From Rich Results to AI Understanding

Up until early 2023, the role of Schema Markup, also known as Structured Data, was primarily centered on achieving rich results. The use of structured data enhanced the presentation of information in search results. Pages that achieved a rich result typically saw an increase in click-through rate, delighting SEO teams. What many people didn’t know, was that in addition to achieving these enhanced results in search, Schema Markup also provided search engines with a clearer understanding of what webpage content was about.

However, we’ve seen the role of Schema Markup shift over this past year. This article explores the journey of Schema Markup and its changing role in SEO throughout 2023, emphasizing the growing importance of its semantic value over just rich results.

Early 2023 – Fluctuations in Rich Results

In 2022, the performance of rich results experienced fluctuations, and 2023 has been no different.

In April 2023, Google stopped showing Video rich results on the SERP for pages, favouring YouTube results, or pages where the video was the main element of the page. As such, many organizations could no longer rely on Video rich results to drive traffic to their site.

At the same time, Schema Performance Analytics saw the performance of FAQ rich results declining on mobile for unexplained reasons. However, John Mueller mentioned in an unofficial statement, that “sites love adding FAQ markup, it gives them more room in search, and at some point, it makes the results less useful. The right balance makes sense to re-evaluate from time to time, like with any other search element.” This was perhaps Google’s test to see how the removal of FAQ rich results would impact the search experience.

To mitigate the risk from these rich result fluctuations, Schema App’s High Touch Support team made content recommendations that would allow our customers to diversify the types of rich results they were achieving. When it came to making changes with agility, the Schema App Highlighter was used to make quick edits, as it enables the creation of Schema Markup templates that can easily be updated when changes to content occur.

February & May 2023 – The Introduction of Generative AI Search Engines

In February 2023, Microsoft rolled out the new Bing, which included its AI chatbot, Bing Chat. Google followed suit, unveiling the experimental Search Generative Experience (SGE) at the Google I/O conference in May 2023, sparking significant changes in the dynamic of search.

SGE, though in its testing phase, disrupted search results by relegating organic search results, including rich results, lower on the SERP.

Furthermore, these generative AI search engines were prone to hallucinations and biases, resulting in inaccurate search results. This raised critical questions for organizations: How could they control the way generative AI search engines interpreted their content to ensure accurate information on SGE?

The evolving AI landscape generated both excitement and concern, with uncertainties about its impact on SEO. Amidst the ambiguity, the key question persisted on whether Schema Markup played a role in aiding AI algorithms to comprehend website content.

Preparing for AI-Search

During his Pubcon keynote speech, Fabrice Canel, Principal Program Manager for Bing, shared that one of the ways SEOs could prepare for this new AI-enabled search was by creating great content and annotating it with Schema Markup. As such, many SEO professionals leaned towards implementing Schema Markup.

Recognizing it as the language that search engines used to understand site content, Schema Markup emerged as a concrete way for SEOs to stay relevant during the rapid AI evolution. This approach provided a sense of control over how search engines interpreted content and was adopted by many forward-looking organizations.

The semantic value of Schema Markup, which refers to the underlying meaning and context it adds to the content, became increasingly apparent to SEOs at this time. However, it did so in a somewhat hypothetical manner. Unlike rich results, the quantitative measurement of this semantic value of Schema Markup posed challenges.

At this time, Search Engines didn’t provide any analytics on how content was performing in SGE or Bing Chat. Consequently, SEO teams often relied on rich results as a tangible metric to gauge the effectiveness of their Schema Markup strategy.

August 2023 – FAQ & How-to Deprecation: A Turning Point

Despite the announcement of SGE, the performance of rich results seemed relatively stable on Google. However, between August and September 2023, a significant turning point unfolded as Google deprecated How-to rich results and dramatically reduced the frequency of FAQ rich results. The latter were then restricted to display exclusively on “well-known, authoritative government and health websites”.

How-To rich result clicks declining in August and September 2023

Drop in clicks after deprecation of How-To rich results

The deprecation of FAQ, a previously widely utilized rich result, reignited concerns about the continued relevance of Schema Markup. While there are still over 30 rich results available, few had the flexibility like FAQ to use on diverse content.

In a year where marketing budgets were critiqued and leaders required measurable ROI for initiatives to be approved, the absence of clicks and impressions from rich results made it challenging to quantify the value of Schema Markup. Many marketing teams asked: “Is there a point in implementing Schema Markup if rich results can’t be achieved?” The answer, unequivocally, is yes.

Prioritizing the Semantic Value of Schema Markup

Even without the immediate gratification of rich results, Schema Markup remains important for organizations looking to future-proof for search.

Generative AI search engines like SGE and Bing Chat revolutionized user search experiences. They presented multi-modal answers and provided follow-up questions to user queries.

However, the underlying search algorithms that power both the regular search engines and generative AI search engines have shifted from lexical to semantic. Instead of matching keywords, search engines assess the meaning and intent behind a query, providing searchers with results of the closest relevance.

Using Schema Markup to Define Your Entities

Schema Markup plays a crucial role in this understanding by allowing web publishers to define the entities on the site and showcase the relationships between entities in the form of a content knowledge graph.

In the past, when rich result eligibility was the main focus, many organizations would implement Schema Markup, but not in a manner that defined the relationship between the primary things (aka entities) on their pages. They simply added the minimum Schema Markup required to be eligible for the desired rich result rather than applying connected Schema Markup to improve search engine understanding.

In this new world of AI and Large Language models, Schema Markup for rich results alone is insufficient. By implementing proper connected Schema Markup and establishing connections between the entities on your site and on external authoritative knowledge bases, you are creating your organization’s content knowledge graph.

Building Your Content Knowledge Graph

Your content knowledge graph is a structured information data layer that can help search engines disambiguate the entities mentioned on your site.
By providing this, you can shape how search engines understand your content, gaining greater control over how users perceive your brand. This ultimately provides users with more accurate and relevant search results.

Learn how to build your content knowledge graph

Download our guide to entities and knowledge graph to learn more.

The value of Schema Markup in ensuring your content is correctly understood is now significantly more strategic than just achieving rich results.

October, November, & December 2023 – Evidence From Google That Rich Results Hold Semantic Value

Don’t believe us? Google is also telling us that the value of Schema Markup is for understanding AND rich results. Search News released a new episode in early October 2023. During the episode, John Mueller talked about how some rich results would go away – in reference to the deprecation of How To rich results and reduction in FAQ rich results – and new rich results would be introduced. And boy did they hold true to their word.

Over the span of October, November, and December 2023, Google rolled out 6 new rich results:

Structured Data Offering a Mutually Beneficial Relationship Between Google and SEOs

Google’s ongoing rich result opportunities highlight the symbiosis between search engines and SEOs. By offering rich results in exchange for detailed structured data, Google stimulates the supply of credible information, contributing to the development of the semantic web. It’s a win-win!

Google grants rich results as a reward for making it easy and less costly for search engines to comprehend the content on your website. By providing Schema Markup, you inform them about the content and how it relates to other topics on the web and on your website. By providing this information, the search engines don’t have to process the data to infer the meaning or relationships.

This helps search engines understand content without having to spend as many computing resources. This incentive provides content creators with the motivation needed to support the semantic initiatives crucial for the future of search.

Let’s look at two of the new rich results, Profile Page and Organization, and call out their characteristics that emphasize the value they bring to the semantic web.

Profile Page & Organization Structured Data Helps With Disambiguation

Among the newly introduced rich results, Profile Page and Organization stand out, playing a crucial role in disambiguating entities such as organizations, individuals, and authors within your content. These elements tie into E-E-A-T and empower you to assert greater control over structured data, articulating your identity and authority in connection to your content.

Organization structured data enables search engines to understand context, even when your website does not visually present certain information. For instance, properties recommended within the Organization structured data guidelines, such as identifier codes (i.e. duns, taxID, etc.), may not be visible to users but aid Google in disambiguating and identifying your organization within your content.

This background information adds a layer of context, facilitating search engines in relating your content to search queries and other web information through a knowledge graph.

Vehicle Listing and Vacation Rental Structured Data (Feed)

Last but not least, we’re seeing structured data become a data feed. The introduction of the new Vehicle Listing and Vacation Rental Structured Data supports this concept. You can achieve the Vehicle Listing rich result by adding structured data to your site or uploading a vehicle listing feed file to Google. Similarly, you can now achieve the Vacation Rental rich result by adding structured data, instead of the historical method of uploading an XML list feed to Google. Unlike list feeds, structured data is a cleaner way for data providers to transfer data to Google.

While the consecutive release of new rich results is exciting, it’s crucial to recognize that the purpose of structured data has expanded beyond merely attaining rich results, particularly in the past year. Google’s introduction of these rich results reflects a clear effort to improve the semantic nature of the search experience.

As SEOs, our focus should shift towards creating semantically understood content, empowered by Schema Markup.

The Value of Schema Markup Today: Prioritizing Semantic Understanding

Schema Markup remains valuable for search engines in 2023, emphasizing the critical need to prioritize the semantic aspect of structured data over just achieving rich results. While rich results come and go, semantic understanding is instrumental in laying the groundwork for contextual content that is poised to shape the future of search.

By connecting entities and developing a Knowledge Graph, organizations can ground Language Models (LLMs), support internal AI initiatives, and build authority by linking to authoritative databases. Schema Markup, originally created for search engine comprehension, continues to play a vital role in navigating the dynamic landscape of digital marketing.

In essence, Schema Markup not only provides quick wins through achieving rich results but also sets the stage for ongoing and agile content optimization as search evolves.

Interested in learning how you can apply Schema Markup to stay agile in search? Get started here.

Martha van Berkel is the co-founder and CEO of Schema App, an end-to-end Schema Markup solution provider based in Guelph, Ontario. She focuses on helping SEO teams globally understand the value of Schema Markup and how they can leverage Schema Markup to boost their SEO strategy and drive results.

Prior to Schema App, Martha was a Senior Manager at Cisco Systems for 14 years responsible for the global online support strategy. She has a degree in Applied Mathematics and Engineering, attended MIT for Innovation and Strategy, is a Mom of two, as well as an avid rower.

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