asking “what is Google Discover” my intent might be purely informational.
Which makes me want to understand the topic at a more in-depth level, thus a longer piece might work. However, also for people searching for such a query, a good chunk of them might just want a simple, straight answer. Thus, they might look for the definition and then leave the article.
Thus, there isn’t a universal answer for that (it’s like asking to a what’s the perfect size of a screwdriver to an electrician!) and it doesn’t even matter!
Clarified this point, let’s move forward.
Short-term format as a companion for longer, evergreen content
Going back to Google Discover. If your site primarily publishes more in-depth pieces of content that are more suited for an audience which is looking for evergreen content, relevant in years to come you will might able to capture ongoing organic traffic as there always be an audience looking for that.
On the other hand, it also makes sense to create a short-term format that provides valuable information to your audience.
Thus, if you’re publishing “the ultimate guide to selling on Amazon” you might also want to have a format where each week you present a case study. That case study might be structured around what your audience is searching for in the last month or so.
In this way, you can enhance your chances to be featured in Google Discover.
Update your content frequently
As you know Google likes fresh content.
Oops sorry, I fell into the expert fallacy again!
It’s not Google that likes fresh content, people like it.
If Google were to serve an article about what’s the best restaurant in town, which is dated to 2017 that might be very disappointing for the user to find out that the restaurant doesn’t exist anymore.
Therefore, if you have pieces that might be come less relevant as they provide outdated information. Make sure to update them, change the publication date to signal Google that you made important changes to the article and index that again.
In this way, we facilitate the work for Google, which might serve it again, or keep serving it on Discover if it sees that content is still relevant for an audience.
With the WordLift team, we noticed is that Google might also offer it several times to the same Discover users. But in order to keep that content interesting for the Discover platform you need to make sure to update it with fresh information over time.
Ask your audience to add you as a source on Discover
Within Discover, users can decide what topics to follow, and what sources to include. Let your audience know they can add your publication as a source, so it becomes easier to be notified when relevant pieces are out.
This will give you more traction on the existing audience, and also presumably improve your authority within Discover. I don’t have any data to back that up, but it makes sense to me that if more people are adding you as a source within Discover, the more that might signal to Google that you are relevant on that vertical.
Build your knowledge graph
A Knowledge Graph is a semantic representation of your website. I like to call it a “modern sitemap or a sitemap of meanings.”
We’ve been helping since 2017 companies of any size building their knowledge graphs. With tools like WordLift that becomes extremely easy as we use natural language processing to match your content with what can potentially become an entity, thus giving you the chance to enrich semantically your content. Thus making it easier for Google to discover it, and offer it in several formats (be it a regular search, an advanced feature like a position zero, or inside Google Discover).
Google Discover is a new content distribution platform for publishers, and a new way to find relevant content for users.
It is slightly different from the way Google as always worked for two primary reasons. One, Discover enables users to find up to date, and relevant information on a feed rather than a search result page. Second, Google Discover moves away from the search logic, as it pushes content to users without them even looking for it.
In addition, Google Discover is also a new report within the Google Search Console which gives insights to publishers about the kind of content that Discover users consume.
That makes available to publisher a new massive distribution platform, and it creates new untapped opportunities if you take the time to implement the framework and checklist provided in this article.
We had the opportunity to interview Bill Slawski, Director of SEO Research at Go Fish Digital, Creator and Author of SEO by the Sea. Bill Slawski is among the most authoritative people in the SEO community, a hybrid between an academic researcher and a practitioner. He has been looking at how search engines work since 1996. With Andrea Volpini we took the chance to ask Bill a few questions to understand how SEO is evolving and why you should understand the current picture, to keep implementing a successful SEO strategy!
When did you start with SEO?
Bill Slawski: I started doing SEO in 1996. I also made my first site in 1996. The brother of one of the people I worked on that site, she was selling computers for a digital equipment corp at that time., she sent us an email saying, “Hey, we just started this new website. You guys might like it.” It was the time in which AltaVista was a primary search engine. This was my first chance to see a search engine in action. My client said, “We need to be in this.” I tried to figure out how, and that was my first attempt at doing SEO!
