Darn that Google. Just when you’ve got your digital marketing strategy figured out, including SEO, Google goes and changes things. Again and again. How inconvenient.
Unless you’re the one searching.
You’ve probably noticed in your own searches that the makeup of a search results page keeps changing. Early search results pages comprised simple lists of links, each link followed by a snippet of plain text as shown here:
Over the past several years, search results pages have evolved to include rich snippets and other kinds of rich search results.
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How do marketers take advantage of the evolving ecosystem of rich search results? Read on for some background and strategies.
What are rich search results?
Rich search results, aka rich results, are called “rich” because they include different types of information – text, images, data – in various combinations, formats, and screen positions. For many types of searches, the results page includes or may even be dominated by rich results.
In the example below, the fourth link is followed by a rich snippet – a snippet that’s enriched with eye-catching, mouth-watering bits of extra content: photo, five-star rating, baking time, calorie count. Which link would you click?
Rich results aren’t new. Google introduced rich snippets, like the snippet showing the cake, in 2009. Since then, rich results have increased in variety and have come to claim more and more of the valuable Page One real estate of Google results, at least for certain types of searches.
Rich search results take many forms. What they have in common is that they stand out from text-only search results.Rich search results stand out from text-only search results says @atxcopywriter #SEO Click To Tweet
For example, the rich result below appeared at the top of the results page when I searched on “Austin weather.” With a result like this, if all you want is the temperature or the week’s forecast, you need click no further.
In the example below, from a search on “flu symptoms,” a rich result appears in the form of a panel at the right. Unlike the examples above, which show rich results derived from a single website, this rich result contains medical information that Google has created from a variety of sources both electronic and human.
These examples give you just a hint as to the variety of rich results that Google and other search engines are serving up these days – and more types are in development.
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Why you should adapt your content plan for rich search results
With every Google update (think Panda, Hummingbird, Pigeon), we marketers get all in a flurry figuring out what changes, if any, we need to make to our SEO strategies. If people are to find our web content, our pages have to rank – that is, appear on Page One of the search results – for the phrases people are searching on. Sure.
Today, though, we have to do more than get on Page One. We have to also compete with any rich results that appear.
The rise of rich results doesn’t change the sort of actions you should take to improve your search rankings. But you need to do more. You need to help Google understand the kind of information your web pages contain so that they have a shot at being included in rich results.
Interested? If so, apply the five strategies I’m about to lay out.
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Strategy 1: Use schema markup on your web pages where appropriate.
Schema markup isn’t as scary as it might sound. Yes, it’s code, but ignore that fact for now. Focus on what schema markup does for you, the website owner. It gives your content a better chance of catching the eyes of the searchers you’re after– without you having to pay for the attention.
What is schema markup?
Schema markup, according to one definition, is “code that you put on your website to help the search engines return more informative results for users.”
“Schema” refers to a particular standardized set of content types: news articles, videos, books, and so on; “markup” refers to the standardized code – metadata – that has been defined for those content types.
Schema markup helps machines understand what kind of thing a piece of content is. In other words, schema markup gives a piece of content a way to tell search engines, “Hey, I am a book” or “I am a video” – and then to identify its elements: “Here’s my title and author,” and so on.Schema markup helps machines understand what kind of thing a piece of #content is via @atxcopywriter #SEO Click To Tweet
For schema markup to work, it has to be standardized. That’s why, in 2011, all the main search engines came together to create Schema.org, the organization that maintains the full list of hundreds of defined content types and subtypes that have been defined and the code that people use to implement each type. That website is an ongoing project that the search-engine companies add to as they develop new schema markup.
You can add schema markup to your web pages’ HTML code any time your content includes any of the schema content types.
Who should implement schema markup?
Most businesses are missing out on the opportunity that schema markup represents. A study released last year that crawled over 200 million web pages found that a piddling 20% of them use schema markup.
If you’re part of the 80% who don’t use schema markup, consider starting today.
Generally, the coding is best left to developers. For example, here’s what the schema-markup code looks like for a news article:
Developers may be able to set up your system so that marking up relevant content is as simple as filling in a few fields. In this case, content creators may be able to take on the task. If you have a WordPress site, you can download a schema plugin to do the job of providing those fields.
For now, don’t worry about the technical details. What marketers need is enough understanding of schema content types to start the conversation.
What schema content types make sense for businesses?
I can’t list them all, but to give you a sense, here are a few schema content types that businesses might benefit from.
- News articles
Below are descriptions of these types, including links to instructions for schema markup for each.
Schema markup for articles makes them more likely to show up in the news section you see in some Google searches.
You can find the schema markup for news articles here.
Is this schema content type for you? Yes – if you’re a marketer who produces blog posts and articles (so probably everyone reading this).
While not as common in results as they used to be, video rich results still appear often in certain types of searches, particularly how-to searches where a demonstration is helpful.
You can find the schema markup for videos here.
Is this schema content type for you? Yes – if you’re making video content (which you should if video rich results show up in searches that you want to rank for).
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The ratings/reviews results can theoretically show up for products, businesses, or creative products like books and movies. In practice, Google seems to have vastly decreased how frequently these show up. (It took me a number of searches to find an example that shows up on Page One.) Ratings/reviews results could return to search with more frequency. Google is fickle.
You can find the schema markup for ratings/reviews here.
Is this schema content type for you? Yes – if your website allows customers to leave product reviews and ratings.
Events results provide basic details about upcoming events, like the name, the place it’s happening, and the date.
You can find the schema markup for events here.
Is this schema content type for you? Yes – if your business regularly puts on public events.
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While some schema content types are hit or miss in terms of how often they show up, you can count on recipe rich results to show up for food searches. In addition to adding an image to the search results, recipe schema markup allows you to provide other valuable information that may make people more likely to click, like how many calories a recipe has and how long it takes to make.
