What Is Schema Markup and Why Should I Care?

Structured data and schema markup: what is it? Why is it so important for SEO? According to the official Google guides: “Structured data is a standardized format for providing information about a page and classifying the page content.”

Frankly, that is not helpful. Even I don’t think it’s helpful and I, dear reader, love structured data.

The issue, in the opinion of this humble MediaSmack employee, is that you can’t really explain structured data and schema markup without first explaining a little bit about search engines and their limitations. So, stick with me and read on to get the quick and dirty lowdown on what your SEO department means when they talk about structured data.

Language Is Tough, Even for Us Humans

Ultimately, the point of Google and other search engines is to answer questions. That sounds simple, but the problem is this: language.

As Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s on First” sketch demonstrates so hilariously, language is hard. Even humans have a difficult time understanding each other a lot of the time – and Google doesn’t even have the advantage of having a human brain. Arguments about AI aside, Google is at a distinct disadvantage because English is not its first language.

You may think that you used clear, concise language on your website to explain what it’s about, but there is still a good chance that something important is going to get lost in translation.

Schema Markup: Websites for Dummies

Essentially, you can think of structured data as a way to cut through these language problems. The term “structured data” is general – it can be used to describe any extra code that you add to a website to remove all the guessing games and misunderstandings from English (or whatever language). It functions something like footnotes or annotations in a particularly tough textbook.

Schema is one type of data structure – it’s a set of footnotes that are simple enough and clear enough for search engines to understand. There are other structures, but schema is the most popular because it was developed in collaboration with Google. For that reason, “schema” and “structured data” are sometimes used interchangeably in the same way that “jet” and “plane” are used interchangeably, even though they are not technically synonyms.

You can use schema to annotate any page of a site, or even one piece of a page. When you add these footnotes, you are “marking up” the page. Thus, when we say that a page “has schema markup” it means that the webpage in question has structured data on it – it has footnotes. In a way, adding schema markup creates a Cliff Notes version of a page, or a Webpage for Dummies version.

As a human, you understand what a webpage is saying without the structured data to explain it. But without a human brain, Google needs all the help it can get.

Caution: Google Doesn’t Just Read the Cliff Notes

Schema markup is NOT a language on its own – this is an important distinction. It supplements the language that is already on the page, making the full meaning clearer.

For this reason, you really can’t use schema markup or any kind of structured data to fool Google. If you were reading a Shakespeare play and a footnote said, “a verb meaning to take a photo of yourself with a smartphone,” then you would rightly be suspicious. For one thing, the date at the front of the book would show that it far predates smartphones. For another, “wherefore” is an adverb, not a verb.

In the same way, even though it doesn’t have a human brain, Google will notice when your schema markup doesn’t jive with the actual text on your page.

Who’s on First? Structured Data Is Nothing to Laugh About

The information that you can give Google through structured data is relatively simple. For example, you can mark the words “Bud Abbott” as a person, allowing Google to understand that this is a name without having to draw conclusions from context. You might even be able to mark “Bud Abbott” as a person and a comedian. You can mark “Baseball Game” as an event. You can mark the “Who’s on First?” video as a TV Clip.

If we could use structured data to mark up the “Who’s on First?” sketch by Abbott and Costello, then that entire conversation would be much shorter. It might go something like this, with the hypothetical structured data shown in brackets:

Costello: “What are the players’ names [question 1]?”

Abbott: “Who [person] is on first [answer to question 1].”

Costello: “What an unusual name. And who’s on second base[question]?”

Admittedly, this version would not have been funny in the slightest. But maybe we would have had time to learn the right fielder’s name. (As plays out now, Nobody’s in right field).

So Do I Really Need Schema Markup on My Site? (Hint: YES)

Google and other search engines do not require sites to have structured data. However, as we previously mentioned, search engines exist to answer questions. The more information you can give them about what information is on your website, the better for your rankings.

Google has come a long way. When it started out, it was akin to a matching game – it matched the words in the query with words on a site and spat out those results. Perhaps there will come a time when search engines understand language as well as humans (or even better than the hapless Costello) – but I have my doubts about that, dear reader. Until that time, if it ever comes, structured data will continue to be crucial.

Zach Thompson Avatar
Author Zach Thompson