The future of SEO – structured mark-up

by on 14th August 2009

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.

I’m talking about the introduction of standards such as Microformats, RDFa, HTML5, the Common Tag and thinking about the likely impact on search results these structured data formats will have.

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:

creative prices displayed in serps

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 Squared

Google Squared

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.

prices on the page

This is an example of Google playing price data back to the user, though 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.

Useful resources

Google’s Support page for Webmasters implementing RDFa

How will HTML5 and XHTML2.0 affect SEO?

How to markup location data with the hCard Microformat

The hCard Creator at

A preview of HTML5 – A List Apart


  1. I believe standard markups will be very hard for the search engines to gain traction on, considering this makes it much easier for content/information to be taken (not only by search engines but by any well honed crawler). Also, I think webmasters have to think about whether this actually benefits them? By keeping searchers on Google’s result pages, isnt Google or Bing the only one who really benefits?

  2. I do like seeing people pick up on this idea. I like the advancements being made, new concepts including micro content containers. Way back in 1999, I presented at New York SES on structured data between webmaster and search engine being the future of SEO, using XML schema. I presented sample code and many were in attendance.

    Then I joined PositionTech. We did just that, for the Yahoo! Paid Inclusion program. Structured data inserted directly into the engine, paid so that the program could be justified. The future of this was destined to be free (until Google decides to charge the way we did back then). It’s been the future of SEO for just over 10 years!

  3. I can see things moving in this direction. Anything we can do to add specificity to our content not only helps the search engines but also helps match the right visitors to the right content. In response to Brent I think this is good for everyone. Google and Bing want to present content to searchers that is most like to provide them with the information they seek.

    We as Web developers or site owners want that too. If the search engines can send us more visitors who really want our content and fewer that don’t, we’ll see our visitors engage more with our sites, ideally increasing conversions while lowering our bounce rates. Getting designers to adopt things like microformats will take time, but it will add value.

    I wrote about using basic semantic HTML mark-up last week as a way to inform both clients and new designers. Currently many designers, bloggers and others aren’t even using things like hierarchical headers (h1…h6), so they may not be ready (yet) for more advanced mark-up. But those that are early to adopt will provide more useful information to search engines and browsers that can, and should, positively impact accessibility and SEO.

    I look forward to seeing how this all evolves.

  4. I agree with you Richard, to a certain extent. Like Brent mentions, the search engines will benefit, and benefit a lot, but so will those sites that follow any “standard” markup structures that are defined by the engines (either Google alone or as a standards entity with Microsoft and others). Also, any sites that already have a ton of traffic will probably benefit more than smaller sites that cannot quickly adapt to standards. The folks really set to potentially lose in this, though, are the price aggregators and shopping search engines.

    And remember, there will always be SEO’s on the edge that will push the boundaries, thus limiting the total effectiveness of any type of standard markup language readable by search engines.

  5. Dude… including an example where Google is pulling in additional information WITHOUT the use of structured data only helps to disprove your theory. If they can pull in that information without using structured data, why put forth the time and money in a new format that will take a long time to adopt by webmasters and the internet as a whole???

  6. @ryan – yes, Google can pull this data without any standard for the data, but imagine how much more relevant the results become if a standard were to be adopted (not advocating for it, just for sake of argument). I’d liken this to how drastically the web has changed for the better as standards have been born, morphed, changed in the past 10-12 years.

  7. Take all search engines and combane their best features together, you will see what is going to happen in a year or two.

  8. Thank you everyone for such productive and insightful comments. I’d like to address Ryan’s comments as I think the point of the post was missed slightly by this comment.

    Ryan, you missed the point of the example that the Google Squares result is playing back very little usable data, and that the post identifies this issue could be resolved by the implementation of further Rdfa support (hreview).

    There are lots of (early) examples of Rdfa interpretation on Google’s side take this post introducing rich snippets for example.

    Finally, implementing this stuff (especially in a new page design) is frighteningly easy and provided your developer / designers understand the class attributes they should use for specific snippets of data, the standards can be implemented very quickly.

  9. Who really knows what the future of SEO holds. One thing that is for certain is that the search engines are morphing. They are slowly weeding out the people who focus on rankings and quick results to websites that actually build their business online using various strategies.

  10. Agreed Richard. Although, I think the future of SEO is more about other devices and apps than it is about search as we know it today. SEO will become more about managing data formats properly to perform best everywhere you or your client needs their content to be.

    This is already true today, but I think with the new markup and content formats you mention we’ll see it become much more prevalent in SEO in the coming years.