After the launch of Google Discover, it seems that we live in a query-less world? How has SEO changed?
Bill Slawski: It has changed, but it hasn’t changed that much. I remember in 2007 giving a presentation in an SEO meetup on named entities. Things have been in the atmosphere. We just haven’t really brought them to the forefront and talked about them too much. Query-less searches example? You’re driving down the road 50 miles an hour, you wave your phone around in the air and it’s a signal to your phone asking you where you’re going. “Give me navigation, what’s ahead of us? What’s the traffic like? Are there detours?” And your phone can tell you that. It can say there’s a five-minute delay up ahead. You really don’t need a query for that.
What do you then, If you don’t need a query?
Bill Slawski: Well, for the Google Now, for it to show you search suggestions, it needs to have some idea of what your search history is like, what you’re interested in. In Google Now, you can feed it information about your interests, but it can also look at what you’ve searched for in the past, what you look like you have an interest in. If you want to see certain information about a certain sports team or a movie or a TV series, you search for those things and it knows you have an interest in them.
Andrea Volpini: It’s a context that gets built around the user. In one analysis that we run from one of our VIP customers, by looking at the data from the Google search console I found extremely interesting how it had reached 42%! You can see actually this big bump is due to the fact that Google started to account this data. This fact might be scaring a lot of people in the SEO industry. As, if we live in a query-less world, how do you optimize for it?
Can we do SEO in a query-less world?
Bill Slawski: They (SEO practitioners) should be happy about it. They should be excited about it.
Andrea Volpini: I was super excited. When I saw it, for me, it was like a revelation, because I have always put a lot of effort into creating data and metadata. Before we arrived to structure data, it’s always been a very important aspect of the website that we build. I used to build CMS, so I was really into creating data. But I underestimated the impact of a content recommendation through Google Discover when it comes to the traffic of a new website. Did you expect something like this?
Bill Slawski: If you watch how Google is tracking trends, entity search, and you can identify which things are entities by them having an entity type associated with them, something other than just search term, so you search for a baseball team or a football team and you see search term is one category associated with it, and the other category might be professional Chicago baseball team. The professional Chicago baseball team is the entity. Google’s tracking entities. What this means is when they identify interests that you may have, they may do that somewhat broadly, and they may show you as a searcher in Google Now in Discover things related to that. If you write about some things with some level of generalization that might fit some of the broader categories that match a lot, you’re gonna show up in some of those discovery things.
It’s like when Google used to show headers in search results, “Search news now,” or “Top news now,” and identify your site or something you wrote as a blog post as something fits top news now category, you didn’t apply to have that. You were a beneficiary of Google’s recommendation.
Andrea Volpini: Yes. When I saw this, I started to look a little bit at the data in the Google search console of this client and then another client and then another client again. What I found out by comparing these first sites is that Google is tending not to make an overlap with Google search and Discover, meaning that if it’s bringing traffic on Google search, the page might not be featured on Discover. The pages that are featured on Discover that are also on Google search as high ranking. But I found extremely interesting the fact that pages that didn’t receive any organic traffic had been discovered by Google Discover as if Google is trying to differentiate these channels.
Is this two-level search effect widening?
Bill Slawski: I think they’re trying to broaden, we might say, broaden our experience. Give us things that we’re not necessarily searching for, but are related. There’s at least one AI program I’ve worked with where it looks at my Twitter stream and recommends storage for me based upon where I’ve been tweeting. I see Google taking a role like that: “These are some other things they might be interested in that they haven’t been searching for. Let me show them to them.”
There’s a brilliant Google contributor video about the Semantic Search Engine. The first few minutes, he starts off saying, “Okay, I had trouble deciding what to name this video. I thought about The Discover Search Engine. Then I thought about A Decision Search Engine and realized Bing had already taken that. A Smart Search Engine. Well, that’s obvious.”
But capturing what we’re interested in is something Google’s seeming to try to do more of with the related questions that people also ask. We’re seeing Google trying to keep us on search results pages, clicking through, question after question, seeing things that are related that we’re interested in. Probably tracking every click that we make as to what we might have some interest in. With one box results, the same type of thing. They’ll keep on showing us one box results if we keep on clicking on them. If we stop clicking on them, they’ll change those.
