Search is moving more and more toward structured data, which in turn, is leading search engines to delivering the information users are seeking without the need of having to send them to third-party sites. Google, in particular, is making tremendous use of this data in offerings like its Knowledge Graph and in Google Now, and it's still very early days for both products. Google continues to provide webmasters with tools to help build Google's structured database, but what ramifications does this have for businesses getting web traffic from Google going forward?
Are you willing to provide Google with structured data from your site, even if it means Google getting users this data without sending them to your site? Let us know in the comments.
Google announced the launch of Knowledge Graph just over a year ago. It was a major indication of Google's reduction in dependence on keywords.
"It’s another step away from raw keywords (without knowing what those words really mean) toward understanding things in the real-world and how they relate to each other," said Google's Matt Cutts at the time. "The knowledge graph improves our ability to understand the intent of a query so we can give better answers and search results."
From the user standpoint, it's been hard to argue with the results, especially these days when you see them interact with your questions in a conversational manner. Outside of the occasional piece of erroneous data, the info has been pretty useful, and even when relevant, more traditional, organic results appear on the page next to a Google "Knowledge Panel," it's often the Knowledge Graph part that jumps off the page and captures your attention, and in many cases, let's you know the information you needed without having to click further.
So far, the biggest loss in site clickthroughs has probably been seen by Wikipedia, simply because it's typically the first source Google offers up with the Knowledge Graph, but Google is working to greatly expand the Knowledge Graph, and as that happens, more sites face the possibility of a similar sacrifice. It's also worth noting that Wikipedia, of course, is a nonprofit entity. How much of the Knowledge Graph will consist of info from nonprofits when it's all said and done?
It will never truly be done though. It will just keep growing, and Google's giving webmasters the tools to give the search giant better access to the data it needs to give answers to users. For many, this will no doubt be an attractive option in an age where it has become increasingly hard to appear on page one of a Google results page.
Google launched the Data Highlighter back in December. It was initially just for event data, but has already expanded significantly.
"Data Highlighter is a webmaster tool for teaching Google about the pattern of structured data on your website," Google explains. "You simply use Data Highlighter to tag the data fields on your site with a mouse. Then Google can present your data more attractively -- and in new ways -- in search results and in other products such as the Google Knowledge Graph."
"For example, if your site contains event listings you can use Data Highlighter to tag data (name, location, date, and so on) for the events on your site," the company adds. "The next time Google crawls your site, the event data will be available for rich snippets on search results pages."
This week, Google announced that it has expanded the tool to support more types of data. Now it supports: events, products, local businesses, articles, software applications, movies, restaurants, and TV episodes. Suddenly, this is starting to involve businesses a lot more directly.
Google also introduced another tool called the Structured Data Markup Helper.
“As with Data Highlighter, one simply points and clicks on a sample web page to indicate its key data fields,” says product manager Justin Boyan. “Structured Data Markup Helper then shows exactly what microdata annotations to add to the page’s HTML code. We hope this helps give HTML authors a running start with adding structured data to their sites, in turn making search results more meaningful.”
“When Google understands a website’s content in a structured way, we can present that content more accurately and more attractively in search,” says Boyan “For example, our algorithms can enhance search results with ‘rich snippets’ when we understand that a page contains an event, recipe, product, review, or similar. We can also feature a page’s data as part of answers in search from the Knowledge Graph or in Google Now cards, helping you find the right information at just the right time.”
To be clear, there will certainly be plenty of cases, as with rich snippets, where new links to sites are created, potentially leading to more clickthroughs, but even sometimes with those, users will get the info they need on the page, without having to click. There are plenty of variables that enter the equation, not least of which is Google deciding when and where to display the data it obtains from sites.
The question is whether this move toward structured data will truly benefit sites in general in the long run or if it simply gives search engines like Google more control as the gatekeepers to information. With Google Now, for that matter, Google is even deciding when to show users this data, without waiting for them to search for it.
Another issue worth considering is just how well Google will be able to deal with accuracy of data as it gets more and more structured data from webmasters, as it is encouraging. We've seen Google make mistakes on more than one occasion. They've gotten marital status wrong. They've let nudity slip through when inappropriate (multiple times). Will they be able to keep too much erroneous information from being passed off as "knowledge"? If not, things could get really out of hand.
Earlier this week, I had a bad experience with Google Maps in which I was directed to a non-existent eye doctor on the other side of town (turn by turn, no less) when the actual doctor was right outside of my neighborhood. I was late for the appointment because of a Google error. What happens if some piece of erroneous data from some webmaster's site makes it into Google's Knowledge Graph, and gets served to me via Google Now when I supposedly need it, only for me to find out that it is completely wrong. Who knows what kinds of mishaps that could bring on?
Maybe Google can keep the errors from becoming too prevalent. I guess we'll see, though I can't say my confidence is incredibly high. Back when Google launched Knowledge Graph I questioned the company about accuracy with regards to Wikipedia vandalism. I was told that Google has quality controls to "try to mitigate this kind of issue," and that Google includes a link so users can tell them when they come across inaccuracies.
"Our goal is to be useful," a spokesperson told me. "We realize we’ll never be perfect, just as a person’s or library’s knowledge is never complete, but we will strive to be accurate. More broadly, this is why we engineer 500+ updates to our algorithms every year — we’re constantly working to improve search, and to make things easier for our users.”
But that was before Google Now, and it was when the Knowledge Graph was significantly smaller than it is now. At Google I/O earlier this month, Google announced that Knowledge Graph was up to over 570 million entities (not to mention rolling out in additional languages), and that it continues to grow. Even since then, Google has announced the launch of nutritional information.
It also remains to be seen how well Google is able to keep spam out of the structured data pool. I can't say I've seen any spam from it thus far, but as more and more businesses look to provide Google with this kind of data in hopes of boosting their search visibility, which again, Google is encouraging them to do, and as long as Google moves further and further into this direction, making it harder for businesses to get traditional first-page rankings, it seems likely that more will try to game the system. Maybe they won't be successful. Maybe some will find ways.
The point is that it's still early days for this era of search, and it's hard to say just what it all means for webmasters and for search quality. Either way, things are getting interesting.
Do you like the direction this is all headed in? Share your thoughts in the comments.