Structured content is content that is planned, developed, and connected outside of an interface — so that it's ready for any interface.
It means breaking down content into the smallest reasonable pieces — with each of those pieces holding the characteristics of the thing it represents.
Most of the digital content created by organisations is a surrogate for something that exists outside the digital world: a person, a company, an event, a product.
In the context of SEO, ‘structured data’ (aka structured content) usually refers to implementing some type of markup on a webpage, in order to provide additional detail around the page’s content.
You may have already heard of ‘Schema’ or ‘Schema.org’. Schema is a very popular approach to marking up structured data for SEO purposes. However, there are other ways of reaching the same result, and some websites still use Microformats.org, (commonly for marking up product reviews), for example.
In simple terms, using structured content makes things far easier for Google to understand and interpret, which ultimately means that your content may rank better — and is shown to the most relevant audiences — as result. So, think of using structured data as a way of telling Google and other search engines what your website or piece of digital content is about. It basically means that your data is ‘organised’.
Unstructured data exists without any predefined organisation or framework. And whilst it actually makes up more than 80% of digital data, its ‘unstructured’ nature means that, initially, it’s often more time-consuming and difficult to find and analyse.
Post-It note A: “Kelly rang, asking to meet outside the bank on Monday at 11am.”
Post-It note B: “Remember to meet John at the office at 2pm on Tuesday.”
The same content above as 'structured' data
Giving content more structure doesn’t then mean that it’s then tied to a single representation or delivery method though. Think of it like a structure built with Lego®; the bricks themselves do not change, but they can be taken apart and put together over and over to make different things (or the same thing again).
Structured content is needed so that content can be 'Created Once and Published Everywhere' (COPE) for today, tomorrow, and for whatever channels and devices tomorrow brings.
Content can take the form of:
…and rarely is any given item of content delivered in just a single interface with a single representation.
Take an event, for example.
A single website can hold the details about the event, but it may also use specific information about the event to display as a ‘card’ on the homepage, a listing on a calendar, and perhaps an item related to a blog post.
You’d also expect it to show up in Google and in syndicated third-party listings.
If all that event information was ‘trapped’ on one web page, it would have to be recreated for each of the above instances. Google then might not also understand that it is ‘an event’; thereby placing it lower down in users’ search results (instead of showing it at the top as its own event entity).
Here are some more good reasons as to why we should all be using structured content:
Structured content is, quite simply, ‘future-friendly’. These days, for example, it’s no longer sustainable to keep redesigning your website and recreating content for it, each time.
A single piece of information does not need to be recreated for every channel and interface and delivery method (screen or screenless). Content can be broken into its constituent parts to allow it to travel through time and space to appear anywhere.
Content does not belong to only a website, however. It’s an asset that needs to be tended — much like a garden. It is not ‘single-use’ or disposable, so it’s a good idea to apply the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra to content, as well as our environment.
For example, when structured properly, content can be reusable. You can turn a webinar into a blog post, 3 x five-minute videos, and a downloadable slide deck.
What’s more, if the same webinar is given multiple times, the structure can be such that new dates and times are added without having to duplicate the rest of the content.
Using the COPE methodology allows content to become more efficient to manage.
What used to take an hour or more to do can take just five minutes with structured content. For example, instead of having to update the same piece of information in the 10 different places it appears on your website, it can be changed just once, in one place, with the change showing up in all 10 places — think of the time that saves! (This approach also reduces the risk of you missing an update in any of those 10 places.)
The number of digital communication channels continues to expand. Because of the reuse possibilities and turning content into data, structured content makes it possible to have content repositories that any channel can pull from. A publisher can create content and connect it to any outlet, owned by anyone, through APIs and web services.
The technology exists, but structure is needed to make the content available for computers and algorithms to consume.
Humans are good at interpreting what they see, hear, or read. Computers are not so good at that — they still need explicit instructions from us.
Structured content is a huge step toward enabling artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. It provides the semantic meaning needed for computers to interpret what the content is about and connect it properly to related content.
Machines learn by reading data, identifying patterns, and making decisions with minimal human intervention. Without structure, all of these things will take a longer amount of time — and more human intervention — in order for machines to learn and build intelligence successfully.
By implementing a structured content regime, you’re more likely to be set up for higher click-through rates (CTR) and more conversions. More attention is drawn to your content when it’s discovered — increasing CTR, and more people viewing your content means that the likelihood of them taking an action can also increase.
Structuring your content also means that you’ve also got a chance to win rich snippets and featured snippets on search engines like Google; appearing more prominently at the top of results as a trusted answer to the user’s query (see example below).
Lastly, it can make your content more eligible for voice search results, as results of this kind are pulled from featured snippets.
Structuring content is far more than breaking an HTML Body field into smaller fields or adding some tags to it. As we touched on earlier, information/content has a structure that goes much deeper than just the interface we view it on.
Thinking about the system — a combination of parts forming a unitary whole — in which the content exists expands understanding. A concept from early computer development, ‘systems thinking’ means breaking things down into their component parts to understand them on their own as well as part of the bigger system.
All of the possible uses for your content should be considered right from the start. While it's impossible to predict all use cases, considering a variety of short- and long-term use cases will help a great deal.