    Another way to say it would be — in the future I think SEO is dead. It is morphing into Content Optimization or CO

  11. @Craig

    By “other devices and apps” I think you’re referring to Vertical Search – applications such as Urbanspoon and Spoonfed’s Event Radar (London).

    There’s no doubt that “search” traffic will start to diversify as applications and search alternatives capture more users – with structured markup being pivotal to inclusion in some of these services.

    All that said, most SEO’s would disagree with your comment that the future of SEO is “dead”. It may be that SEO techniques evolve as technology changes, and our core focus (organic search) may become diluted by focusing on vertical search, but there will always be a need to generate traffic to transactional spaces on the web via existing and future platforms. IMO, SEO has only just begun.

  12. By “other devices and apps” I meant SEOs need to stop thinking so much about search in general period.

    I became an SEO for one reason — to make low cost conversions for myself and clients.

    The easiest way to do that back in the day was organic search. These days it might be Twitter, a Facebook page, an iPhone app, Yelp, etc, etc that performs best for your audience.

    I’m mixing disciplines obviously but that is only because of how we have those disciplines labeled today.

    This I know — I don’t want to be or want to hire an SEO that can only work search. I want someone that can take my content and drive conversions regardless of the outlet.

    I see that role as the future of SEO.

  13. Really liked the post! The easier you make it for the search engines to figure out your content the better off you are, while I have no data supporting microformat information helping rankings, it just makes sense that the more portable (or widespread) use of a standard like a reviews microformat the easier it is for the search engines to index that info.

  14. I’m really not sure about this. Sounds like we the businesses and web masters do all the work to feed our product and data into Google with a risk they cut us out of the loop. We sell rooms and parking spaces. Perfect for Google squared to list. What’s everyones view on Google adding a book now or buy now button to the squared results. Mean time we’re operating in can’t beat them join them/if we don’t do it one of our competitors will mode.

  15. It’s true that the battle for business online is often won in the SERPs, before a visitor visits a website or even clicks the link. You explained the competitive advantage in structured markup quite nicely.

  16. Google Squared appears to be similar to my patent application:

    Frankly, I am getting a Déjà vu effect while going through the “Google Squared” application because it appears to be very similar in function to my United States patent application which was filed on April 12, 2007 and as publicly disclosed by the United States Patent and Trademark Office on October 16, 2008, when the patent application was published.

    My patent application is titled as “Method And System For Research Using Computer Based Simultaneous Comparison And Contrasting Of A Multiplicity Of Subjects Having Specific Attributes Within Specific Contexts” bearing Document Number “20080256023” and Inventor name “Nair Satheesh” which may be viewed at upon Patent Applications: Quick Search.

    Google Squared appears to be using at least some if not many of the same methods and systems as set forth by me more than two years ago in my patent application. In fact there are many more methods and systems disclosed in my patent application which I believe will help resolve certain inaccuracies found in current Google Squared application.

    I have issued legal notices to Google through my Patent Attorney in the US but Google has not responded yet to any of my notices.

  17. Great insight indeed. whatever u say might be great from a surfers perspective – but there are so many things that SE’s need to learn or even if they have the know-how they don’t want to implement due to business – ………

    I feel that SE’s do what u say – but I know they won’t do it simply because if someone gets all the info by simply typing the exact info he/she is looking for – then nobody is going to invest in SE’s ad networks as they could optimize their sites and look for simple organic results.

    Sadly – ur thoughts are right all the way – just not business-wise viable for SEs. No SE would provide such exact result whatever their public opinion might be.

  18. Great article Richard.

    Now a days it’s best to use micro formats while placing addresses, reviews etc. It will give a clear picture to the search engines about the information we are providing.


  19. hey look at the intense debate!

  20. Great article! Thanks for the information. For you to be able to make your page much better than the others, then you must consider attracting visitors.

  21. Great Post! The Google Squared looks very interesting, I must say!

  22. (^o^)/~

  23. Great insight indeed. Great post I am going to book mark it for furture

  24. It looks like this issue has resurfaced. Bing announces that it is collaborating with Google and Yahoo! for a universal schema: Could have some interesting implications for the future of SEO.

  25. The future of search engine optimization in my opinion is going to be focused of the social signals rather than link-building.

  26. This post is a bit outdated, but still good nonetheless. It’s important to remember that if you’re focused on “SEO tactics of today”, you’ll experience some tragedies during Google updates.

    Forget the “tactics” and focus on original, well written content that people actually want to visit and link to. The social signals and linking will naturally follow.

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