You can find the schema markup for recipes here.
Is this schema content type for you? Yes – if your business relates to food.
In summary, use schema markup on your web pages where appropriate. Doing so doesn’t guarantee your content’s inclusion in rich search results, but it does, as Google says, “make your content eligible for inclusion.”Use schema markup on web pages so #content is eligible for inclusion in rich search results via @google Click To Tweet
Why bother? Because most of your competitors aren’t bothering. Yet.
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Strategy 2: Find out what types of rich results show up for your target search terms and make more of that type of content.
What you see on the first page of search results varies dramatically based on the kind of search you do. Part of your content strategy should be looking to see what types of rich results claim those top spots for the terms you’re hoping to rank for.Check what types of rich results claim top spots for your keyword phrase via @atxcopywriter #SEO Click To Tweet
In a recent interview I conducted, Orbit Media’s Andy Crestodina (a keynote speaker at the upcoming CMWorld Conference), put it this way:
You are not done researching a keyword phrase unless you have analyzed the search results page for that phrase and you understand what kind of competitors win … If you’re targeting a phrase and the search results page for that phrase includes videos then you should consider creating video.
We marketers spend a lot of energy trying to figure out what type of content our audience is most likely to respond to. One of our biggest jobs is to practice empathy to make sure we’re creating content that matches what our audience is interested in and looking for.
For SEO, the process of empathizing with our prospects must extend to understanding how people search. “Pretend that you are your target audience at the very moment when they have that initial idea to look for your content or to look for your company,” Andy says.
Google has more data than anyone on what people are looking for and clicking on. If, in response to a certain query relevant to your audience, Google is delivering articles, then articles are most likely what those people are looking for – and articles are what you probably need to create if you want to rank. If, instead, you see a lot of videos, images, or recipes in the search results, create more videos, images, or recipes.
Create – and mark up – the kind of content that people expect to find in the searches where you want to compete.
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Strategy 3: Create content that goes beyond simple answers.
When people turn to Google looking for a simple answer, Google often delivers that answer right on the search page, putting the most promising answer, like a gift, in a box.
If all you want to know is how to make hard-boiled eggs, why would you click any of the links when the instructions are staring you in the face?
Here’s the rub for marketers: When people get instant answers in the search results, they don’t need to click through to any web pages.
The businesses with something to lose due to the increasing richness of search results are those whose content targets simple queries. If your web strategy includes offering quick answers to simple questions, you may find that rich results (your own or others’) bring your traffic down – no matter how well your pages rank. People won’t need to go to your site for simple answers anymore.
But answering your audience’s questions is still a staple of a good content strategy. The rise in rich results doesn’t change the validity of that strategy – as long as you’re answering questions that require extensive answers.
Go deep. Focus on customer questions whose answers don’t fit in Google’s answer box.
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Strategy 4: If you target local customers, aim to get on the map.
If you sell products or services that people come to a storefront to purchase, this is the most important of these strategies.
When Google suspects that people are looking for a local business, the top results are pushed on a map that includes a cluster of local businesses – like Theory Hair Salon, Sexy Scissors, and DC Haircuts in the example search for “haircut” below. You want to be in that cluster.
The main step you need to take in order to compete for those three spots doesn’t involve schema markup; simply create a business listing in Google. That’s the easy part.
Other than that, the best practices for getting into the map cluster are the same actions recommended for local SEO in general. While that’s a pretty big subject on its own – you can find some good starter information on local SEO here. Some of the main steps you can take now to help you compete for those spots:
- Make sure you’re listed in as many online directories as possible with consistent information in each of them.
- Encourage positive reviews from customers.
- Make sure your address is included on your website.
- Put your city and state in your title tag.
Your best bet for getting on the map is to create a business listing with Google and develop a local-SEO strategy that implements all the typical best practices for local rankings.
Strategy 5: Pay attention to changes in search.
This post starts with commentary on how inconvenient it can be that Google keeps changing things. As if to make my point, while I was working on the post, Google announced the release of rich cards.Pay attention to changes in #SEO says @atxcopywriter; @Google keeps changing things Click To Tweet
As of this writing, rich cards show up only for recipes and movies, and only on mobile devices. Rich cards, with their dominant images, provide a subset of search results that appear above other search results.
Since rich-card carousels can be browsed from side to side, many searchers won’t ever scroll down to see the other results.
If you care about showing up in the results on mobile for recipe or movie searches, move fast to give your content the right markup.
Even if rich cards aren’t relevant to you right now, this is a good reminder of how quickly things change. Google is experimenting with the next phase in rich cards, host-specific list carousels, which will show a grouping of rich cards all pulled from the same website.
There’s no way to know what Google will do in the days to come, but you can work to stay on top of changes as they’re announced and implemented. Follow the Google Webmaster blog so that you’ll be among the first to see Google’s new releases. And make a habit of Googling the search terms your company targets – both on desktop and mobile devices – to see what new types of rich results may come up.
To help your organization benefit from today’s expanding ecosystem of rich search results – including rich snippets, rich cards, maps, and other kinds of rich results now available or still to come – consider these five strategies:
- Use schema markup where appropriate.
- Find out what types of rich results show up for your target search terms, and make more of that type of content.
- Create content that goes beyond simple answers.
- If you target local customers, aim to get on the map.
- Pay attention to changes in search.
Above all, keep delivering quality, well-researched content that provides information your audience is looking for. That’s how you get your content to rank in the first place. Then, a few tweaks in your code, and possibly a shift in the types of content you create, can help your content stand out in those search results.
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Are you already using schema markup? Got any strategies of your own for getting your web content included in rich search results? Please tell us about your experiences in a comment.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute