[How to] Avoid Google's new penalty: spammy rich snippets

Last week, Google began sending a new type of manual action notifications to site owners who use spammy structured markup on their resources.

What is structured markup, and how can one make sure their site is not at risk of getting penalized for misusing it?

Intro to structured markup/rich snippets

(You can skip this part if you know what these are)

Some people can't tell the difference between structured markup and rich snippets, and do not understand why these 2 terms are often interchangeable.

Think about it this way.

Structured markup is a piece of HTML code on your page that's organized (structured) in such a way that it gives search engines additional information about your content.

Basically, it is like telling search engines, "Look! This piece of content is a food recipe."

An example:

A rich snippet is the representation of your marked-up information in search results. So, if structured markup is a piece of code, then a rich snippet is the visual part of that code displayed on Google.

An example:

By the way, Google provides a tool (called Structured Data Testing Tool) that allows one to see which structured data the search engine is capable of recognizing on a page.

Good to know: Sometimes Google derives additional connotations from your page's HTML code independently, even if you don't explicitly mark up anything on your site. Besides, Google has been trying to build its services (such as YouTube or Google+) in such a way that structured data is easily retrieved and displayed in search results:

Popular structured data uses

No doubt, rich snippets are great click-through rate boosters. That's why marketers jumped at the opportunity right away once it arose.

However, even though there are hundreds of structured data templates available (including Schemas, OpenGraph formats, etc.), only about a dozen of them are widely used by webmasters/SEOs.

These popular formats include:

Authorship markup

Google began supporting rel="author" tag back in June, 2011. Ever since then, the format has gained mass adoption among online marketers. And that's easily understandable - what could be easier than claiming your authorship over a piece of content, and getting your headshot appear next to the said piece in search results:

Another reason everyone wants Google authorship these days are the rumors of so-called Author Rank (something Danny Sullivan referred to "personal PageRank") coming to search, and its possible effect on rankings.

However, in December 2013 Google cut the number of rich snippets (including author snippets) displayed in search results by 15%. The measure was taken to give more exposure to authoritative pages and authors, and to reduce the "noise" from webpages that are yet to prove their value to the search engine.

Video object markup

If you have a video on your webpage that's relevant to the rest of the content, it's always a good idea to highlight it using either the Video Object Schema, or the OpenGraph video template.

For example, here is the OpenGraph video format in action:

Structured markup for videos could be especially useful for movie databases (IMDb uses it), movie review sites, or any other site that's supposed to have multimedia content.

Music piece markup

Another popular format is that, which allows one to mark up a music piece on a site. At Schema.org, one finds the MusicRecording template that can be used for these purposes, while OpenGragh has a number of music-related forms for it.

Here is an example of the MusicRecording Schema implementation:

Article markup

Needless to say, article markup is a must these days for any online journal or news resource that has online presence.

Both Schema for articles and OpenGraph's article standard allow one to specify different information about a news piece such as its name, image, author, publication date, and more.

Here is an example of the OpenGraph article type:

Recipe markup

Google used to have a separate search product one could use to search recipes, but it’s no longer provided. Hence, implementing recipe markup on your site to stand out among other recipe results is now as important as ever.

Google has a format one can use to markup recipe details on a site. As for OpenGraph, there currently isn't a separate card for recipes among its templates.

And, remember that you can always test your recipe markup with Google's Structured Data Testing tool.

Reviews and Ratings

Now, reviews and ratings rich snippets is a tricky question for discussion. It's been several years since webmasters began noticing that some competitors would manipulate their visible reviews/ratings by playing with microformats in their code.

Even back then, webmasters were raising the issue with the community (in hopes Google'd listen), calling for the offenders to be penalized. So, it may be the case that the recent Google's rich snippets penalty (which we're going to talk about in the following section of this post), deals with fake ratings/reviews among other things.

A legitimate way to have your rating/reviews information displayed in the search results would be to markup the sections where you have this information using the AggregateRating Schema.

