Structured mark-up & rich snippets: uses and opportunities for travel sites

UPDATED with Google Authorship retirement & new rich snippets.

Semantic search, search based on context and intent rather than keyword relevancy, is not particularly new but many people are convinced that it will transform the way we search.

Here’s a current example of semantic search in action:

semantic search london weather

Google isn’t just looking at my keywords and sending me to a bunch of well-optimised weather websites. It is trying to understand the nature or context of my query and deliver the content I need from a variety of sources.

At the same time it is inferring that I may be interested in visiting London so it gives me additional content from Wikipedia as well as various points of interest.

It can do this for two reasons: 1) better AI allowing the search engine to “understand” the meaning of content and the context of the searcher’s intent, 2) developments in the kind of data that we provide to the search engines to help them understand the meaning of webpages, documents or objects. This is called structured data or structured mark-up.

Again, the concept of structured mark-up itself is not particularly new. You already know it as the ubiquitous meta data (meta titles & descriptions) that have long been a staple of basic SEO strategy. Structured mark-up is simply an expanded approach to meta data that provides a richer layer of machine readable context and meaning to a webpage.

This is exciting for its potential transformation (and disruption) on existing search technology and digital travel marketing (more on that below) but there are already a number of highly visible and rewarding applications for travel sites. These are called rich snippets and they’re all made possible through structured mark-up:

Google Authorship

The ability to connect content with a particular author and display that author’s details in the search results comes from Authorship markup:

Authorship markup has been demonstrated to improve click through rates, although that may tail off if/when it reaches fuller adoption rates/saturation point. The really exciting prospect though is of AuthorRank becoming a ranking signal, something that is widely anticipated throughout the community.

Update 2.9.14: Google Authorship has since been retired, although the concept of connecting authors to their content and algorithmically understanding their expertise is probably here to stay.

“In Depth” articles

Introduced in 2013, In Depth article results do pretty much what it says on the tin; offer specialised, authoritative and detailed results for a particular query. For example, a query “rainforest” might yield the following block within the main results page:

google in depth article result for rainforest

Currently only the highest authority domains (see the examples above) are featured in these results although Google has offered support for others wishing to achieve In Depth results which suggests in theory it may become more widely available.

Aside from the obvious requirement for genuinely top-rate, definitive and authoritative content (no small task), there are some structured markups needed to facilitate In Depth results:

See this article from Moz for more.

Reviews

You’ll have seen the gold stars under certain results, usually products or services that generate client reviews:

review stars structured markup

As with Authorship, this mark-up does not impact rankings but it does provide a much richer user-experience which makes it much more likely that users will click the results.

Products/offers

There are a number of ways to display additional product or offer information as a rich snippet in the search results. Structured mark-up exists for product name, description, price, etc:

product price markup

Events

There is also a mark-up vocabulary for events, which can be displayed as a rich snippet:

event cruise departure rich snippet markup

This can also be used for event listings such as concerts and festivals, as well as departure dates for particular tours or cruises.

Video

Finally, there is a rich snippet for video content that will display the video embedded in the search result:

video rich snippet

There are many other types of mark-up that are supported as rich snippets, see Google’s guide for the full list. To implement the mark-up you can use the Schema.org vocabulary that is supported by all the major search engines.

[Note that Facebook has its own set of mark-up, called the Open Graph Protocol, while even Twitter is getting in on the act with Twitter cards.]

So, what’s the bigger picture?

So far these rich snippets are essentially “additions” to your existing search visibility. They don’t improve your rankings, they simply add more information to your existing results (which can have a massive impact on your click through rates.)

It gets really interesting when we look at the bigger picture and try to understand where the potential for transformation/disruption might be.

The underlying concept is that search technology is moving beyond viewing the relevancy of webpages based on the keywords of the content they contain, towards a point that the search engines can recognise items as actual things or objects in their own right, with a rich understanding of their meaning, context and relevancy to different queries.

In all the examples above Google is trying to identify the actual thing, not just the webpage or content that describes it. That includes people (via Authorship), products, events, locations, and many other actual, real world items.

Effectively Google is no longer satisfied with serving content that merely describes things, it wants to feature those things themselves in its search results. This is the key to semantic search – drawing connections between actual objects and understanding them as “things” in their own right.

So going back to our first example, while searching for the weather in London, the search engine would be able to infer the intent behind the search (visiting London) and also show you upcoming events, hotel deals, particular points of interest, activities, and all sorts of other things that could be relevant to your search, perhaps even questions that you haven’t asked yet.

