Ever since I started doing SEO, I remember coming across “The Future of SEO” style blog posts, taking a punt at what the future might hold in store for Search Engine Marketers. Among some of the more recent posts on the topic, Rand at SEOmoz gave a lot of weight to user data and the social graph beginning to play a role, while, over at SES San Jose, experts discussed subjects ranging from search query refinement for better results quality, to understanding semantic intent in search queries and the mechanics of mobile search.
The future of SEO
No SEO blog would be complete without at least one post on the subject of the future of technical SEO, so I’d like to put my thoughts out there too – feel free to feedback, comment and add to the discussion. The “future SEO” subject I’m feeling most passionate about at the moment is the use of structured, uniform markup to highlight data in web page development and how this could impact search user experience, and on page SEO.
What is structured data?
Let’s imagine a website that contains products, reviews and prices. Our imaginary website has been lovingly crafted in W3C compliant HTML, offers a great user experience, generates heaps of revenue and has plenty of authority according to Google. For a search engine, there’s a wealth of product and price data to crawl and display in search results for users. As a result of a predictable, consistent code build and good solid levels of authority, we begin to see details from product pages (such as price) appear in search results:
Today, the way a search engine “sees” the information it gathers from one website can be quite different to the way it sees another. That’s because the data is very likely to be marked up differently. This is no problem for users as they’re unaware of the differences found in the page code, but it’s a challenge for search engines looking to enhance and develop their search results pages.
Consistency and standards are the key
Imagine a world where important data, such as prices, reviews and dates are all identified in a more consistent way across the internet via a uniform approach to semantic markup. What you need are Microformats, RDFa and HTML5 – all standards that will or are enabling search engines to interpret data more easily.
Search engines and structured data playback
We’re already seeing search engines developing different ways to playback search results pages to users, with the intention of presenting information in a more useful and meaningful way. If search engines are more able to discover and understand the data being collected, they’re in a much stronger position to play back that data in their search results.
In May 2009 Google announced their support for RDFa and Yahoo had already been working on this for a year or so via the Search Monkey application, with early example implementations in sites such as Linkedin and Yelp.
So if we’re already seeing search results changing as a result of more structured data on the web, what examples can we see to prove search engine companies intentions towards more meaningful, structured and information rich results?
Google previewed Google Squared at the Searchology conference back in May 09.
According to Search Engine Watch, “Searching via Google Squared means searching for pure information.”.
SEW hit the nail on the head with that quote, but sadly for Google, the data has to exist in the first place! Take the example above for “restaurant in London“.
Out of the first 4 results on the page, only 1 address has been found and there’s really very little alternative information to work with. No menu data and critically, no reviews. Further acceptance and processing of Microformats standards such as hreview could address this small problem quickly and easily, and give search engines the data they need to create a more convincing search experience.
Prices from the page
About a week ago we started seeing an option in Google search using the “show options” link.
This is an example of Google playing price data back to the user, though laterooms.com do not appear to be using the standards we’ve discussed so far in their page build.
“Prices from the page” options are definitely an early sign of Google’s longer term intentions to develop a richer, informative experience on their serps, though without webmasters implementing a more structured approach to their code, progress could be slow.
My future of SEO is the ability to bring the knowledge of structured, consistently marked up data to the table to allow search engines to play back results in as meaningful and relevant way as they see fit. Ultimately, keeping up to date with new standards could give you the advantage over your competitors in the search results, making your site stand out, winning you the clicks.