Local Legends: Martha van Berkel on the Power of Schema for Local Businesses

Local Legends: Martha van Berkel on the Power of Schema for Local Businesses

When BrightLocal CEO Myles Anderson talked to Schema App’s Martha van Berkel at BrightLocal HQ, they opened up a treasure trove of impactful information on the often mysterious schema markup (also known as structured data).

In this interview, Martha demystifies this important part of on-site optimization and clearly explains how local businesses should be using it to improve visibility, click-throughs and even conversions!

N.b. When this conversation was recorded in late 2019, Martha was about to speak at the Brighton SEO conference, so the talk discussed in this video is this one (rather than a talk at the next Brighton SEO in April 2020).

Myles Anderson, BrightLocal: Hello everyone, and welcome to this little video. I’m very lucky to be joined by Martha van Berkel from Schema App today. She happens to be in Brighton where she is talking at Brighton SEO, so, Martha, have you been to Brighton before?

Martha van Berkel, Schema App: I have not.

MA: This is your first time, but you did study in the UK? Is that right?

MvB: I did I spent a year at Strathclyde in Glasgow and I have done, like, a true Canadian tour with, like, my backpack with the flag and I did stop in Lyme Regis which isn’t too far away, so I’ve done lots of lots of train tours around the UK.

MA: Okay, so you’re not feeling completely at sea, then?

MvB: Absolutely not, no.

MA: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about Schema App?

MvB: Sure, so Schema App’s really to help digital marketers do their schema markup, or as people know it, structured data, either page by page or at scale, but without having to write code and without having to depend on developers and IT.

This is really key because those are usually the things that get digital marketers stuck, right? It’s the complexity of having to get into the code and figure out where commas and quotes go, or actually find a developer who can do that in the way that they want it done.

So our tools allow them to do that at speed, with ease, and with the support of our expert team.

MA: So let’s roll back a little bit: schema’s obviously, or can be quite technical, so, to a layman… let’s say you’re describing it to my mother. What would you describe schema as to her?

MvB: So I usually start by saying, you know, when you go to Google and you search for a new pair of shoes, you’ll sometimes see stars and prices in the results, and then I say, you know, those stars and prices are there because Google has a lot of confidence about what content is on that page, and the reason they have that confidence is because there’s this, like, awesome code that you can’t see, and that code is given markup, right?

So, really, it’s, you know, when I try to describe it, it’s, you know, through that experience that they’re gonna see, they’re gonna see something different in the search results. But really it comes down to, like, a code that’s there specifically for the search engines and other machines.

And that doesn’t happen by chance, does it? In terms of Google and that information, absolutely not, no. So schema markup and structured data: same thing.

We like the words ‘schema markup’ because the whole point of it is to disambiguate or make something absolutely clear, and in the IT world ‘structured data’ can mean lots of things, so it seems like the wrong word to use to be evaluating.

It’s based on this language called schema.org and schema network was written, like, back in 2011. Google, Yahoo, Bing and Yandex got together and said, like, “let’s come up with a common open standard vocabulary.”

So think of the book cover as a language like English or French or German, but it’s really, like, so the search engines can understand the definitions of things. Now, it’s kind of brilliant, like, the search engines have now put the burden on all of us to do all the hard work of translating stuff so their machines can do it, so it’s easier for them to crawl our sites and do this understanding. So schema.org’s that language and schema markup and structured data is, like, the strategy within SEO.

MA: So for marketeers out there, or even local business owners, why should they be interested, why should they care, about schema? What can it do to help them?

MvB: So I think the first thing to understand is that it helps their content be understood. So whether it be implications or details about their business, about the services that they offer, about the content that they’re investing so much time to write.

So it’s going to help, like, overall understanding within the search engines, and what’s most important with the search engines is when they understand if they can better match it to people who are searching for those specific things. So think of this as helping make sure that all those things that you’re investing in on your website are then actually understood the way that you want them to be understood.

Now, Google takes it a step further and says “if you do this we’re also going to give you these extra features in search” and those features are everything from star ratings to answers that appear in blogs or in search results, to making sure your knowledge graph, if you actually can get a knowledge graph on the right, that that has the appropriate information, images, mobile search, like an AMP, there’s a ton of results specifically on those.

