As we've discussed before, the semantic web is supposed to help with issues where computers just have no idea of what they're seeing in any context. The problem was getting people to take advantage of this technology in any real numbers.
Well, if you care about Search Engine Optimization (and who doesn't?) then it's time to wake up and smell the semantics. Otherwise, your search results will plummet as SEO gold goes to those who take advantage of Google's new tool: the Rich Snippet.
What's A Rich Snippet?
When you look at a page of Google search results, you typically see a snippet of material from that page. The goal of this snippet is to help you see at a glance if that page is what you're really looking for.
Without understanding anything about the content itself, that's all Google can do. Or, at least, it was. Google Rich Snippets allow you to give context to your pages through one of two popular semantic web technologies: microformats and RDFa.
Right now you can apply Rich snippets to people and to product reviews, with more types coming in the future.
An Example of a Rich Snippet
We'll offer a quick example here. Say that a savvy online publication wants to make sure that when a name appears in their articles, people and search engines can easily understand the context of what they're seeing.
In particular, let's take the fairly common name of Jane Smith. In order to make sure that you understand that they're talking about Jane "J.J." Smith, popular author, the site editors can use either microformats or RDFa to annotate each mention.
Say that they originally had:
<a href="http://www.example.com/">Jane Smith</A>
With microformats, you specify that you're defining a person with contact information with the term "vcard." You use the div and span tags to logically group the information, with div used for multiple pieces of information and span used for single pieces of information.
Using Google's "Marking Up Structured Data" documentation, they might change this link to:
<div class="vcard"> <span class="fn">Jane Smith</span> <span class="nickname">J.J.</span> <span class="url">http://example.com/</span> <span class="role">Author</span> <a href="http://www.example.com/">Jane Smith</A> </div>
Now they've added the context of Jane's full name, her nickname, her web site, and that she's an author. To show this same information in RDFa, they might have:
<div xmlns:v="http://rdf.data-vocabulary.org/#" typeof="v:Person"> <span property="v:name">Jane Smith</span> <span property="v:nickname">J.J.</span> <span property="v:url">http://www.example.com/</span> <span property="v:role">Author</span> <a href="http://www.example.com/">Jane Smith</a> </div>
Drupal is Taking a Leadership Role
Does all of this code make you nervous? Adding this information can be a lot of work, and whether you have to type every character by hand or your web content management system offers you tools to make it easier will ultimately make a huge difference. Yet a lot of Content Management Systems haven't been showing too much interest in the semantic web.
Dries Buytaert of Drupal is different. He has been a huge semantic web fan for quite a while, to the point that Google's announcement arrived in the middle of a week-long sprint toward beefing up RDFa support in Drupal 7's core. Joomla has also been doing work in this direction. Buytaert believes that Drupal can be a significant player in the development of the semantic web.
According to Buytaert, "With Google entering the RDFa game, the words "semantic markup" will get redefined. Every webmaster wanting to improve click-through rates, reduce bounce rates, and improve conversation rates, can no longer ignore RDFa or Microformats. Structured data is the new SEO."
Preparing for the Future of SEO
If your CMS doesn't currently support RDFa or at least microformats, it's time to make sure that these issues are on the developers' radar. Otherwise all of that time you spent building content and tuning your SEO might turn out wasted.
Of course web developers, designers and other web professionals also need to start thinking about how they intend to put RDFa and/or microformats into use. Once you have the tools, even if that tool starts out as just a text editor, you need to be ready to roll.