Andrea Volpini: Where are we going with all of these? How do you see the role of SEO is changing? What would you recommend to an SEO that starts today, what should he become? You told us how you started in ’96 with someone asking you to be on AltaVista, and I remember AltaVista quite well. I also worked with AltaVista myself, and we started to use AltaVista for intranet.
What would you recommend to someone that starts SEO today?
Bill Slawski: I’m gonna go back to 2005 to a project I worked on then. It was for Baltimore.org. It was a visitor’s center of Baltimore, the conference center. They wanted people to visit the city and see it and see everything they had to offer. They were trying to rank well for terms like Baltimore bars and Baltimore sports. They got in their heads that they wanted to rank well for Baltimore black history. We tried to optimize a page for Baltimore black history. We put the words “Baltimore Black History” on the page a few times. There were too many other good sites which were talking about Baltimore’s black history. We were failing miserably to rank well for that phrase. I turned to a copywriter and I said, “There are great places in Baltimore to see they have something to do with this history. Let’s write about those. Let’s create a walking tour of the city. Let’s show people the famous black churches and black colleges and the nine-foot-tall statue of Billie Holiday, the six townhomes that Frederick Douglas bought in his 60s.
“He was an escaped slave at one point in time, came back to Baltimore as he got older and a lot richer and started buying properties and became a businessman. Let’s show people those places. Let’s tell them how to get there.”
We created a page that was walking tour of Baltimore. After three months, it was the sixth most visited page on that site, a site of about 300 pages or so. That was really good. That was successful. It got people to actually visit the city of Baltimore. They wanted to see those things.
Aaron Bradley ran this series of tweets the other day where one of the things he said was, “Don’t get worried about the switch in search engines to entities. Entities are all around us. They surround us. They’re everywhere. They’re everything you can write about. They’re web pages. They’re people. They’re places.”
It’s true. If we switch from a search based on words, on matching words, on documents to words and queries, we’re missing the opportunity to write about things, to identify attributes, properties associated with those things to tell people about what’s in the world around us, and they’re gonna search for those things. That’s a movement that search engine makes you, being able to understand what you’re talking about something in particular and return information about that thing.
Andrea Volpini: The new SEO should become basically a contextual writer, someone that intercepts the intents and can create good content around it.
Is there something else in the profession of SEO in 2020?
Bill Slawski: One of the things I read about recently was something called entity extraction. Search engine being able to read a page, identify all the things that are on that page that are being written about, and all the contexts that surround those things, all the classes, all the … you see the example on the post I wrote about was a baseball player, Bryce Harper. Bryce Harper was a Washington National. Bryce Harper hits home runs. That’s the context. He’s hit so many home runs over his career. Having search engine being able to take facts on a page, understand them, and make a collection of those facts, compare them to what’s said on other pages about the same entities, so they can fact check. It can do the fact check-in itself. It doesn’t need some news organizations to do that.
Andrea Volpini: Well, this is the reason when we started our project, my initial idea was to create a semantic editor to let people create link data. I didn’t look at SEO as a potential market, but then I realized that immediately, all the interest was coming from, indeed, the SEO community. For instance, we created your entity on the WordLift website. This means that when we annotate the content with our tool, we have this permanent linked data ID. In the beginning, I thought it was natural to have permanent linked data IDs, because this was the way that the semantic web worked. But then I suddenly realized there is a very strong SEO effect in doing that because Google is also crawling this RDF that I’m publishing.
I saw a few months back that it’s actually a different class of IP that Google uses for crawling this data.
Do you think that it still makes sense to publish your own linked data ID, or it’s okay to use other IDs? Do you see value in publishing data with your own systems?
Bill Slawski: Something I haven’t really thought about too much. But it’s worth considering. I’ve seen people publishing those. I’ve tried to put one of those together, and I asked myself, “Why am I doing this? Is there gonna be value to it? Is it gonna be worthwhile?” But when I put together my homepage, a page about me, I wanted to try it, see what it was capable of, to see what it might show in search engines for doing that. Some of it showed some of it didn’t. It was interesting to experiment with and try and see what the rest of the world is catching onto when you do create that stuff.
