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Don’t Get Penalized For Rich Snippet Spam

Last year, Google’s Penguin update sent many webmasters and SEO specialists scrambling to try to find a way to regain rankings that were lost and to figure out why.

While algorithmic changes like Penguin were a broad-based, universal shift, a more recent trend has seen Google issue penalties in the form of manual actions warnings for structured markup deemed as “spammy” (aka: “rich snippet spam”).

To understand how structured markup could be considered spammy, we must first take a look at what structured markup is and how we ultimately got to this point.

A History Lesson   

First, a little background on structured markup: structured markup and rich snippets have really become not only the talk of the online marketing world in the last year or so, but have become absolutely essential in the visibility and ultimately, the success of a website.

Structured markup like Schema.org, is code that’s written into a website’s existing code with special attributes that help search engines verify that what you say is on your website, really is.  These “attributes” are generally in the form of ratings, reviews, store hours, etc.  Search engines, like Google, read and consume this markup.  If they like what they see, then rich snippets can be awarded. These rich snippets are enhancements to the search engine result.  The structured markup is great for search engines, and rich snippets are great for the users.  They have been proven to work wonders from a marketing standpoint as internet users are more drawn to search results that feature additional information like previously-mentioned ratings, reviews, store hours, etc. on search engine results pages (SERPs).

Being awarded a rich snippet from Google means that the structured markup was implemented correctly and Google decided they want to use it.

Eventually, a few marketers and SEO professionals found ways to manipulate the system and began to implement markup that wasn’t genuine.  The most common examples included fake reviews, placing structured markup on webpages that didn’t actually match the specified product, and “hiding” markup within webpages.  As you’ll see, this is becoming a lot more difficult as Google has begun cracking down on these offenders.

Manual Action: a Warning

By now, everyone knows that if you have been awarded rich snippets, they can be taken away at any time (per Google), and now, more than ever, it seems that if you implement markup incorrectly that doesn’t follow Google’s strict guidelines, you run the risk of having your markup labeled as spam and you will never be awarded rich snippets with spammy markup.

Basically, this new manual action is identifying and penalizing sites that are marking up content in a manner that is misleading or disingenuous, in order to manipulate rich snippet creation and make their site appear more attractive/relevant to searchers on SERPs.  This could be the practice of marking up content that is invisible to users, or it could involve marking up things like fake reviews or unrelated content (Search Engine People, 2/5/14).

In Google’s eyes, this is a crude attempt by webmasters trying to find a loophole in the current algorithm, rather than focusing efforts on providing a valuable and honest search experience for users.

Interestingly, you don’t necessarily have to be a spammer or someone trying to game the rich snippet system to be penalized; you could make an honest mistake while trying to mark up your own pages and products and be warned by Google – it doesn’t matter to them.

“Manual Actions” warnings are issues/actions that are generated manually by a Google reviewer that require your attention.  The reviewer may suspect that you are employing unnatural or unethical practices that do not follow Google’s strict guidelines.  In this case, marking up your website.

The penalty notification from Google is a spam notification (viewable through Webmaster Tools) for “spammy structured markup,” and the warning reads as follows:

Markup on some pages on this site appears to use techniques such as marking up content that is invisible to users, marking up irrelevant or misleading content, and/or other manipulative behavior that violates Google’s Rich Snippet Quality Guidelines.

Manual warnings (like spammy markup) are dished out because Google believes that you’re in violation of its terms of use but can’t identify that exact violation through the use of their algorithm.  Website owners first started to receive manual warnings when Penguin was released, and many didn’t understand that the warnings and Penguin weren’t one-in-the-same (Search Engine People, 1/14/14).

avoid schema.org semantic markup spam

What to Do?

The bottom line is that Google is constantly changing not only their algorithm(s), but the way they view potential spam. Always remember that your structured markup must match the information found on a specific webpage.  Also, you cannot hide your structured markup on a webpage. Any of these mistakes will result in Google penalizing you by denying rich snippets and possibly dropping your website’s ranking as well.

Considering that rich snippets are a somewhat new phenomenon, it’s best to practice “safe” markup practices that are in line with Google’s Rich Snippets Guidelines.  These rules are pretty black and white and should keep you and your site out of trouble.   Staying within the Guidelines is the best way to make sure that your site can take full advantage of structured markup and the end result: rich snippets.

How To Implement Google’s Authorship For Individual Pages Using Rel=Author

In the same way that rel=”publisher” is great for obtaining authorship for a brand or business website, rel=”author” is the authorship markup used for personal or individual content and pages.  With authorship, Google is able to easily verify and authenticate you as an author of original content across the web.  By doing so, it adds value to your online profile while establishing you as an authority on the subjects and topics that you write about.