Likewise, if you search for an upcoming event, Google could show you the weather plus driving directions or flight prices. If the event is in the next couple of days it could choose to show you ‘last minute’ hotel rates. Some of this data will be displayed embedded in the search result, but others will come from related searches that link off to other sites.

Think about the difference between this and current SEO strategy which still generally revolves around binary keyword targeting, i.e. making a certain document rank for a particular keyword. In the future, documents (or things) will be able to rank for multiple search queries, all depending on the intent of the user and how well the page has been marked-up.

We’re only really beginning to grasp the full potential of semantic search and it will be a slow, piecemeal process – especially for as long as mark-up adoption rates continue to languish. However, for early adopters there are two big opportunities:

  • Short term, the ability to stand your SERP result out from the crowd with rich snippets
  • Long term, the ability to exploit semantic search in your content strategy and create layers of content that are thoroughly marked-up to improve their connections to different users with countless different intents.

Google rewards for readable content, implications for “AuthorRank”

We already know that Google Authorship is a major deal and will continue to grow in importance. One indication of things to come is the use of the “More by author” links that are sometimes displayed in the search results:

More By results displayed via google authorship

AJ Kohn has written a thorough and useful article on the technical background to this and what kind of search behaviour triggers these displays but in a nutshell users that dwell on a page for a certain period of time and then hit ‘back’ to return to the SERPs are sometimes shown these “More by” links. Interestingly, the links can connect with content on various properties – not just the author’s own domain or the one you were visiting but also their social profiles and content on other domains that the author contributes to.

This gives us a number of insights into the direction that Google is taking with the Authorship project, and ways that we can take advantage:

Rewarding quality (again)

It’s an ongoing and well established theme that Google is continually driving for higher “quality” and rewards domains that have better quality signals. One such measure seems to be the page dwell time. The magic number is around 2 minutes, which is presumably their estimation of how long it takes to actually read a page. So the obvious takeaway here is that we need to be publishing content that people actually read.

There are a number of facets to that aside from the obvious: write good stuff. Things like headings, images, embedded video, page design & layout, etc are all important in retaining visitors on the page. There’s an entire strategic layer to determining what you’re writing about in the first place, and ensuring that your themes and subjects are appropriately targeted for your intended audience. But the basic observation is that Google wants to see visitors staying on your site and reading your content.

But the quality theme is nothing new. Where this all gets really interesting is with predictions for things to come…

Encouraging rel=author adoption

These links are only displayed for domains that have marked up their content using the rel=author tag and verified their ownership via Google+. (more on that here) Although Google’s primary aim is undoubtedly to improve the user experience and in doing so to improve the data and connections that drives the “knowledge graph” (see below), it’s still a nice bonus for us writers & publishers to win some additional exposure on the SERPs.  This is yet another reason (if one were needed) to adopt the rel=author markup immediately.

AuthorRank Optimisation

Although AuthorRank (AR) (roughly equivalent to PageRank as a measure of an individual’s authority) is still theoretical and is not a part of the ranking algorithm, this is a pretty clear indication of the kind of factors that could be used as an AR quality signal. It stands to reason: if people are spending longer reading your content then surely that’s a decent signal of your own personal quality/authority. Again: AR Optimisation does not exist yet, but if/when it does arrive then these kinds of metrics are going to become very important very quickly.

The knowledge graph beyond rel=author

The fact that Google is displaying content from various properties demonstrates that the rel=author markup is not their only signal of authorship. They can in fact identify our content and behaviour from around the web, structured markup or not. This is a major component of the emerging “knowledge graph”, the concept that entities (individuals, domains, content) are bound together by a web of connections and that these connections can be used to transform the search experience.  The “More by” links lay bare the principle of individuals as entities within the knowledge graph.

At one level it’s quite creepy to see how Google is beginning to incorporate us as individual people into their matrix. At another level it’s something that publishers and individual content creators should be aware of and start to factor into their content strategy.

Google “AuthorRank” promises major changes for travel search

UPDATE – AUG 2014
Google recently announced it has depreciated the Authorship markup, and that the Google+ connections between content and author that are described below will no longer have any bearing on the display (or ranking) of search results.  Despite this, the core concept behind “AgentRank” remains the same: Google is doubtless as interested as ever in evaluating individual author authority metrics, but the search engine is now developing more sophisticated ways of gauging said metrics than relying on individual users to implement clunky markup code.

Originally published on Tnooz.

Since its outset, search engine optimization (SEO) has always been concerned with the things that we can do to websites to improve their authority and relevance as search results.

The practice of SEO involved improving things like a site’s in-bound links, its architecture and coding, and its content.

These are all signals to the search engines of your website’s authority and suitability to rank for certain keywords. Finding the right balance of these signals has been usually sufficient to ensure you rank prominently for your target keywords.

