On Tuesday, September 24, 2019, Google announced a very important update called More options to help websites preview their content on Google Search.
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 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
Danny Sullivan referenced to several resources and among them, the European press publication setting, highlighting:
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, use max-snippet or max-image-preview directives. You can enable other special features and rich results by using structured 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.
- Use structured data: If you want to make sure to be automatically and implicitly opted-in by Google for its rich results. Thus, make sure to implement structured data on your pages!
- 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
In this episode recorded by Jason Barnard, on Google’s Reaction to the Link Tax #SEOisAEO with Andrea Volpini at #colosSEOmeetup, there are a few key highlights from the latest updates, and what to do next if you’re a publisher!
Jason also recorded with us an incredible webinar that explains how Google rankings work (we’re talking about the rankings that determine rich results). You also have an article from Jason on SEJ which explained the process behind it.