Google won’t admit it, but for many sites, rel=”author” has increased rankings as well as improved search engine results.  At least one thing is for certain: it can’t hurt.

According to the search engine marketing experts at Virante, making the two-way connection between your Google+ profile and your content on the web provides multiple benefits:

1)      You qualify to have your Google+ profile picture show next to your content in search results (see image below).

2)      You may see a higher-than-normal click through rate (CTR).

3)      You might gain possible protection against being outranked in search results by people and websites that may re-publish your original content.

4)      You build Google page rank authority for your profile by connecting your authorship with your original content, especially on popular, high-authority sites.

rel=author search result

So how do you do it?  How do you “claim” authorship?  It’s not as difficult as you may think.

For starters, you must link your content to your Google+ profile (if you don’t have one, you’ll need to create one).  According to Google, it’s a simple, two-step process.  First, you must add a link from your website to your Google+ profile.  Second, update your Google+ profile by adding a link back to your website.

This can be achieved by following Google’s instructions:

rel=author

After implementing the markup, you’ll want to test it to see if it worked and to see what author data Google is extracting from your website.  You can use their structured data testing tool or you can manually check (do a Google search) for your own name.

If you decide to try Google’s structured data testing tool, keep in mind that it only looks at a single page.  For now, you’ll need to check your Google+ profile page and your content pages (each webpage with your original content on it) separately to ensure that they are linking to each other correctly.

You can add rel=”author” markup and link to any webpage that has your unique and original content on it, but you definitely need to set it up on your own website first.  Regarding connecting authorship to an entire site and multiple pages within a website, Google’s Matt Cutts has said that for personal sites, such as your own blog where you are the only author, it’s fine to connect the entire site to authorship (this can be achieved by simply putting a rel=”author” Google+ profile link within your website’s header).  For business sites (rel=”publisher”), the same is generally frowned upon.

Ideally, a rel=”author” connection should be made only between original pieces of content clearly authored by someone with a Google+ profile and those author’s Google+ profiles.  Lastly, and to reiterate, rel=”author” is for original content by real people.  rel=”publisher” is designed to create authorship for a business or brand.  Don’t get the two confused; Google is pretty straightforward with authorship markup as it applies to personal websites and business websites.

How To Implement Google’s Publisher Markup For Business Using Rel=Publisher

In today’s search world, it is absolutely imperative that your business website have Google-approved authorship implemented on it.  Previously, individuals had relied on the rel=”author” markup to connect themselves to articles, essays, and blog posts.  With this specific markup, individuals were then provided with a trusted identity and presence within Google+, which has now become an increasingly important factor for business websites to the search engine results pages (SERPs) as well as overall rankings.

rel=”author” worked great for individual authors, but for branding purposes and to establish a true Google+ presence for a business website , rel=”publisher” is the preferred authentication markup.

Here are step-by-step instructions on how to implement rel=”publisher” markup on your website:

1) Create a Google+ business page

* This can be accomplished by first creating a Google (Gmail) email account.  Once you have created the email account and signed in, click on the “Google+” logo/link at the top left.

* Click on the logo/link on the left-hand side that says “Pages.”

*  Next, click on the “Create a page” button in the upper-right.

* Then, click on the “Pick category” option on the left-hand side and select the category of your business/website.

* Lastly, click the “Finish” button.

2) Add the rel=”publisher” code

* The code should be added anywhere in the <head> of your business website’s code along with the URL of your Google+ business page.

* It should look like this: <link rel=”publisher” href=”https://plus.google.com/YourGoogleURLHere” />. (The image below shows the popular SEO expert, MOZ, and a rel=”publisher” code):

rel=publisher code

 

3) Point your Google+ business page at your site to verify your newly-added rel=”publisher” markup.

* Access your Google+ page.

* Click Edit > About > Add Your Website.

* Entire your website’s domain in its standard form (i.e. www.domain.com not subdomain.domain.com/index).

 

4) Do a test

* Use either Google’s Rich Snippet testing tool or a manual test.

* For a manual test, perform a “branded” search (using your company’s name) for your website every couple of days or approximately once a week until you see the added rel=”publisher” information.

* It’s important to remember that you won’t see the results of implementing rel=”publisher” markup on your website and then setting up a link to your website from your Google+ business page overnight.  It will take at least a couple of days and up to a few weeks before Google “approves” the markup.

* If you do not see the rel=”publisher” markup after a few weeks, it is safe to say that you probably made a mistake somewhere during the process and it is recommended that you re-try implementing the markup.

