11 Jan 2012

The Debate on Rich Snippets and Their Future in the SERPS

Google has been aggressively promoting schema.org, rich snippets and declaring an author for your site. Although these three concepts seem very different, they are actually very similar and they reflect what I think is a general shift  in direction for how search engines may interact with websites in the future.  Specifically, this is indicative of the shift to a more ‘semantic web’ –  web sites will define  certain common types of content  for search engines. According to Richard MacManus in Google’s Semantic Web Push: Rich Snippets Usage Growing,

“Kavi Goel from Google [ in 2010] talked about how Google can accelerate growth of the ecosystem, noting that less than 5% of web pages currently have semantic markup. Google wants to see this rise to 50% or more. It is looking for critical mass, which includes adding more formats and encouraging more “beneficial peer pressure” for companies to support rich snippets. Goel cited restaurant review sites as an example – it’s not just Yelp which supports it, but other restaurant review services too.”

The semantic web generally has the power to make it easier to integrate website content into Google products  as well as  identify the the scope of your brand foot print across platforms and websites. What Google would guess about in the past, it would now know.


Rich Snippets In a Nutshell

Rich snippets are content that’s identified with semantic markup and this is used to display specified content in SERP pages for your result. The most popular rich snippet is the aggregate rating snippet, which shows ratings in stars. But there are many other kinds as well. According to Google’s official video pitching them, ” The purpose of rich snippets is to present users with more information about the content that exists on a page so that they can better decide which result is most relevant for their query. And this may result in additional traffic to your site.


The Debate Over Rich Snippets

There are two sides to this argument. I’ll cover both.

One view is that by adding semantic markup via microformats/microdata that you’ll get more clicks in Google and that this creates the potential (if your site doesn’t otherwise suck) to send positive user behavior signals to Google (which is a ranking factor).

The counter-argument is that Google, in trying to provide the user with the an immediate answer to their query by cutting through your site using rich snippets, thus eliminates clicks you would have otherwise received.

The Pros

One proponent for the use of  rich snippets is Eric Enge, as he discusses How to Use Rich Snippets, Structured Markup for High Powered SEO. According to Enge, ”

“One thing I have learned (over and over again!) in my time as an Internet marketer is that a morass of boring text is … well, boring. The eye is drawn to search listings that look different.

Images, such as result from rel=author, or the asterisks in the recipes (you can also get pictures in your recipes as well) do wonders, but any level of difference that breaks up the 10 blue links will do great things for you.

As a result, your click-through rate will go up, and this will bring you more qualified visitors, and that is, after all, what SEO is all about.”

Some data does exist to support this view. According to Paul Bruemmer, in How To Get A 30% increase In CTR With Structured Markup “…retail firms can get up to a 30% increase in organic traffic by using structured markup like Schema Microdata, GoodRelations, and Google Rich Snippets, etc.” Bruemmer goes on to say that, “many retailers aren’t aware that only about 5% of their potential customers will see their offers in the SERP’s when they shop. That Means that 95% will never get beyond a brief description of their products.”

The Cons

For the other side of the argument, Niels Matthijs Weights in Google and Microdata /Stealing Your Content:

For users of Google, this is superb as this saves a few clicks and they still get the information they were looking for. Other services too will have a much easier time figuring out your data. A site author can change the html all he wants, as long as the microdata implementation remains the same (which in theory it should), services that crawl your pages don’t need to be rewritten every time you change something in the source.

As content authors though, we could feel a bit cheated by this. External services are using our carefully marked up data for their own benefits. Google does provide extra links to its sources, but only in a collapsed view which is likely to be ignored by people just looking for the answer.

Matt Cutts suggests that it is possible to lose  clicks because of  rich snippets stating in one of his Q & A videos that, ” you can imagine going crazy with rich snippets and might actually cause click through to go down if users do not like those sorts of rich snippets.”

It seems to me that like anything else, rich snippets will not provide a sure-fire solution to increasing the number of clicks you get from organic search.  Anecdotal evidence thus far suggests that for big brands with lots of products, eCommerce sites, and sites trying to optimize for local, rich snippets present a legitimate opportunity to increase their CTR.   For example , using them to highlight product images, aggregate ratings and aggregate  reviews can help inspire users to click on your listing as opposed to others.  However, whether rich snippets cause an increase or a decrease  in your CTR will depend largely on the quality of your overall strategy in implementing them.


Will Semantic Markup Change the Way We Think About Ranking?

There are some obvious benefits to using semantic mark up:

  • A competitive advantage, specifically, if you’re using rich snippets and your competitors are not  –  the link to your site will feature much more prominently then your competitors.
  • There is also an indirect way that semantic markup can effect rankings. When semantic mark up increases your CTR it sends a positive behavior signal to Google and might help you rank slightly better. However if visitors frequently click ‘back’ to the Google SERP page, it could indicate to Google that this page is not effectively meeting user intent.

Of course, there are also other macro issues that arise with rich snippets. Among these is that rich snippets, like all other semantic mark up, do not allow you to specify exactly how the content you defined will be used by Google or any other entity for that matter, and if other uses of your defined content will actually help your site.

Overall, I would say that search engines are taking big steps to leading the way toward ‘web 3.0′, and rich snippets are a small piece of what I guess to be a larger trend that will impact the way SERP’s look. I would project that this will favor large and mid-sized sites and may hurt some of the more ‘thin’ sites out there. In fact it brings to mind a specific real-life experience I had.  I was talking to someone about the huge changes in search and this person said to me “it’s really true search engines are becoming more focused on brands, so it is time for smaller sites to become brands as well, at least online.” At the  end of the conversation we pretty much agreed that SEO is more then just SEO now, it is truly internet marketing and a comprehensive strategy will be increasingly important  in  search engine rankings.

To wrap-up, I have to ask: what has been your experience using rich snippets? Did it bring you more clicks. Also, do you foresee  rich snippets, or some other kind of new semantic markup, becoming a ranking factor in the future?

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