Jono Alderson stresses the importance of using structured data to market to machines so that you always have the permission you need to actually access an audience in 2023.
Jono says: “The simplest and biggest machine to market to is Google. You also have to convince a raft of essentially omniscient AIs that your products, services, etc. are a good fit for their audiences. Otherwise, they won’t have an incentive to rank or surface you algorithmically.
Processes like algorithmic sorting have been around forever, but they have become less about where they rank you and more about whether they’ll include you - and the criteria for excluding people entirely.
Let’s imagine Google says your price isn’t right and your reputation isn’t good enough. They’re not going to feature you in emerging rich result formats or when people search for things on, say, Google Discover. In this case, you wouldn’t have a way to access an audience. You wouldn’t be able to market, spend, or advertise to these people because you wouldn’t have permission to reach them. This appears to be the future of SEO and a huge transformation in the way marketing works.”
Do AIs really know everything?
“The fact that they don’t is a scary thought, especially when they’re attempting to understand concepts like quality and reputation. However, they’re really quite limited in the tools they have to do that. They’ll look at the words on your webpage, and the ways you describe yourself, or are described by others.
An emerging way to tactically influence this is through structured data and Schema.org. If machines are looking for clues as to whether a product is good, a brand has the right reputation, or whether the content is suitable for a user, you can use structured data to explicitly describe specific things so that the AI can determine what you have to offer.
There is an increasingly large selection of tools for chasing rich results and holistically describing who you are and what you represent. You can do this in a way where the omniscient AIs can use your information to decide whether your brand meets its criteria and should be shown. These are the clues they’re looking for.”
What would you say to an SEO that says ‘if you just focus on people the machines will follow’?
“That’s a lovely sentiment when it comes to content, product-market fit, branding, and messaging. However, it does overlook the fact that the way we access audiences has changed. You need to start thinking about Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, etc. as bouncers and gatekeepers of their own audiences. They are choosing what people get to see. The secret to accessing and solving user problems is to do the things they want you to do - things that are valuable and good. You can do this in a way that considers some systems will decide whether or not you get to play.
It’s important to have as much of the right structured data as you can reasonably implement in a meaningful way. Lots of people are just scraping the surface and assuming things, like Google is supporting star ratings. Sure, you can get tactical rewards from copying and pasting a snippet from a blog post and inserting it into your page, but this approach fails to take long-term considerations into account. If we want systems to be able to understand our content, we need to think about the relationships between the entities that we need to be describing.”
Is there a best way to install and manage structured data?
What are some key SERP features that display your content because of structured data?
“People are underestimating the impact of Google Discover. It might be very Android-centric at the moment, but it is rolling out to other parts of Google. Discover preemptively give you articles it thinks you’ll be interested in based on a combination of search history, implied interest, etc. Its decisions are hugely influenced by structured data and Schema.org. It’s very sensitive to headlines and image sizes and ratios - where the standard social image size is slightly too small for Discover. You need to be looking at your schema markup and consider using different images, different treatments, etc.
It’s worth diving into some of Google’s documentation on how article schema works. You can do so much more than list a headline and an author. You can define the copyright holder, the primary image of the page, where the author went to University, etc. There are lots of things you can do to enrich that and increase your chances. You can then go through their documentation and look at things like recipes, articles, breadcrumbs, logos, and organisations - and do as much as you can.”
What should people be doing to explore the possibilities of Google Discover? What’s the future of Google Discover, are we looking at some sort of social network?
“Maybe! Google is always talking about journeys, where they’re trying to understand the overarching journey users are going on. If you plan to buy a car, for example, and conduct multiple searches on multiple devices, Google will try to understand the discrete behaviours and processes and marry those up to help guide people on what’s the next step and what are the best results.
A combination of something like Discover and structured data could help Google preemptively suggest your next step and describe what your page is about.