Andrea Volpini: But this is actually how the entity of Gennaro Cuofano was born in the Knowledge Graph. We started to add a lot of reference in telling Google, “Here is Gennaro, is also authors of these books.” As soon as we injected this information into our Knowledge Graph and into the pages, for Google it was easier to collect the data and fact-check and say, “Okay, this is the guy that wrote the book and now works for this company,” and so on and so forth.
Gennaro Cuofano: and Google provided a Knowledge Panel with a complete description. It was something that before, it was not showing up in search, or at least it was just partial information. It felt like, by providing this kind of information, we allowed the search engine, actually Google, to have a better context and fact-check the information which gave it authority to the information that I provided.
Bill Slawski: Have you looked at Microsoft’s Concept Graph?
Andrea Volpini: Yes! It’s even more advanced. I found it more advanced in away. It’s also very quick in getting the information in. We have a lot more easy experience when we are someone that wants to be in Bing because as soon as we put such data it gets it into the panel.
Bill Slawski: It surprised me because, for a while, stuff that Microsoft Research in Asia was doing was disappearing. They put together probates and it stopped. Nothing happened for a couple of years. It’s been revived into the Microsoft Concept Graph, which is good to see. It’s good to see they did something with all that work.
Gennaro Cuofano: Plus, we don’t know how much integration is also Bink and LinkedIn APIs
Andrea Volpini: It’s pretty strong! Probably the quickest entry in the Satori, the Knowledge Graph of Microsoft, is now for a person to be on LinkedIn, because it is like they’re using this information.
What other ways can we use the structure data currently for SEO?
Bill Slawski: One of the things I would say to that is augmentation queries. I mentioned those in the presentation. Google will not only look at queries associated with pages about a particular person, place or thing, but it will also query the log information and will look at structured data associated with the page, and it will run queries based upon those. It’s doing some machine learning to try to understand what else might be interesting about pages of yours. If these augmentation queries, the test queries that it runs about your page, tend to do as well as the original queries for your page in terms of people selecting things, people clicking on things. It might combine the augmentation query results with the original query results when it shows people them for your page.
New schemas from the latest version of Schema 3.5 is the “knows about” attribute. I mentioned with the knows about attribute, you could be a plumber, you could know about drain repair. Some searches will send you plumbers, and they expect to see information just about Los Angeles plumbers, they may see a result from a Los Angeles plumber that talks about drain repair. That may be exactly what they’re looking for. That may expand search results, expand something relevant to your site that you’ve identified as an area of expertise, which I think is interesting. I like that structured data is capable of a result like that.
What is your favorite new addition to Schema 3.5?
Bill Slawski: FAQ page!
On Schema.org there’s such a wide range. They’re gonna update that every month now. But just having things like bed type is good.
What do you think is the right balance when I add structured data to my pages between an over-complicated data structuring and simplicity?
Bill Slawski: I Did SEO for a site a few years ago that was an apartment complex. It was having trouble renting units. There was a four-page apartment complex, and it showed up its dog park really well. It didn’t show off things like the fact that if you took the elevator to the basement, you got let out to the DC metro where you could travel all throughout Washington DC, northern Virginia, and southern Maryland and visit all 31 Smithsonian, and a lot of other things that are underground, underneath that part of Virginia. It was right next to what’s called Pentagon City, which is the largest shopping mall in Virginia. It’s four stories tall, all underground. You can’t see it from the street. Adding structured data to your page to identify those is something you can do. It’s probably something you should include on the page itself.
Maybe you want to include information, more information, on your pages about entities and include them in structured data, too, in a way that is really precise. You’re using that language identified and Schema that subject matter experts describe as something people might want to know. It defines it well. It defines it easily.
What you’re saying is do what you do with your content with your data. If you put emphasis on an aspect content-wise, then you should also do the proper markup for it?
