Structured Data Part I: How Do They Do That?

Until recently, the process of searching for information on the web meant you entered some kind of search phrase into a search engine. The search engine pulled up a list of possible results, usually ten per page, and you browsed through to find the one that had the best answer. Given how much better this was than, say, going to the library and pouring through card catalogs, it seemed like a pretty good system.

Now, many times when you enter a search, the answer appears on the page. This is especially true if you just want to find when a restaurant is open or who is in a particular movie. You can also just speak into your phone and often get a pretty good result.

Let’s take a look at the Google result for “White House Down.” Instead of just getting a list of websites that mention the movie, the first result consists of times, description, and location:

whd showtimes

Meanwhile, on the right-hand side of the page, we get a longer collection of specific facts, as well as both the IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes ratings:

whd side

The individual listings also pull information off the web pages and present that in the results. For instance, both the IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes website result listings now include the ratings of the movie:


whd sites

Searching for a pecan pie recipe brings up various details, such as the preparation time, calorie count, and customer ratings.

pecan pie sites

But This is Just the Beginning

As this New York Times article points out, information doesn’t have to wait until we search for it. With the new generation of “predictive search” apps, we are starting to get notifications that answer questions we’ve not yet thought to ask. Android users receive “cards” from Google now advising us on upcoming appointments, traffic issues, and weather conditions.

Other services will also put together information from all your activities, extract data from websites, and make decisions about notifying you, or providing you with specific information that you are not consciously searching for. The article quotes Evernote’s CEO, Phil Libin:

“By the time you search, something’s already failed”

How Does it Work?

Imagine that the text on a web page includes a phrase such as “White House Down.” You might, based on having read this far into the article, realize we’re talking about the movie. But in another article you might be reading about that white house down at the end of elm street. Structured data provides additional information about the phrase, normally pulled from the database that stores the info about the website to begin with.

Taking a step further, many of these database elements can be combined together to link information about items and objects. This larger structure is called a schema, and can link things like actors to movies, or ingredients to recipes. A large collection of schemas, used by major search engines and apps, can be found at

What Does this have to Do With?

Website owners and content creators would do well to think about the future. If you are producing the kind of content that is covered by one or more schema, you may already have the information in your database that the schema requires. Providing the structured data on your website will open up new possibilities for your content to be found and shared by search engines as well as apps—both current and future.

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