However, it is my personal prediction that Google will likely transition to Google-proper reviews (which one can leave with their Google+ account) as the standard for online reviews, and may have little regard for reviews left using the publisher's own platform.

Good to know: Rating/review markup is incorporated into a whole number of general-interest Schemas (such as CreativeWork, Recipe, Offer, Place, etc.) That's because virtually any type of product or service you can think of, can potentially have reviews. Search the full hierarchy of Schemas to see if you can use ratings/reviews in the context of a large markup format.

Product markup

This type of markup would probably be of the biggest interest to e-commerce sites. The Product Schema allows one to specify various characteristics of their products.

For example, here is an example of this Schema and various properties associated with it on eBay:

Events markup

For websites that often put up concerts and event schedules, using structure markup for events could be a great way to give searchers immediate answers about when and where a show is going to take place (and potentially drive more clicks).

More specifically, one could resort to the Event Schema to highlight the event's date, participants, venue, and more:

Local Search

They say that as many as 20% of all search queries on Google have local intent. So, if you have a local business, consider being represented not only in Google's 10-blue-links search results, but also in Local Search. What should be kept in mind, though, is that Google's Local Search has been changing and evolving fast.

It used to be Google Local, then Google Places, then Google+ Local, then Google Maps.  Right now, the easiest way to claim your local listing is to create a Google+ Page for local.

Also, if you are a local business, encourage your customers to leave honest reviews for your biz through their Google+ accounts – this will increase your chances of ranking higher in local search results.

How to avoid spammy structured markup penalty

As I said at the start of this article, Google just began penalizing webmasters for what they call "spammy structured markup."

It's a manual penalty (meaning a real human must have looked at your site) and can only be reversed if one removes spammy markup and files for reconsideration.

So far, Google has not specified what kind of behavior can lead to a structured markup penalty. It may provide an example or two in Google Webmaster Tools if your site gets affected, so, keep an eye on that.

Apart from it, here are some simple rules to follow that we think will minimize one's chance of getting hit by this penalty.

1. Check for manual penalties

To make sure your site is currently not penalized for spammy structured markup, head to Google Webmaster Tools -> Search Traffic -> Manual Actions. If you see the following message there (see the screenshot below), this means everything is fine:

2. Use Google's Structured Data Testing Tool

Use Structure Data Testing Tool (also available in Google Webmaster Tools -> Other Resources) to see if any of your pages have structural markup issues. Google would often alert you if any of the markup used is inappropriate.

Example 1:

Example 2:

3. Pick the right Schema to mark up pages

When implementing structural markup on your site's pages, make sure the formats/templates you use are the best choice for the data you are using them on.

If you look at the assortment of Schemas (structured data formats/templates) available at Schema.org, you'll see that some of them are hypernyms like Thing or Event, while others describe more specific things, such as MusicEvent, SportsEvent, etc.

What's a hypernym? It's a common term that can be used for a group of terms. For example, flower is a hypernym for such words as daisy, rose, lily, etc.

So, when deciding which template to use in which case, choose the one that's most relevant to the type of information you have on the page. For example, if your page is about an upcoming music concert, use the MusicEvent schema, not the MusicRecording one.

By the way, if you are not that good at spelling out all the necessary tags on you own, you can resort to Google's Structured Data Markup Helper that allows you to highlight the required areas on your site in the WYCIWYG editor, and grab the HTML code with all the necessary tags put in place.

In Conclusion

Summing up what's been said, if you think structured markup is implemented correctly on your pages (and Structured Data Testing Tool confirms that), yet it doesn't show up in search results, don't worry – keep on improving the page's quality and the markups relevance.

At the same time, as far as getting a manual penalty for spammy structured markup is concerned, unless you're purposefully implementing markup that's manipulative or misleading, your website should be on the safe site.

Alexandra Shkalikova heads WebMeUp’s marketing, PR and support teams which she calls Customer Happiness Team altogether. She started SEO and Internet Marketing back in 2007 and spends every day experimenting, learning and mentoring ever since. When not working to benefit the SEO community, Alexandra is a cooking freak, piano amateur and a snowboarder.