Bill Slawski: Right! With the apartment complex I was talking about, location sells. It gets people to decide, “This is where I want to live.” Tell them about the area around them. Put that on your page and put that in your data. Don’t show pictures of the dog park if you want to tell them what the area schools are like and what the community’s like, what business is around, what opportunities there are. You can go to the basement, this apartment complex, and ride to the local baseball stadium or the local football stadium. You’re blocks away. DC traffic is a nightmare. If you ride the metro line everywhere, you’re much better off…
Andrea Volpini: That’s big. Also metro in real estate, we say it, it’s always increased 30% the value of the real estate if you have a metro station close by. Definitely is relevant. Something that is relevant for the business should be put into consideration also when structuring the page.
Is it worth also exploring Schema which is not yet officially used by Google?
Bill Slawski: You can anticipate things that never happen. That’s possible. But sometimes, maybe anticipating things correctly can be a competitive advantage if it comes into fruition that it’s come about. You mentioned real estate. Have you seen things like walkability scores being used on realty sites? The idea that somebody can give you a metric to tell you where you can compare easily one location to another based on what you can do without a car, it’s a nice feature. Being able to find out data about a location could be really useful.
Andrea Volpini: This is why, getting back to the linked data ID, this is why having a linked data ID for the articles and the entities that describe the article become relevant because then you can query the data yourself, and then you can make an analysis of what neighborhood that the least amount of traffic, and see, “Okay, did I write about this neighborhood or not?” This is also one of the experiments that we do these days is that we bring the entity data from the page into Google Analytics to help the editorial team think about what traffic entities are generating across multiple pages. Entities in a way can also be used internally for organizing things and for saying, “Yes, in this neighborhood, for instance, we have the least amount of criminality” or things like that. You can start cross-checking data, not only waiting for Google to use the data. You can also use the data yourself.
Is there any other aspect worth mentioning about how to use structured data for SEO?
Bill Slawski:Mike Blumenthal wrote an article based upon something I wrote about, the thing about entity extraction. He said, “Hotels are entities, and if you put information about hotels, about bookings, about locations, about amenities onto your pages so that people can find them, so people can identify those things, you’re making their experience searching for things richer and more …”
Andrea Volpini: We had a case where we had done especially this for lodging business. We have seen that as soon as we have started to add amenities as structured data, and most importantly, as soon as we had started to actually add geographic references to the places that this location we’re in, we saw an increase, not in pure traffic terms. The traffic went up. But we also saw an interesting phenomenon of queries becoming broader. The site, before having structured data to the hotels and to the lodging business, received traffic from very few keywords. As soon as we started to add the structured data and typing amenities and services, we also added the Schema action for booking, we saw that Google was bringing a lot more traffic on long tail keywords for a lot of different location that this business had hotels in, but it was not being visible on Google.
Bill Slawski: It wasn’t just matching names of locations on your pages to names of locations and queries, it was Google understanding where you were located-
What do you think Schema Actions are useful for?
Bill Slawski: There was a patent that came out a couple of years ago where Google said, “You can circle an entity on a mobile device and you can register actions associated with those entities.” Somebody got the idea right and the concept wrong. They were thinking about touchscreens instead of voice. They never really rewrote that so that it was voice activated, so you could register actions with spoken queries instead of these touch queries. But I like the idea. Alexa has the programs, being able to register actions with your entities is not too different from what existed in Google before. Think about how you would optimize a local search page where you would make sure your address was in a postal format so that it was more likely to be found and used. Of course, you wanted people to drive to a location, you’d want to give them driving directions, and that’s something you can register in action for now, but it’s already in there. It feels like you’re helping Google implement things that it should be implementing anyway, or you’re likely to be.
Andrea Volpini: Of course. I think that’s a very beautiful point, that we’re doing something that we should do. We’re now doing it for Google, but that’s the way it should be done. I like it. I like it a lot.
How much do you think structured data’s gonna help for voice search?
Bill Slawski: I can see Schema not being necessary because of other things going on, like the entity extraction, where Google is trying to identify. But Google tends to do things in a redundant way. They tend to have two different channels to get the same thing done. If one gets something correct and the other doesn’t, it fails to, they still have it covered. I think Schema gives them that chance. It gives site owners a chance to include things that maybe Google might have missed. If Google captures stuff and they have an organization like Schema behind them, which isn’t the search engine, it’s a bunch of volunteers who are subject matter experts in a lot of places or play those on TV, some are really good at that. Some of them miss some things. If you are a member of the Schema community mailing list, the conversations that take place where people call people on things, like, “Wouldn’t you do this for this? Wouldn’t you do that? Why aren’t you doing this?” It’s interesting to read those conversations.
Andrea Volpini: Absolutely. I always enjoy the mailing list of Schema, because as you said, you have a different perspective and different subject matter expert that of course are in the need of declaring what their content is about. Yeah, I think that Schema, I see it as a site map for data. Even though Google can crawl the information, it always values the fact that there is someone behind that it’s curating the data and that might add something that they might have missed, as you say, but also give them a chance to come to check and say, “Okay, this is true or not?”
Bill Slawski: You want a scalable web. It does make sense to have editors curating what gets listed. That potentially is an issue with Wikipedia at some point in the future. There’s only so much human edited knowledge it’s gonna handle. When some event changes the world overnight and some facts about some important things change, you don’t want human editors trying to catch up as quickly as they can to get it correct. You want some automated way of having that information updated. Will we see that? We have organizations like DeepMind mining sites like the DailyMail and CNN. They chose those not necessarily because they’re the best sources of news, but because they’re structured in a way that makes it easy to find that.
What SEOs should be looking at as of now? What do they need be very careful about?
Bill Slawski:It would be not to be intimidated by the search engine grabbing content from web pages and publishing it in knowledge panels. Look for the opportunities when they’re there. Google is business, and as a business, they base what they do on advertising. But they’re not trying to steal your business. They may take advantage of business models that maybe need to be a little more sophisticated than “how tall is Abraham Lincoln? “You could probably build something a little bit more robust than that as a business model. But if Google‘s stealing your business model from you in what they publish on knowledge panels, you should work around its business model and not be intimidated by it. Consider how much of an opportunity it is potentially to have a channel where you’re being focused upon, located easily, by people who might value your services.
When I started Four-Week MBA back in 2015, I had in mind a portal where people could find practical business insights they could readily apply. Opposite to the concept of traditional business school where you invest two years of your life with a full-time commitment, massive financial resources and get out of the job market.
I wanted to create a place where people could find easily executable and practical advice from other practitioners. I wanted it to be the farthest thing I could imagine from the purely academic world. Yet, even though I had managed to bring traffic and some awareness to the site, it didn’t generate enough organic reach. And in December 2017 the situation was quite depressing:
I made up my mind and as a New Year’s resolution. I decided I needed to create some traction for the blog. Yet as often happens with New Year’s resolutions I didn’t do anything about it for three months.
Until on March-April 2018, I started to experiment a bit to try to figure out how to make an amateurish blog, a professional one. In the last six months I accelerated the experimentation, and after many trials and errors this is where I got:
What lessons did I learn along the way? I want to show you a framework I used to get where I am.
In a Ph.D. program, you need to focus on a single area of expertise for years. At that stage you won’t be satisfied anymore with a superficial knowledge of a subject; you’ll look for understanding. The step from knowledge to understanding is not an easy one. It requires years of research, study and thinking about that subject.
The reason why my blog hadn’t been successful was lack of focus. Thus, I asked myself a simple question, which would have massive implications on my editorial strategy “what topic would I be so passionate about to be worth my time for at least five-ten years of research?”
In short, I thought in terms of completing a Ph.D. program. When you decide to go for it, it isn’t a simple choice; you need to love it at the point of knowing you’ll be spending the next years researching into the topic. In my case, after a few weeks thinking about it, it came up, and it was “business modeling.” I knew I wanted to know everything about the topic and that I’d be willing to devote hours of research on the subject to master it at the point to be as good as a Ph.D.
The reason for narrowing down so much is to allow your blog to gain traction quicker. Indeed, you have to think of a blog just like you would with a startup or small business. For instance, when PayPal started out, it didn’t go for the whole market right away, but it identified a niche, a thousand power users that could help it gain traction, quickly.
From that focus, I started moving toward an editorial strategy.
Branding vs. traction
Early 2018, I was looking for potential keywords that could be part of my editorial strategy, and I fell into the “search volume trap.” In short, this consists of going after large volume keywords that though look hot in reality are not worth the effort in terms of real traction. Those are keywords that have a search intent that is purely informational. While this distinction is clear in theory, it’s often hard to catch in practice.