MA: So for all of us who have websites, our objective is to get Google to really understand what we do and, for local businesses, where we do it, so that we get returned in the search results for the right queries.

So this is a great way of really specifically telling the search engines exactly what we want them to know about us but also what they want to know about us in a way that doesn’t rely them necessarily kind of crawling all our code and trying to work it out. We’re clearly telling them, in the code, what they want to know, which is fantastic for us who are trying to communicate with Google so that they will rank us high for the right search terms. But then also the benefit is that they’ll start to show additional information in the search results, such as star rating, price points, FAQs.

MvB: Yeah so I call like it ‘search real estate’ it’s like one of the things, and how you, like, visually pop in the search results so that you can get those customers to engage with you.

MA: So potentially, if used correctly, it’s a really effective way of driving more visibility within search, and getting more information to the SERP so that click-through rate from search results can go up.

MvB: On click-through rate, we’re seeing the value come across that customer lifecycle, so where you’re getting more impressions therefore you’re getting more clicks. But then we also find that people are spending longer and engaging more with the content on your site, and I think this comes from if Google really understands it and they know who the searcher is, and their goal is to match that searcher’s intent, then the person who’s actually getting to your site is the right person. Therefore they engage more.

MA: So I can really understand how it affects visibility and therefore, if  you’ve got information like price points, people are going to click, but you’ve got evidence that shows that if you’ve inputted schema correctly, once you get to the site, their desire is more closely matched with the offering, and therefore you’ve got more time on site, a higher propensity to purchase. Lower bounce rate, those kinds of things.

So it’s not just about getting more visibility and just getting volume, it’s actually about getting really high-quality, high-intent users coming to your website.

MvB: Correct, yeah, and we’ve really seen that evolve over the years. In 2015, 2016, even early 2017, it was really about that: impressions and click-through rate. But over the last two years we’ve seen it sort of go throughout that process, and even Google’s case studies on their structured data guide starts calling out these, even to the point of increased revenue, increased engagement etc.

MA: So one of the questions I’ve got, which I think probably lots of people who work with local businesses is around how you implement schema correctly on local landing pages. So a typical local landing page, and let’s say it’s a cosmetic dentist who serves the Brighton area: on a landing page, which is a very important page for conversion for them, because they’re not an ecommerce business, they haven’t got product pages, they want to talk about what service they offer, where they offer it, any kinds of details or specifics about the service, reviews, and then also all those location details as well.

So there’s quite a lot of opportunities to put schema onto that page. Should there be a hierarchy for what you should have on there? And if you have it, if you try and schema everything up, does that kind of create confusion for the search engines?

MvB: So let’s break it down: so I think the first thing to know is that you shouldn’t have schema markup for locations on, like, every page right?

So you would have your main page that you talked about, the location where you offer lots of services, right? So that would be your Brighton office that you have where you actually offer that cosmetic dentistry, and then you have your landing pages for those different boroughs or counties or cities that surround Brighton that you want to try to pull into the cosmetic dentistry.

So those would be what I would call service landing pages. The question we ask in schema is like, “What is this thing,” right? So those landing pages are talking about a service that’s offered in that specific area, but that’s actually performed or provided by that local business, right?

Now, so one of things actually I’m speaking about at Brighton SEO, is around connected schema markup and so that main page would talk about the service, the service would be provided by the local business, right? So you actually connect those dots for Google. That service itself would have a specific rating.

Now, the thing with the rating is it has to be about a specific service or about a specific location, so they would have to have collected ratings specifically for that service or for that specific location, and then that would actually be a rating about the service. So it ends up becoming lots of different ‘properties’ and connecting to other entities or data items on the site, so in this case we’d be connecting back to the local business.

And the other key one is ‘area served’. So ‘area served’ is another property that you can use to describe the area in which you’re going to provide that service, and for area served you can use a URL from Wikipedia to define that location.

So if you were wanting to define, I don’t know, is there a town close to Brighton which is right next door but far enough away that you wouldn’t appear in local results?