** Below is an example of a branded search term search for a company (in this case, MOZ, again) showing the result of  rel=”publisher” markup:

 

Branded Search Test

 

It’s important to note that the rel=”publisher” code only needs to be present on your home page but you won’t be penalized if it appears on any other or even all other pages on your site.  Implementing rel=”publisher” authorship markup will help your business website gain trust within Google, as the search engine will begin to think of your site as an authority.

 

The Importance Of Adding Local Markup To Your Site

 

By now, you have probably already heard about rich snippets.  If you have, then you know how important they are as well as the role they play in your site’s seo and marketing efforts and ultimately, its overall success.  If you haven’t heard about rich snippets, then you’d better get with it!

Rich snippets are awarded by Google as a result of properly-implemented structured markup to your site like Schema.org.  If awarded, rich snippets appear in search engine results pages (SERPs) in the form of extra information are displayed including prices, ratings, reviews, hours of operation, availability of products, and much more.  Rich snippets add credibility to a site and search engines seem to be favoring them heavily over sites that don’t have them.

For any website or storefront, especially smaller/local ones, it’s very important to stay competitive.  The best way to do this is by adding Schema.org markup to your site and its products.  There are quite a few “properties” to choose from, but there are definitely a few that are more important than others.  For your local business, try adding Schema.org markup for hours of operation (“openingHours”), payments acccepted (“paymentAccepted”), price ranges (“priceRange”), and reviews (“itemReviewed”) if applicable.

In a recent article by Search Engine Land, they referenced a 2013 study completed by Digital Marketing Works (DMW) that showed that the quantity and quality of Google reviews is the “single most important variable determining inclusion and ranking” within Google’s image carousel.  Their findings held true in local markets as well as larger, metropolitan areas and markets.  What this means is that if your site has implemented local markup and has been been awarded rich snippets, it not only urges people to rate and review your business, but Google ranks your website accordingly, which generally means a higher ranking.  And, the more ratings and reviews you have, the better chance you have of being placed higher in the image carousel.  But, for now, let’s focus solely on the local markup itself.

Here is an example of a rich snippet; what the result of proper Schema.org markup looks like.  This particular example shows the restaurant’s rating and review count, address, and includes links to the menu as well as contact information:

Adding Local Markup To Your site

Glancing at this example, you can see just how detailed Schema.org markup can be.  And that’s a good thing.  Having markup that looks like that can work wonders in the SERPs while drawing the attention of internet users to your website.

It’s been proven time and time again that internet users are more likely to click on links that have rich snippets.  Getting users to click on your site is the key and ultimately, having rich snippets results in higher click-through rates which more than likely increase sales.  For local businesses, it’s wise to start positioning your site now to be able to compete with bigger name stores in the online world.

 

Google

Gain Authorship on Your Site

 

One of the most important things you can do to ensure that search engines like Google can trust your site as well as increase its overall visibility is through authorship.

Authorship is simply another way for Google to verify your website and for you to prove its true value.  This is becoming increasingly more important as search engines shift to a more semantic approach, and are indexing and ranking search results based on quality and relevance.

You should definitely consider using the rel=”publisher” authorship markup for your business website.  Previously, Google relied heavily on the markup rel=”author” which tied your personal Google+ profile to individual articles.  Now, thanks to rel=”publisher”, your Google+ business page is connected to your website and this definitely provides better branding for for search queries while making it easier for Internet users to find you.

Below are step-by-step instructions on how to gain authorship:

 

1) Create a Google+ page for your business

* You will need to sign in to your personal Google+ account first.

* Create a new page by clicking on the “Pages” link which is found under the “More” category.

* Choose either the “Local Business” or the “Place” category.  Enter your company’s phone number and then “Locate.”  (If your company’s name doesn’t show up,  you can “Add Your Business To Google”).

* Edit company info as needed.

 

2) Add the “rel=publisher” tag

* Add the rel=publisher tag within the HTML head tag code of your homepage (or the most significant/important page on your website).  According to Google, the tag needs to look like this: <link href=”Your Company’s Google+ page url” rel=”publisher”/>

* You must then create a link on your Google+ business page pointing back to your website (this link should be the same url of the page that the above link was added to).

 

3) Test it

* You can utilize Google’s Rich Snippet Testing Tool to see if you implemented the rel=publisher tag correctly.  If correct, the tool will display the markup just as it would appear in the search results.

* Occasionally, the process of verification may take up to six weeks.  In the meantime, you can manually check Google by doing a search for your website’s name every couple of days.

 

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