In short, when it comes to informational keywords, people look for how, what, when, where and why of things. And if you’re building a publishing business, but also a blog around your company’s products, many of the keywords might be informational.
Yet not all the informational keywords are born equal. Indeed, as we’re moving to the voice search world, many of those traffic opportunities that existed in the past are getting lost. A trivial example is about asking Google “today’s weather:”
In the past, weather websites gained millions of visits a day from Google. Those days are long gone. Thus, if you want to target an informational keyword that has a real value for the business you need to think in terms of what can and what can’t be answered fully via Google search results pages.
Therefore, your content will need to:
Give a short answer accessible via Google as a branding strategy
Elicit users to click through via a long, in-depth content
For instance, when I created a guide about business models, I targeted several keywords and a particular keyword “types of business models.” I did that for a simple reason. If I could trigger Google’s featured snippet on that query with a list, this was also a significant traffic opportunity. This is what happened:
Can you notice anything particular on this snippet? One critical aspect is that it does offer a list, but it is limited. In fact, in the guide, I offer 30 business models, while Google only shows seven of them. For those that wanted to learn more about the topic, it means clicking through the snippet. Not surprisingly this query has a 5.6% click-through rate (CTR) so far, which is more than double of the overall average CTR of my site, at 2.6%.
Yet even for those that are not landing on the page, this is still a critical keyword for branding my site in that topical area. Therefore, it is like Google is removing the noise for me. Only those most interested in the topic and more in line as my target audience will land on the site. The rest will see my website and have a touch point which helps build my brand.
Understanding the difference between branding and traction is critical as it allows you to structure the content so that you can use Google as your tool for leveraging the brand and bringing qualified opportunities to your site. That connects to the next point.
A barbell based editorial strategy
Back in the late 1990s, when Google started out, it was an overnight success as it was 10x better than most existing search engines in the space. What made Google business model successful was not just its ability to give better results, it was its distribution strategy. On the one hand, Google relied on a free tool used by a growing number of people. On the other hand, Google made money via businesses that wanted to get more visibility for their brand, by bidding on specific keywords.
This is what I call a barbell strategy. You have two opposite targets – that might seem unrelated in the short-run – but are tied together from an overall long-term strategy. Indeed, the more free users joined Google, the more the search engine acquired valuable data that could sell back to businesses. Those massive network effects made Google become the tech giant we know today, which as of 2017 still generated 86% of its revenue from advertising.
Going back to a barbell editorial strategy it would work in this way:
Target established keywords with a large volume and low click-through rate only if they matter to your brand. In this case, success will be measured in terms of impressions
Win those keywords without established volume or medium volume, but high click-through rate as those will allow your blog to gain momentum. In this case, success will be measured primarily via how many clicks you get
You need to identify established keywords with a large volume and low click-through rate which identified with the brand you want to build.
For instance, in my case “business model” identified with the brand I wanted to build. Therefore, I ranked what a few months before was a dead blog, right after Wikipedia, Investopedia, and Harvard Business Review on that keyword:
Ranking my blog there required a certain amount of effort, way higher than ranking on other long tail keywords. However, as of now, it has a meager click-through rate of 0.9%, well below the average for my blog.
Yet, I don’t judge this keyword on the amount of traffic it brings, but rather on how many times people see my blog on that page, associated with Investopedia and HBR. In short, according to my barbell editorial strategy, this keyword is not meant to bring much traffic, but to generate awareness about my brand. To give you a bit of context in the last three months almost eighteen thousand people saw my blog related to the keyword “business model” right after Investopedia and HBR!
Instead, other keywords are meant to do the opposite. Even though they might not have any search volume yet. Those will allow you to gain momentum. For instance, when I covered the “DuckDuckGo business model,” I knew I wouldn’t create much buzz, but I knew I was going to create qualified traffic from people highly interested in the topic.
The keyword “duckduckgo business model” – that as of now doesn’t have yet established volume on Google – is among the ones that brought most traction to the blog with an astonishing 52.7% click through rate!
