Rich Snippets & Schema.org

Back in June of last year Google teamed up with Bing and Yahoo! to create and support a unified set of structured data markup on web pages known as schema.  Schema.org is the official documentation for webmasters looking to add this markup in hopes that the search engines will better understand their webpages.

The most noticeable impact this structured markup has for webmasters is allowing rich snippets to show up on their listings in organic search.  You’ve seen it before – the nifty review stars, or possibly an image that shows up next to select listings in Google’s search results.

Rich Snippets

Google’s been pushing for a richer experience in their SERPs since 2009 and  Schema.org is supposed to make it easier for webmasters to add the required microdata.  But is it possible that Google made it too easy?

 

Rich Snippets Are Being Manipulated

How Each Engine Is Using Product Rich Snippets (Right Now)

The search engines agreed on Schema as the primary way to add structured markup (Rich Snippets) to the web, but it’s up to each engine to decide how they want to use that microdata.

Let’s take a quick look at how a few of the largest search engines have decided to implement Rich Snippets into their search results.

Google’s Rich Snippets for Products

For the search “overstock nike men’s air rival black golf shoes” we get the following #1 result equipped with Rich Snippets.  Looks pretty good, right?

Rich Snippets for products - Google

 

Bing’s Rich Snippets for Products

But now let’s head over to Bing and do the same search – thankfully we get the same result (you never know with Bing!) just without the Rich Snippets.

Rich Snippets for products - Bing

 

Yahoo!’s Rich Snippets for Products

And surprisingly enough Yahoo! displays a listing different from the 2 above, adding a product image to the right of the listing.

Rich Snippets for products - Yahoo

This is a good illustration of how each engine implements their own variation of Rich Snippets.  All of these variations are valid and show how product rich snippets are supposed to be used. Now I’m going to show you how they are not.

 

Manipulating Schema to Get Rich Snippets on Google

There’s been some uproar recently about rich snippet spam (thanks to Tom Critchlow from Distilled for pointing these out to us) so we decided to put it to the test.

First of all, I want to make it clear that we don’t have any “reviews” or “ratings” on any of our pages since we’re not a product based company (we do have client testimonials, but that’s different).  That said, we decided to test the Product schema on our site anyways.

We added fake review markup so we could test it in Google’s Rich Snippet Testing Tool.  Here’s the HTML that we added:

<span itemscope itemtype=”http://schema.org/Product”>

<span itemprop=”name”><strong>Engine Profiles</strong></span>

<span itemprop=”aggregateRating” itemscope itemtype=”http://schema.org/AggregateRating”>

rated <span itemprop=”ratingValue”>5</span> / 5<br />

based on <span itemprop=”reviewCount”>18449</span></span>

Which showed up like this on our actual page:

Engine Profiles rated 5 / 5
based on 18449

Pretty subtle right?  Adding this small amount of text at the bottom of our page didn’t really affect the user experience and I’m not sure anyone really noticed to be honest.  I headed over to Google’s Rich Snippet Testing Tool to put it to the test and everything checked out:

Rich Snippets Testing Tool

A day later this page was re-crawled and our Schema Rich Snippets were showing up in the search results.  We’ve since taken down this markup since we were only testing the implementation of the Schema markup but it worked and I continue to see other sites using this same tactic to get their seller reviews to show up in organic search.

Here’s what it looks like in full effect on Google:

Schema Rich Snippets Spam

 

However, despite us using the near-universal Schema.org microdata our Rich Snippets didn’t appear in Bing’s search results.

Schema Rich Snippets No Spam

 

Nor did it appear in Yahoo!.  So what’s the significance here?  Who cares if Google is the only one that’s acknowledging the Schema microdata?

 

There are a couple of issues here:

It was way too easy.

There’s a difference between making rich snippets more accessible to webmasters and making it ripe for manipulation.  The Google Rich Snippet Testing Tool is tremendously useful for anyone trying to add structured markup to their webpages but there should be some level of policing going on before Google actually adds the rich snippets to an organic listing.

Nowhere on our page, or site for that matter, do we have product reviews listed.  Yet all we had to do was add two lines of plain html with some schema microdata and Boom! went the dynamite.  And it’s only happening with Google, not Bing or Yahoo!.  Is Google just that gung-ho about promoting a “richer web” that they’d let webmasters essentially vandalize their search results?  Some would argue that Google’s actually been vandalizing their own property as of late.

 

We used the Product itemtype in our schema markup which isn’t accurate.

Schema’s Product itemtype was meant for product-level attributes that might typically be associated with an ecommerce store or a site offering some sort of service.  There’s a more appropriate markup where we could have nested the reviews called Organization.

Schema’s Organization itemtype is actually more relevant to our site and would have actually given Google more accurate information about our content.  And isn’t that the whole point behind having structured data markup?  To let the search engines better understand your website which will hopefully, in turn, pay dividends in organic rankings and traffic?

At first, we actually tried using the Organization itemtype since it also supports the aggregateRating itemprop.  But even though our markup passed inspection on Google’s Rich Snippet Tool we unfortunately didn’t see Rich Snippets show up with this approach.

 

The Impact of Rich Snippets

It might be a little late for the wave of early adopters to reap large gains by adding Rich Snippets to their listings but having them can definitely have an impact on web performance.  Especially from an SEO perspective, competitive verticals such as ecommerce is a game of inches.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you hate broccoli (there’s a point to this, I promise).  But you’ve been trying to eat healthier and you also know that broccoli is supposed to be THE super-vegetable so you’re going to make an effort to eat more of it.  Now what??  There’s no way you’re going to just eat it raw and you’re not quite Bobby Flay in the kitchen (if you are, here’s a cookie),  so…  What. Do. You. Do.

Skeptical, you head to Google and do a search for “broccoli recipes” yielding these top 3 results:

Rich Snippets broccoli

The 3rd listing catches your eye and it actually sounds pretty good (minus the broccoli part) – plus it has 4.5 stars, takes only 25 minutes to cook and has only 49 calories!  You decide to give the recipe a shot and click through to allrecipes.com to get started.  25 minutes later you’re a converted broccoli-lover.

Rich Snippets allowed that 3rd listing to provide more useful information, like an image, reviews and prep time, that actually helped the user make a better decision faster.  Not to mention the rich snippets make the listing stand out like a porcupine at a nudist colony which should contribute to a higher click-through rate from the SERPs.

For many webmasters, the amount of organic traffic being sent to their site can have a direct impact on their bottom line.  This can be especially true for ecommerce sites that rely heavily on “free” traffic to supplement their other paid acquisition strategies.  By giving webmasters free-range on adding rich snippets Google is effectively depreciating the value and impact of rich snippets altogether.  I’m sure that Google will roll out a method for policing rich snippets but until they do you can expect to see a lot more of this happening in the search results.

 

Google’s Hypocrisy

Google isn’t stupid.  They will catch on to rich snippet spam and eventually incorporate a system of checks before actually going live with rich snippets.  There might even be a penalty for sites that have abused rich snippets, who knows?

And any webmaster that is manipulating rich snippets is obviously an ass.  I’m sure webmasters all across the world are rejoicing the fact that you’re giving Google yet another reason to not trust us.  Next time, when I want to add rich snippets or some other fancy feature Google has introduced to my site and find it unbelievably, extraordinarily difficult to do so I’ll think of you.  (I’m not going to out any specific site in this article because I don’t want to talk about the “ethics” of jeopardizing someone’s potential livelihood. You know who you are).

So who’s really to blame here?

 

Google Should Have Known Better

After more than 15 years in the business, has Google not yet realized that webmasters will try to manipulate any and every asset you give them?   Keyword stuffing meta tag is one example.  Not having systems in place to regulate product rich snippets has led to this situation – and they should have seen this coming.

Google needs to be cognizant of this especially as they continue to be more aggressive with their own products in their SERPs.  Google+, Google Shopping, Adwords, Product Listing Ads, etc. are all becoming more prominent in search results and it’s not surprising that webmasters are looking for any and every way to stand out in the SERPs.  Even if it means “spamming” Google’s rich snippets.  Desperate times…desperate measures.

But is it really spamming?

It depends.  In our case, where we fabricated the reviews and used the wrong Schema to get rich snippets to show – absolutely.

In other cases, maybe not.

 

Seller Ratings Rich Snippets for Google Adwords

Think about the ecommerce store that wants to display aggregate seller ratings as rich snippets for their site.  It takes a long time for a legitimate business to build up seller ratings, and a lot more blood, sweat and tears to make sure that they’re positive reviews.  Doesn’t a quality ecommerce store deserve to display its positive feedback in Google’s SERPs?

Google thinks so and does so for their Adwords listings.

Google offers a seller ratings service where it accumulates reviews from trusted review sources and lists them in a merchant’s Google Shopping profile.  These seller ratings are being displayed in paid Adwords listings with a link to Google’s review page for that seller.

rich snippets - adwords seller ratings

 

Google obviously sees the value in displaying seller ratings next to a merchant’s listing – but only when they’re paid apparently.  And all of these ads point to category level pages with more than one product, which if we tried to do that with our schema rich snippets we would be in violation of their usage guidelines for rich snippet reviews:

When using review markup, the main topic of the page needs to be about a specific product or service. For example, using review markup on a page containing multiple products is not supported.

We actually saw through our experiment that it is technically supported, although Google may not have intended it to be.  This is Google’s oversight.