Although various algorithm updates have tweaked the balance to combat spam and manipulation techniques, the fundamentals have largely remained the same: SEO has always been about optimizing a website’s authority and relevance, loosely conceived as either PageRank (PR) or Domain Authority.

But now the SEO community is abuzz with changes being gradually introduced by Google, adding a factor to the equation.

The “ranking power” of individuals, not just websites

For the first time, Google may “rank” individual content creators by their own personal authority, and use those authority metrics to determine how highly their work should feature in other people’s search results.

The concept of “Agent Rank” is actually quite old and dates back to a patent first registered by Google in 2005.

However as Mike Arneson explains in an excellent background piece, it is only recently that Google has introduced the vital element that connects individuals to their content through a single digital identify: Google+ profiles.

Using their Google+ social media profile and some simple HTML tags, content creators can now claim ownership to all their work published on sites across the web.

This mechanism is called Google Authorship, and among other things it is how Google is now able to display author information alongside search results.

matthew baker hit riddle google authorship

The full ramifications of this change are still sinking in and it remains unclear exactly how Google will rank individual authors, and what the impact will be on the search rankings of websites that publish their content.

But the general consensus is that it’s only a matter of time before the concept of individual author authority, nicknamed AuthorRank (AR), is introduced to the algorithm as a ranking factor.

When this happens it has the potential to be a true game changer for SEO, at least as significant as the Panda and Penguin updates of the last two years.

We already know that those author snippets can improve click through rates.

When they start to influence the actual rankings too, the long-term impact on SEO strategy could be seismic.

Part of Google’s battle against spam and “low-quality” content

Google’s logic appears to be that individual AuthorRank (AR) will be harder to game than traditional PageRank: individuals will need to publish consistently well-received content in order to maximize their AR.

  • As Mike explains, Google will likely assess an individual’s AR by looking at:
  • The average PageRank of the sites they’re published on.
  • The number of +1’s, comments and shares their content generates on Google+.
  • The number of Google+ circles they are in.
  • The volume of on-site comments & interactions their content generates.
  • Their authority metrics from other reliable sources (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, if they have a Wikipedia page etc.)
  • And many, many other metrics…

Unlike the old SEO techniques, this stuff is hard (/impossible) to spam – you can’t trick your way to having popular, authoritative and well-received content: you just have to knuckle down and get on with it (or invest in an outside source.)

So, what does Google AuthorRank mean for the online travel industry?

We already know that content has become a major driver of success in search marketing and the impetus for investment in high performance content increases every day.

But the emergence of AuthorRank brings some extra considerations into the mix.

Unlike some of Google’s other recent updates, I believe this presents more opportunity than disruption, especially for marketers that are quick to adopt and make the most of the new system.

Aside from the technical aspects of setting up Google Authorship with your content (which is relatively straightforward and full documentation is provided), there are other content strategy issues that will need to be addressed.

Individual voices:

At the moment Google Authorship emphasizes individual authors and the whole idea is about highlighting people who are authoritative in their field (although you can connect your brand’s Google+ page with your content, too.)

This means you’ll need to start thinking about the individuals you have contributing to your site and decide on an approach to managing that.

Will they all connect their own Google+ profiles with your content? What safeguards will you have to make sure their personal activity doesn’t impact your brand? But this doesn’t have to be a headache, and can actually present a great opportunity for many online travel brands.

Online travel purchases hinge on the consumer trusting and having faith in the brand to deliver. Putting a human face onto your content and emphasizing individual expertise in certain areas can only contribute to that.

Where a travel blog may have previously published everything under “admin”, now you have the opportunity to highlight the expertise of each member of your team. Identifying and capitalizing on those individual voices will improve your brand and your search performance.

Maximizing AuthorRank:

In a previous article I wrote about the convergence between search and social marketing and this is yet another example of that process.

When AR is introduced to the ranking algorithm, it will be imperative that your contributors maximize their AR through the content that they are publishing and the social media interactions it generates: more +1’s, more Google+ engagement, more comments, more shares on other social networks, etc.

This also means your contributors will have to pay more attention to their Google+ activity, engaging with other users, +1ing more content and aiming to be added to more peoples’ circles – especially other relevant authorities.

You will have to build this into your social media strategy just as you maintain your own brand’s Facebook page.

Through its Webmaster Tools service Google already offers some data on the search impact of verified author results. Keep an eye on this data and aim to improve it over time.

Google AuthorRank Webmaster Tools

Influencer outreach:

Even with the above efforts, you will probably find that your in-house content creation efforts won’t build huge AR when compared to professional or semi professional journalists and travel bloggers.