If you were to ask an average SEO, he would tell you to avoid targeting this kind of keywords as they don’t have volume and might not be necessary for your editorial strategy. However, a smart SEO expert would ask you first “what’s your gut feeling about this keyword?” “do you think people will want to search for it in the next years?” and if so he’ll suggest going after it.
Indeed, you will be the first in the space to be there. Second, you will avoid competition and gain traction. Third, people coming to your blog via those keywords might be your real audience base.
Voice search is here to stay
A morning back in March 2017, It seemed a regular day, if not for a scene that has changed forever the way I thought about the web. Crossing the door of the office, I saw Andrea Volpini, founder of WordLift, talking to a Google Home device we had at the office.
He was talking to it just like a man speaks to a kid, slowly to have it understand and process the information. After a few trials, finally at the question “what is WordLift” Google Home answered with a nice and clear voice “WordLift is a start-up founded in 2017 and based in Rome, Italy. The company has developed the homonymous WordPress plugin which, through the use of semantic technologies…”
At that point, I asked him – just like you would with a magician – to show me the trick. How did he do that? Andrea’s answer puzzled me; he said: “it’s the snippet!”
In short, a so-called featured snippet showing on the Google search results got also used by Google to reproduce an answer in the search device. While I was already familiar with featured snippets, I didn’t realize how powerful they were, especially going toward voice search. That day I got obsessed with them. I wanted to understand what made them possible, why Google triggered them and most importantly how they could help to make the jump from traditional search to voice!
Going back to the example of “duckduckgo business model” when I ask the Google assistant “how does DuckDuckGo make money?” this is what I get:
After over a year and a half of studying, implementing and gaining featured snippets I realized a few key lessons, which I summarized below:
Use an entity-based content model, where primary pages become entities
Identify long-tail keywords opportunities that can trigger featured snippets
Use structured data as the foundation for your featured snippet strategy
Use visuals and infographics to make your content more appealing and steal featured snippets opportunities
Set up redirections from those images toward the blog post to which they belong
Brand those infographics to generate search volume around your branded keyword
These guides we put together will help you through the process:
The search experience in the coming years might look completely different. Rather than a person going on the Google blank page looking for something. It might probably be skewed toward a device which pushes that information to you even before you type it. Where algorithms will become better and better at predicting what we want, those same algorithms might give us an answer before we ask it.
In that scenario, voice search will play a vital role in the transition from search to discovery!
Bet on the future with a Moonshot thinking approach
If you look under the hood of Google (now Alphabet), you’ll find out the company isn’t just a massive advertising machine. The company has been widely investing in other bets. Those comprise companies that span from life science to self-driving. In short, Google isn’t just waiting for the future to happen; it is shaping it.
This is what they call a Moonshot thinking approach matured by the Google X factory, which tries to “create radical new technologies to solve some of the world’s hardest problems.” Going back to your business and editorial strategy, if you just follow what Google tells you is relevant right now you’ll end up in a competitive space where everyone is trying to run for the same piece of land.
Instead, to be successful on the long-run, you want to be creative and get out from looking at just metrics and Google data and trust also your gut instinct and your understanding of an industry. Also, you might want to go for those key results that might give you a 10X advantage rather than an incremental one.
Thus, the question you need to ask over and over is not “how do I get a 10% increase” but rather “how do I gain that featured snippet?” or “how do I go from position 100+ to page one in four weeks on a competitive keyword?” (which is what I did, but we’ll leave this story for a later article).
When you change the mindset, you’ll also change the way you tackle the issue.
When I did a New Year’s resolution back in 2017, I thought that revamping my dead blog would have been an easy win. It took me three months to understand that if I really wanted to make it though I needed to be on top of the game in the area I picked, and I needed to commit and focus.
In the top 5% of content producers who blog in your field / to your audience
Able to work for months or years to become in the top 5% of those producers
In a field with very few decent, online content producers
In possession of a large, loyal fanbase that will consume what you produce even if it’s not particularly good
Overall I think the effort is worth it for a simple reason: a blog is still the place on the web where you have total control. Social media and other distribution channels are good to integrate into your digital strategy, but you don’t’ control any of them. Also, a blog is the place where you’ll be able to transition toward voice search!