 

Regulation and Penalties for Rich Snippet Spam

It’s only a matter of time before Google implements regulation of product review rich snippets but until then I’m sure we’ll continue to see more of this.  Google does have a place for people to report rich snippet spam but it’s a primitive way of policing listings.

Google announced yesterday an update to product rich snippets but I don’t currently see any changes to how it’s being regulated ( if you do, please let me know!).  The rich snippets platform seems to still be a work in progress and I anticipate better regulation and/or penalties coming out in the near future.

However, if Google wants to issue a penalty to those manipulating product rich snippets they’ll need to figure out how to scale this as to make sure they incur the least amount of collateral damage.  Like I said before, there are different “levels” of manipulation going on and not all of them are deserving of the same punishment.  An ecommerce site displaying accurate Google Shopping seller reviews in the rich snippet “spam” is different than an insurance company doing so with no reviews whatsoever.

 

What Do You Think?

Did Google create this problem for themselves?  Has their aggressive approach to a richer web created desperation among webmasters to try and keep up with these recent changes and hyper-attractive Adwords listings?

Or has the SEO industry developed into a culture of spam and manipulation?

I think I’ve rambled on long enough for one post so let me know your thoughts in the comments!

 

About the Author+David Weichel is the Director of Paid Search at CPC Strategy. He specializes in conversion rate optimization, search behavior research and attribution analysis. David graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a B.S. in Management Science. See all posts by this author here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=2500302 Tien V Nguyen

    The best is when you see a 5 star site with 1000 reviews, and right above it there’s the message: “This site may be compromised.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1134296118 William Parris

    great post David!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000771411515 James Zeolite

      Share this: This is a PBS Nova video called Spy Factory about how the NSA knew about the Brooklyn Al-Queada cell, and were listening to them, yet weren’t targeting them… http://youtu.be/ZWtEp3fLLvo There’s a longer version on the PBS website.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1392721063 Tommy Swanson

    Back in November of last year, a number of us brought this up to Susan Moskwa at DFWSEM. Her response was pretty much “Please don’t.” -_-

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=2500302 Tien V Nguyen

      Tommy pls

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=139901694 Mike Shannon

    Interesting test. If people do start spamming schema I think Google probably views it as collateral damage that ultimately will be incurred to some degree in order to get people to adopt schema since we’re still sort of in the early stages of the semantic web.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=805849568 J Kirby Inwood

    Snippets look like a promising tool but as you say it seems too easy to fake them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=565459154 Robb Shecter

    I think I see how the “spam” problem will be solved. Like Reddit, which doesn’t use any kind of flagging for spam, quality sites and pages will simply rise to the top of the SERPs. Note that in the two examples you pointed to, they *were* quality pages, and so Google was doing the “right” thing. (In your test, your site was otherwise non-spammy. If, however you truly used this strategy to show fake content, you wouldn’t have the SERP you do. And in the broccoli example, it appeared third in the results, and apparently *did* refer to a high quality resource.)

    I bet this is what Google’s banking on: sure, people can game this info. But the other ranking signals will cause the spammy content to get buried.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1294723300 Keesjan Deelstra

    @David Great post. Iam just now studying review micro data and Adwords review extensions for a client. What I wonder. Both review systems are independent worlds. For the Adwords extensions you need a trusted source like Trustpilot and for the organic search reviews we need the schema.org markup. Is there an in between, a combination of both worlds?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=3316560 David Weichel

      Hey Keesjan, I’m glad you enjoyed this post!

      As you already mentioned, although the end rich snippet looks visually similar, they are completely independent of one another. The Adwords review extensions are amassed via Google Shopping (formerly Google Product Search) and is essentially an aggregator of reviews across the web by “reputable” sources, like Trustpilot, Bizrate, eKomi, etc. These are seller reviews as opposed to product reviews.

      The organic review snippets are shown (right now) for reviews based on one specific product. These reviews are often completely independent of the seller and are focused rather on the product itself and it’s features. However, there needs to be a aggregate markup for these individual reviews in order for them to show in the SERPs.

      So that’s the main difference and there’s no cure-all for the both of them. Adwords reviews are based on the quality of the seller; organic reviews in the serps are based on the reviews for that specific product. Obviously achieving a critical mass for product level reviews is going to be much more difficult.

      The reason for this (spoiler alert: speculation pending) is that Google has faith in their organic algorithm and they have systems in place for weeding out the bad merchants from the good ones just based on their site’s signals. Adwords, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to police since the bid auction market can tip the balance very easily towards a seller that isn’t as qualified. Speaking independently of traditional quality score methods, the seller review snippets shoud help improve CTR towards those sellers that will delver a better user/shopping experience.

      Hope that helps.