For that reason more brands will start to consider influencer outreach and publishing partnerships with authoritative content creators.

Fortunately for us in the travel industry we already have a hugely active travel blogging community that has the potential to inject enormous value to search marketing campaigns.

Blogger outreach was already an exciting strategy since bloggers’ large and engaged social media audiences can make significant contributions to your site’s search engine visibility.

With AuthorRank, “borrowing” an individual’s authority by commissioning their content for your own site becomes an even more attractive prospect.

These are just a few immediate considerations thrown up by the prospect of AuthorRank as a ranking signal.

Over time, “AR Optimization” will emerge as a practice in its own right, but in the meantime site owners should be aware that it is coming and start to prepare for the huge opportunities it could offer.

Travel Blog Exchange 2012: Three questions for next year

As the dust settles on the Travel Blog Exchange’s annual networking shindig, several hundred hopeful travel blogtrepreneurs* are heading back down from the rarefied air of Keystone, Colorado, notebooks stuffed with motivational ideas on converting their travel sites into publishing powerhouses, advertising platforms and profitable online businesses.

The travel blogosphere is a huge and diverse place, but TBEX is quite consciously aimed at a specific segment: people who want to go pro and make their living from blogging.

For those of us on the other side of the industry fence, PR people, advertisers and web marketers, this is a hugely important audience. The role of bloggers in the travel marketing ecosystem has long been established and will only increase in importance as content creators, audiences and platforms all diversify and become ever more embedded in the principles of effective web marketing.

But given that most doubts about the role of bloggers have long since evaporated, it appeared to me as a first-time TBEX attendee that the blog world’s leadership is failing to help bloggers adapt, evolve and, dare I say it, mature to fulfil their rightful place at the top table of the travel marketing mix.

This is not to criticise the event organisation in any way. Aside from a few lengthy lunch queues and the absence of any free coffee this was one of the best and most professionally organised conferences I’ve ever attended, and I’ve been to more than my fair share.

What I’m griping at is less the quality of the event, and more the substance of what was actually being said on the stages and podiums themselves. So in the spirit of constructive criticism, here are three questions that I would want to see addressed at the next TBEX conference.

How Do We Improve The Quality Of Output?

The most surprising feature of the two-day program was the near absolute absence of anything concerning the quality of output, or journalistic skill in general. Out of several dozen sessions, just one addressed the question of how to be better at travel writing.

This is important to me as a content commissioner because bloggers tend to produce travel writing that is more amateurish than their traditional travel writing counterparts.** Writers who have cut their teeth on professional magazines and newspapers are generally more likely to produce journalism that is well researched, detail focused and engaging to the reader than writers who write mostly for their own blogs.

Sure, it might be common sense that professional journalists can usually write better than (most) self-publishers, but for us in the industry that just ain’t good enough: we need bloggers with large online presence, reach and influence. But we also need them to be good writers too. If bloggers want to take their rightful place in the marketing mix they need to upgrade the professionalism of their output.

How Do We Improve Innovation?

A second surprise was the anaemic level of innovation on display by many of the big-ticket speakers. Although “monetization” was the undisputed buzzword of the conference, the reality is that many of the big personalities in the travel blog world are locked in to an out-dated model of mass user generated content (UGC) publishing.

Many of the speakers represented sites that have followed the traditional route to online travel publishing success: pack a site with vast quantities of UGC that is either produced for free or for pennies (usually between the $10-25 mark) and aimed at no real audience or purpose, and pursue a rapacious approach to social media follower building, regardless of the quality or value of your connections.

This quantity over quality approach to travel publishing is easily commercialised by showing naïve advertisers huge numbers of unique site visitors (but little qualitative visitor engagement) and selling Adsense, sponsored posts, text links or banner ads on a CPM model.

I should point out an honourable exception here: Ross Borden from the Matador Network was emphatic in his rejection of the CPM advertising model and called on bloggers to find more innovative commercial partnerships with the travel industry. But what are those strategies? No one seemed to know.

As it is, it’s the marketers who have to come up with all the new ideas. But why should it be that way? Why isn’t the innovation flowing in the other direction too?

How Do We Improve Value & ROI Measurement?

For marketers, entrusted to make significant decisions on the best use of our clients’ scarce budgets, the question of value and ROI is by far our most important consideration. What we do with those marketing budgets has an immediate and direct impact on bottom lines, and if we screw up we’re in trouble.

But in the blogging world ROI seems to be a secondary concern. The most interesting comment I heard all weekend was an exasperated request from one of the ski resort’s PR guys: “How do I put a value to all this? Do I give a blogger a free day pass, or do I put them and their entire family up for a week?”

