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Is It Worth Implementing Schema.org's Microdata?

written by: •edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 10/30/2011

A new microdata format for helping to build the semantic web has been launched by Bing, Google and Yahoo!. While clearly useful, the Schema.org microdata standard might prove difficult to implement across all websites, however.

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    Making the World Wide Web easier to search? When a search engine like Google visits your website, it records the text, the image descriptions and the headings, and compares this with the number of incoming links to judge the reputation of your content. But mistakes can be made, and it isn’t unusual to find that wholly unsuitable and downright poor content is ranking quite highly.

    One way around this is to use tags that assist in the description of your content. Most blogs offer tagging as a feature, and these single words or short phrases can be used by search engines to correctly identify the content of the article, although the quality of this content is still difficult to judge.

    In the never-ending search to correctly index everything on the web, another new data type has been launched in the shape of Schema.org’s microdata. Schema.org has been launched by Bing, Google and Yahoo! with the aim of promoting the “Semantic Web," which should ultimately make search easier.

    But don’t we help the search engines enough with content tags and image descriptions?

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    What Is Microdata?

    Schema.org wants developers to adopt its new microdata standard, a method for marking up content for search engines as well as browsers.

    The Semantic Web requires microdata to succeed As developers will know, the HTML code in a website is there for the browser. Derived from the mark-up of the old days of print publishing, HTML tells the browser how to display content, from basics such as font, formatting and justification to more advanced elements such as image positioning.

    However, none of this provides any content to the search engines. Using a recognized word or phrase in your web page heading might result in the search engine getting it wrong, and sending unsuitable readers to your site. In order to attract the readers who are actually looking for your content, microdata could potentially be the key.

    The question is who is going to implement this new contextual tool to existing websites?

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    It’s a Great Idea, But …

    Everything about microdata is fascinating, and the results should be amazing and hopefully improve the web considerably.

    The real problem is that it is completely voluntary. The companies involved have come up with a superb initiative, but until the idea of microdata is added to the World Wide Web Consortium’s list of standards, it probably isn’t going to change things on a large scale. Given that W3C already added a microdata format to HTML5, there could be some confusing results.

    Another issue is implementation. Most webpages are generated by PHP or ASP code, with content collected from a database. Implementing microdata means updating this code, something that might be simple for larger companies online but a bit of a problem for smaller websites. WordPress, for instance, may well add Schema.org markup in future, but in the meantime only plugins offer this feature.

    At the other end of the scale, however, is the hand-coded HTML website. Updating a website of this kind may prove time-consuming.

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    Microdata Examples

    The Schema.org method of building the Semantic Web relies on adding new terms to the existing HTML markup. For instance, you might add a description to the header tags, or even to the entire DIV.

    The itemscope element is added to an HTML DIV to indicate to the search engine spiders that the current section is about a specific subject. In conjunction with this, Schema.org’s standard requires that an itemtype is also added; the content might be about a movie, for instance, so this will be indicated.

    Certain items such as names are occasionally not recognized as such in HTML, so the itemprop element is used to add information to them, perhaps using the span tag. Other items might have multiple qualifications, with the result that further use of the itemscope and itemtype elements can be considered.

    Here is an example of standard HTML that might be entered by code or produced by PHP or ASP:

    <div>

    <h1>A Night at the Opera

    <span>Artist: Queen (formed 1971)</span>

    <span>Rock, heavy metal</span>

    <a href="../albums/queen-night-opera.html">Buy the album</a>

    </div>

    This entry for the rock band Queen’s fourth album might be enhanced with microdata thus:

    <div itemscope itemtype ="http://schema.org/music">

    <h1 itemprop="name">A Night at the Opera</h1>

    <span>Artist: <span itemprop="artist">Queen</span> (formed 1971)</span>

    <span itemprop="genre"> Rock, heavy metal </span>

    <a href="../albums/queen-night-opera.html " itemprop="album"> Buy the album </a>

    </div>

    As you can see, the length of the HTML is almost doubled. Another impact of microdata could be an increase in page load times on slower connections.

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    So, Should I Use Schema.org’s Microdata Format?

    Adopting a new standard or convention is always difficult, especially when it comes to the web. The fact that there are two standards – Schema.org’s Microdata and the specification included in HTML5 – makes it even tougher to make a decision.

    Ultimately, it depends on your competitors. If you feel that this is something that they might use to get ahead in the search engines, then you should certainly spend some time investigating the pros and cons of implementing microdata so that you can remain on a level playing field. After all, you wouldn’t want all of your hard work to go to waste, would you?

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