There has been significant exploration around what replaces cookie-based marketing. One potential route is a system whereby websites and users exchange information about the content they’re interested in and what content websites publish. Schema is going to be a huge part of accurately defining what your content is about in terms of website features, topics, etc.
Joining all of this up and thinking about the technical aspects of how you tell stories is going to be really important going forward. It will be beyond writing good content for users and more about marketing to machines, using their language, and qualifying it to users.”
What does this say for the future of search, could people get lost in a pyramid of different possibilities?
“Google is keen for search to be an assistive handheld process, where you just get shepherded through to a set of results. The worrying thing about this is that it could really impact - and potentially break - the commercial model of content publishers. In this event, what would be the point of creating great content, answering questions, and solving problems? Google will just take that, put it in front of a user and not allow them to access my website.
We’re stuck accepting that Google is changing the ecosystem. The industry is currently split, with half of the professionals chasing rich results and clicks and the other half not using schema or structured data because they think it will devalue the content on their site and reduce the incentive for Google to send them visitors.
It feels like fighting Google on this is not a good strategy. We need to give Google content so it can reach its objective of solving user problems. We can then configure what that means for our commercial models. Opting out of the entire discovery funnel, and the entire top of your marketing funnel, doesn’t feel like a good play in the short term.”
Is structured data in a good place to service this more discover-orientated web? How is structured data likely to evolve in the future?
“As a standard, Schema.org is reasonably mature, because the tools exist to describe our content in ways that social media platforms can, and already do, read and extract. Google Merchant Centre and Facebook marketplace can scrape your page, read the schema, and use that to update product information in real time. Therefore, if your price changes or your stock levels change, they’ll read the schema and update your catalogue information. Your website can then be more like a real-time database of the truth of your business. This is an interesting model because it’s not just content and marketing for humans, but also the information that you use to service other platforms and systems.
This enables individuals to build something that consumes that schema because everything is explicitly labelled. Conversations surrounding this are all happening on the Schema.org GitHub repository, where people in Google are requesting specific schema based on a given spec. Google can then introduce this schema and incorporate them into the merchant centre, broader schema, Discover etc.
If you want to see where this is going or shape and influence those conversations, you can get ahead of the competition by going behind the scenes and seeing how things are unfolding. Look at what’s going to launch in the next month or two and get that ready to implement.”
What shouldn’t SEOs be doing in 2023? What’s seductive in terms of time, but ultimately counterproductive?
“People should stop staying in their lane. SEO is now so broadly interwoven with, affected by, and integrated with everything that just doing ‘SEO’ isn’t going to be enough to succeed. We need to prevent people from thinking that they’re not allowed to challenge quality, a product, or a business. Your biggest SEO opportunity might even be to change where the CEO eats lunch, invest in training your customer service team, or (if you’re a restaurant) source better ingredients.
Historically, we’ve been able to paper over poor product-market fit by doing more SEO, to the detriment of consumers. You can get a bad product or page to rank if you throw enough money, links, and SEO at it. It’s going to get harder and harder to accomplish things this way, so you need to invest in making the thing itself better. SEOs need to look further than marketing the thing and focus on improving the product, service, brand, and reputation.
We need to stop optimising and start improving. If all the evidence points to your product/service not being a great fit, it’s going to get harder to convince machines. Historically we’ve gotten away with that - where previously we could attract an audience and then pitch and sell. Now, we can’t access that audience we need to stop optimising and start improving. If you’re not addressing the fundamental reasons why a system might choose to not rank you, you’re not going to achieve anything.”
Jono Alderson is Head of SEO at Yoast and you can find him over at yoast.com.
If you like to get up-close with your favourite SEO experts, these one-to-one interviews might just be for you.
Watch all of our episodes, FREE, on our dedicated SEO in 2023 playlist.
Maybe you are more of a listener than a watcher, or prefer to learn while you commute.
SEO in 2023 is available now via all the usual podcast platforms
Opt-in to receive email updates.
It's the fastest way to find out more about SEO in 2024.