I share that guy’s pain. If pro travel bloggers want to be treated as equals by the industry they need to learn to play by the rules. As a marketer I don’t only care how many uniques per month, subscribers, Facebook fans or anything else your site has. I also want to know about your engagement rates and ROI. I want to know what you can do in exchange for my client’s money.

That I didn’t hear the phrase “ROI” once this entire weekend suggests how far we have to go.

In summary, none of the above is intended as blanket criticism levelled at the community as a whole. Overall the blogging community is doing great things and has deservedly earned the industry’s respect. But from my perspective I would like to see more leadership on the issues that really matter, and much less emphasis on the fluff. Travel blogs have a bright future in the industry ecosystem but after TBEX 2012 it’s clear that we’re not quite there yet.

*I’m definitely claiming that phrase in the unlikely event that someone else hasn’t already invented it.

**I’m choosing my words very carefully so as not to tar all bloggers with the same brush: many of the bloggers who write for us are excellent travel writers.

Originally posted on the Hit Riddle Travel Marketing Blog

Putting the author back in authority

Originally posted on the Hit Riddle Travel Marketing Blog

Travel bloggers who follow Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX) might have seen an article I wrote last week on a development from Google, called AuthorRank.

[If you’re not familiar with AuthorRank and want some background information on what it is, and how to get yourself set up (it’s very easy), take a look at my TBEX article, which includes links to all the necessary instructions and resources.]

Rather than go over old ground here, I thought it might be more useful to expand on the bigger picture, and explain how I see this as part of a wider development that all travel journalists and bloggers should be aware of.

The underlying issue behind AuthorRank is one of authority and influence.  Google is doing this because it’s all part of their never-ending quest to highlight content that is authoritative, high quality and popular.  This is Google’s fundamental mission: the more useful its search results, the happier its users.

AuthorRank will move some of the emphasis onto the authority of individual content creators, rather than websites themselves.  We can start to think of individuals carrying their own authority within their niche, in the same way we have become used to website authority.  The basic consensus is that at some point in the near future, sites that publish content from more authoritative writers can expect to do better in the search results.

This is a brand new concept in the world of search marketing, and it is hugely important for writers/bloggers/content creators.  Now your “product” – your words, photos, video, etc – can carry more value than simply the quality of your content.  If your content also carries with it the weight of your own personal authority, you will be offering a lotmore value to the publisher.

Authority and influence are becoming incredibly important components to online marketing. Aside from AuthorRank, we are also looking for individual content creators who have other sources of influence online – for example, large social media audiences or a regular, engaged site readership.

Our company is now running a number of content marketing projects for several major travel brands. We commission travel journalism from our huge network of writers and we use that in marketing campaigns to produce tangible returns for our clients.

And although the professionalism or “quality” of the content remains paramount (we can’t achieve our goals with anything less than excellent writing), another major factor is the authority or influence of the contributing author. For our projects we are increasingly seeking writers who can clearly demonstrate their authority and influence; all of which can make enormous contributions to our clients’ web marketing goals.

Interestingly, this has largely weighted things in favour of online travel writers – particularly bloggers. Bloggers are usually in a stronger position to demonstrate social media followings and site readership stats than traditional/offline travel writers.

However with the advent of AuthorRank, the balance may be slowly shifting back towards those who identify themselves as writers first and bloggers second.  By connecting up your writing across multiple publications into a single online portfolio you can demonstrate to Google (and marketers like me) that you too have influence and reach, even if you don’t have your own enormously successful travel blog.

Previously, brands may have paid a premium to bloggers with the highest Twitter followers, Facebook fans and RSS subscribers, regardless of the actual qualitative nature of those “audiences.”  But increasingly, those arbitrary numbers should become less important and we can start to take a more nuanced & comprehensive view of influence and authority.   (This, by the way, is why we ignore Klout scores when recruiting writers for our projects.)

So, my advice for travel writers who wish to tap into this growing demand for professional writing online is to focus on nurturing your audiences, authority and influence in a way that is demonstrable to brands and marketers, but not by sacrificing your principles and standards in a relentless chase for more Twitter followers.

And for bloggers, the advice is to focus your attention on activities that make a tangible contribution to your authority. Don’t guest post articles just for the sake of a link. Don’t fill your site with thin content just for the SEO value. Don’t monteize your site by selling text links on cheap content without regard for your readers.

Thanks to things like AuthorRank, the travel writing profession is slowly turning full circle and gradually coming back to its original emphasis on engaging, authoritative & inspiring writing.  And also thanks to things like AuthorRank, there is now a growing market for that kind of quality and authority too.