'Structure' often implies ‘rigidity’, however, the opposite is true here. Structure creates more flexibility than amorphous blobs of text that stand alone unless manually linked together.
On the other hand, chunks (to use the vernacular of structured content experts) are defined pieces of content devoid of any presentational styling. Chunks set content free. Words, images, videos, files, and widgets are all held separately, ready to be remixed and rematched.
Applying metadata to each chunk embeds meaning so that computers can understand what it is, what it is about, and how it relates to other chunks. When put together, the chunks provide a comprehensive understanding of a complete ‘thing’, or entity.
The entity's metadata allows computers to read and understand the content in its constituent parts or as a whole.
'Reasonable’ and ‘reusable’ are two important characteristics of structured content. Start by thinking about the resource itself — the real-world thing — rather than a single representation on a screen.
For example, a song has a title, artist, genre, length, and year of release. Maybe it also has ratings and reviews. Those are all reusable and ‘reasonably-sized’ pieces.
But what about a large narrative resource, like a conference session? It has a title, description, learning objectives, a presenter, date and time, and maybe a track or a topic.
It may make sense to separate the description and learning objectives so that one can be displayed without the other. Or it may not, if neither would ever get specific styling or ever be presented separately. What is reasonable in a given situation?
A quick note: In order to be successful, thinking needs to shift from:
"What pages go on this website?" to: "How can this content be structured to represent this thing in a digital product?"
Remember also, that structured content is an important component of your overall content strategy. In fact, applying structure early helps get the right information to the right people at the right time — without having to research it time and again.
Go beyond ‘writing the right content’ to ‘writing the right content and structuring it in the right way’, so that it’s the most useful and usable it can be for your audience.
Let’s now look at some of the current factors and circumstances ‘shaking up’ the application of structured content:
Structured content is essential for making the switch to a ‘headless CMS’ — a content management system that does not come with an out-of-the-box way to render content in a web browser.
The work that needs to be done to put content into a single repository without an interface is the same that makes all that content available for any new technology that seeks to grab data and turn it into something useful to be consumed by humans.
These voice-activated interfaces have no fancy visual design to fall back on and continue to evolve and be adopted by more and more people. It means that content must be familiar and available to the computers that are working to match a spoken request to data from all over the web.
That means even more reliance on semantic metadata so that relevant and useful responses can be provided.
Personalisation is nearly impossible without structured content.
Much has been made about the prediction that personalisation will be abandoned as a marketing strategy by 2025. However, personalisation should be the future. It is what consumers expect and want.
One reason it may be dying though is that there is not enough structured content in existence to meet needs. In an ideal world, we’d all be ‘chunking’ content into constituent pieces and applying appropriate metadata so that personalisation is made more meaningful (and, in turn, provides a good return on the time and resource investment made to get there).
No one knows what the next technology shift or disruption will be, but we can say with some certainty that it will involve more artificial intelligence and machine learning.
The machines needing to learn from content in order to provide the promised AI require access to semantic data. And guess what? Semantic data is much more accurate when applied to small pieces of content.
Structured content is not just a technical problem to solve; it is also a people problem.
Creating, using, and governing structured content involves adopting the right mindset and process shift for everyone – from authors, to design teams, to software engineers.
Instead of trying to simultaneously convince everyone to make the switch, it’s best to approach the change strategically.
Whether it’s a prototype with a coalition of willing colleagues who are coming together to experiment, or a pilot project that’s just got the green light from the C-Suite, start showcasing the structured content approach in a small way.
Most people do not care about ‘semantic metadata’ and ‘content governance’ and what they may mean…but there will be plenty of things they do care about. Try to frame the way you speak to them in the right way when it comes to using structured content, whilst integrating some of the things they already care about.
More and more organisations have been moving to a structured content framework. To illustrate the difference between non-structured and structured content, here are some examples from around the web:
Here, we can see the structure being applied to a typical page from Microsoft Learn (Image: courtesy of Sarah Barrett at Microsoft):
It’s extremely common for recipe apps and websites to use structured data. With the content structured in this way, people can find and organise recipes based on things that matter most to them. The images below (courtesy of Ronald Aveling) shows the before and after of the approach being applied to an individual recipe:
GatherContent uses customisable templates to make it easy for people to provide any type of content in the correct format, and style. The example below is of a blog article template:
Taking the approach of structuring your content (using structured data) can unlock multiple benefits for your organisation (or clients).
From an SEO perspective, it helps search engines like Google better understand what your content is about, increasing your chances of that content being ranked more highly in search results, and of it being shown to the right users.
Structuring content can undoubtedly save your organisation a heap of time and resource in the long term; making user experiences better for audiences overall, and reducing occurrences of duplication of effort when processing new and existing content.
Making a shift to this approach at your organisation, or for your clients, will take time. The biggest barrier is the required change to mindsets and a willingness to start small; scaling up implementation as time goes on, and gathering evidence of any improvements and 'small wins' seen along the way.
Are you interested in learning more about structured content?
Here are some additional resources we recommend you look into:
Carrie Hane is a creative problem solver who transforms organisations by connecting people, processes, and technology for sustainable outcomes. She is the co-author of Designing Connected Content, a "primer for reckoning with the future of content." As a Senior Digital Project Director, she makes health communication more accessible at Palladian Partners.