MA: Hove.

MvB: So you want to have your Hove cosmetic dentistry service page, you would then say ‘area served’ and actually put in the Wikipedia entry for Hove, and the reason Wikipedia is interesting is because it’s like a well-known kind of dictionary of entities if I already use the schema markup of, like, ‘things’ that Google knows really, really well. And so instead of you then trying to define Hove it’s actually already defined for them.

MA: Would you use that to say cosmetic dentistry as a subject? Would you use a Wikipedia entry for that?

MvB: Absolutely, yeah. So in schema.org, there’s 840 classes, so these are like the types of things, of which dentist is one of them, and then you could use this other great property that’s called ‘additional type’. It says, like, you want to kind of add to the fact that my dentist is one type but it’s actually a cosmetic dentistry so then you could do ‘additional type’ and again put the URL for the Wikipedia.

MA: Okay, interesting. And Google likes that?

MvB: They do, yeah.

MA: Why, because they understand Wikipedia structure and they recognize its authority? That’s one piece of it, I think. It’s also, like, schema org again is about disambiguating things, making things absolutely clear, and so with that, you know, without structure and by using those you’re making it absolutely clear.

So before you talk about time spent on site, you need to actually think about, like, well, what are the types of things that they should be optimizing? I like to start there, because it’s about the strategy for the schema markup and then that’s going to determine how much time and how far down the rabbit hole I need to go.

So really it’s like: what are the important things on the website that customers need to find? And then, secondarily, look at all the Google features that you can actually get, and it’s really a combination of those two things that you should markup.

Now, schema markup is, you know, additive to other SEO things you do, so it’s not a silver bullet that if you just do schema markup, everything else will be great. Nothing is, these days. It’s part of your toolkit. Now, if you’re asking me also, like, you know, how much time would you spend on it and it was 2015-2016, I’d be like I think the innovators are doing it, like the lead users today, though like since 2017 and all through 2018, and now it’s like 2019 almost 2020, like Google is being very very clear that you should do structured data, so I would say it should be on your must-do list.

And then really it’s about prioritizing those things that are important for the business, and so often with sites that are a bit more static, that maybe don’t have as many changes, they’ll do a setup and then at least look at how that’s performing on a monthly basis, and Google Search Console now has, like, specific reports to show, like, how you’re doing with regards to rich results.

And then, at least on a quarterly basis, be checking in. Not just a bit, like, what’s maybe changed in your content, like any time content changes you should be updating your schema. However, there’s also an element of, like, new features coming out, so it’s been really interesting since about March/April time, we’ve seen releases of schema.org as well as new features coming out from Google.

So FAQ and How-to is the really hot one right now. So in May they announced that FAQ and how-to, not only if you do the structured data that you’ll qualify for more sort of real estate on the search result, but also you’ll be voice-ready, which makes total sense, right? Because FAQ is question-answer, people are primarily engaging through voice, so when those kinds of opportunities come up, you know we’re seeing those search results happen really quickly.

So if, again, you want to sort of try to capture that for your local business, it’s just a matter of being, like, “oh well, we have FAQ/how-to information” or “well, we’ve been meeting to put sort of the feedback we’re getting from our receptionist on there on one page, let’s go after it and make that update, so at least when content changes, when there’s new results, like new features come out, and then at very least on a quarterly basis.

MA: So it’s one of those things you should always be aware of, and probably thinking as you’re adding new content, “does this affect schema?”  “Should I be thinking about schema with this?” And sometimes the answer will be, “yes, we absolutely must” and sometimes you’ll go “no, because we’ve already covered that off”  because it’s a similar template that we had.

It’s one of those things you have a sort of checklist: “Does this affect schema?” If it’s a ‘yes’, you tackle it. If not, you don’t necessarily need to invest any kind of time or effort.

Great, Martha, thank you so much for coming to Brighton but also explaining the kind of detailed ins and outs of schema.

MvB: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

Jamie Pitman
About the author
Jamie heads up BrightLocal's content team, ensuring we produce insightful articles, research and resources that enable businesses and SEOs to get even better results in local search.

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