A recent post on Google’s webmaster blog illustrates how metadata needs to address both the structure of web content, and the meaning of that content.
People who work in SEO talk about structured data a lot, while those who work in content strategy talk about structured content. These topics are obviously related, but the terminology used by each party obscures how each topic relates to the other. My take: both structured data and structured content are different dimensions of metadata. Structured data is generally descriptive metadata identifying entities discussed in the content. Structured content provides the foundation for structural metadata that indicates the logic and organization of the content. Both descriptive and structural metadata are important in content, and they should ideally be integrated together.
The Google blog advises publishers to include structured data in their content. The below screenshot shows how this advice is presented.
The advice presented follows a pattern:
- Advice to follow
- Best practices to implement advice (shown in green)
- Actions not to do (shown in pink)
Some other items of advice in the post include another element:
- Practices to avoid when implementing advice (shown in yellow)
We can see that the post follows good structure that is easy to scan and understand, and provides a foundation to reuse the information in other contexts. Now, let’s look at the post’s source code. This is where we’d expect to see the structured data associated with the content.
Disappointingly, no structured data is associated with the specific items of advice. The details of the advice are marked up with “class” attributes intended to style the content, but not to identify the meaning of the content. The only structured data on the page relates to the blog post in general (such as its author).
Imagine how the content could be reused if structured data identified the meaning of the advice. Someone might type a search looking for tips on “mistakes when using schema.org,” “why use schema.org,” or “schema.org best practices” and get specific bullets of content relating to their query.
In this example, the post’s author has done nothing wrong, though an opportunity has been missed nonetheless. Currently, schema.org doesn’t have any entity types that address advice statements that would contain sub-elements such as Rationale, Do, Avoid, and Don’t. The closest types are related to Questions and Answers, which are slightly different in their structure.
Because the structured data used in SEO, particularly schema.org, tends to focus on descriptive metadata, it has less coverage of other dimensions of metadata such as structural metadata indicating the role of content elements, or technical, administrative and rights metadata. All these kinds of metadata are important to address, to allow content to be shared and reused across different platforms and in different contexts. Fortunately, schema.org has been evolving quickly, and its coverage is improving every month. This expansion will allow for genuinely integrated metadata that indicates both the meaning and the structure of the content.
Metadata is a rich and important topic for everyone concerned with content published on the web. If you are interested in learning more about the many dimensions of metadata, you may be interested in my forthcoming book, Metadata Basics for Web Content, which will be available in early 2017 on Amazon.
— Michael Andrews