As Voice Search Gains Importance, So Does Schema Mark-up for SMB Sites

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Voice control vector illustration. Smart computer

There are some very interesting trends taking place in digital marketing that will significantly change the digital presence landscape starting with the most fundamental of digital marketing tools: the website.

Anyone paying attention to the adtech space knows that search modalities are evolving, and companies able to exploit those changes are winning the hearts, mind and wallets of consumers and SMBs alike. That moment in time some 20 months back, where mobile search queries exceeded desktop queries now seems like ancient history — and advances in Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, Cortana and other voice-based search modalities have now become common.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella spoke earlier this year about a world where “human language is the UI layer” and developers build for “conversational canvases,” a new term applied to any app where people are conversing, from email to chat to SMS. It also appears that as a society we’re feeling less self-conscious talking into our phones. According to a survey conducted in October 2015 by MindMeld, most respondents were newcomers to voice search and voice commands within the six months prior to when the survey was conducted. Even Google has hinted as recently as May of this year that Voice Search reporting may be coming to their Search Console Search Analytics report.

Schema Makes Voice Search Results Better
Despite these trends, today’s small and medium sized business (SMB) websites are still overwhelmingly lacking the punch to deliver real value. Surprisingly, nearly half of the SMB sites on the web are still not mobile responsive, and even fewer of these sites don’t leverage schema mark-up and rich-snippets.

While most people are likely familiar with the value of responsive design, some might not be familiar with schema. Schema is rich and descriptive structured data included in websites that allows search engines to provide better results. When you use structured data to mark-up content, you help search engines better understand its context for display in search, and you achieve better distribution of your content to users from search. You do this by marking up content properties and enabling actions where relevant. This makes it eligible for inclusion in Rich Cards and Rich Snippets. Equally important is that for some content types, it allows users to engage directly with your content right from search.

As suggested by the name, schema relies on a well defined structure and set of definitions developed and managed by is the result of collaboration between Google, Bing, Yandex, and Yahoo! to help people building websites provide the information their search engines need to better understand the content of sites and provide the best search results possible. Given this, smart companies will increasingly want to understand what drives the voice search experience, or more precisely: what data, structure and practices are rewarded by services such as Siri, Alexa and Cortana.

As with text based search, presence of data and data structure are what feed the answers the search engines serve up. The good news is that optimizing for a potential rise in voice search looks a lot like existing best practices for both paid and organic. And there are also early indications that mark-up will play a central role in voice search results.  It simply stands to reason that additional structured content will be seen as more useful – and therefore be rewarded – by the search engines.

So Why Isn’t Schema Used More Often?
If rich content is so valuable but so few sites leverage it, the logical question is “why aren’t more sites built to exploit it?”  The answer can be found in a couple of areas: return on provider effort, and Content Management Systems (CMS) capabilities.

While every website provider will look their SMB client squarely in the eye and swear that they’re delivering a quality product, there’s always a trade-off around “good enough” and some other operational metric. Good enough to show some results, good enough to get renewed, good enough to earn some trust. But as suggested, “good enough” implies a trade-off between operational metrics such as cost-of-delivery.

Understanding this dynamic gives us our first insight. The extent to which delivering a no-compromise, fully marked-up site is more time consuming (read expensive), the provider will avoid doing so until the cost of not doing so is unbearable. Arguably almost every provider has begun experiencing some sense of “unbearable.” It’s hard to imagine that customer churn isn’t one of the biggest topics in boardrooms and sales meetings in every organization in the market. By now the math on lifetime-value of an existing client vs the lifetime-value of a new client is rote, and competitive differentiation at the product and service level is more important than ever.

Like it or not, SMBs have become far more educated and sophisticated with regard to digital media, and are in a much better position to hold their providers accountable. As a result, providers now must look for ways to more cost-effectively provide higher-quality products.  As with most operational efficiency opportunities, the first and most obvious place to look to for gains is through technology. In the website space that means finding CMS solutions that leverage structured data and support flexible and reliable APIs to create efficiencies in creating sites with structured data.

Not All Platforms Make It Easy
Historically there have been major limitations created by the CMSs themselves. For most CMS platforms, best practice data mark-up is a daunting and cumbersome task and therefore directly impacts the cost equation just discussed.

On a traditional CMS, designers need to include and maintain mark-up on individual pages resulting in additional build time. In looking to address this, huge opportunities present themselves when the data and rendering layers in the underlying CMS platforms are not commingled. In most CMS platforms there’s a static relationship between data and presentation layer that creates structural barriers to operational efficiency. By separating these layers — and allowing for data end-point definition — platforms such as Mono’s newest editor create a unique opportunity for website providers to cost effectively build and maintain fully marked up sites.  In an ideal situation publishers should be able to automatically push schema data into sites and create websites with all the benefits that I discussed earlier.

Here’s how it works: data relating to an SMB that can and should be used for mark-up is gathered and maintained by a publisher. That data is passed via API to the website in the form of mark-up in the initial build and at all moments of change. Changes to the data can occur either directly on the website or from the publisher database and will always remain synchronized. This powerful capability can also be extended to synchronization of data on other platforms.  An example here would be to extend the value proposition of a marked-up site with seamless syndication and synchronization of that schema data through a listings management platform.

The value proposition for the SMB would be exceptional, and a publisher delivering the solution would also create significant switching costs for SMBs.  After all, what SMB could afford to move away from a solution that centralized all the data regarding their business through their website, synchronized that data across the web, and did so in a way that optimizes for all forms of search including the increasingly important emerging category of voice search?

1Eric Owen is the CEO of Mono Solutions in the Americas.  Mono is a SaaS-based platform built for resellers to design, deliver, and manage professional responsive websites and e-commerce sites for small and medium-sized businesses. Eric can be reached on Twitter and Instagram.