What is structured data?
Web pages have a number of tough jobs to do all at once. They have to serve both human readers and robot spiders. More importantly, they need to tell stories and entertain as well as inform and communicate specific information. Some of this specific information can be represented in the form of structured data. What is structured data? Well, structured data is information that can be represented in a predictable format, such as hours of operation (if you're a small business), reviews (ditto), authorship information and the like. Structured data significantly helps search engines (good for SEO), which means it can help the owners of websites as well.
Why does structured data matter?
With free-form text, even a well-constructed paragraph contains some ambiguity in what it's attempting to convey. (Not to mention the cases where things are really confusing such as "buffalo buffalo buffalo.") Structured data is created with specific types of HTML markup and removes that ambiguity. Adhere Creative has this to say about structured data and its relationship to SEO:
"Structured data allows search engines to not only crawl your site, but to truly understand it. Yes, even search engines can have a tough time deciphering web page content. Some elements that seem perfectly obvious to us humans are meaningless to web crawlers.
Structured data is on-page markup that enables search engines to better understand the information currently on your business’s web page, and then use this information to improve your business’s search results listing. For example, structured data makes it easier for web crawlers to determine company basics, such as NAP (name, address, place) data, as well as more complex information such articles, events, products, recipes, etc. on your website."
Here's a quick example:
In the example shown above, structured data drove the inclusion of the image, the bylining of the article ("USA TODAY") as well as the inclusion of the snippet, which makes the article stand out in the results stream.
The bottom line is that structured data makes your web pages better and more understandable to search engines, as well as the people who use them.
How does structured data help with SEO?
Incorporating structured data into a website helps with SEO in two primary ways. First, information that is represented with structured data is very understandable to search engines, and makes it possible for search engines to display that data correctly.
Secondly, various types of structured data can be pulled out by search engines as snippets that are shown in search engine results pages (SERPs), as illustrated above. For example, the Betty Crocker site includes structured data for preparation time as well as calorie count. When Google displays these pages in its search results, this information is included — making these pages more noticeable in the results and more informative to users.
How can I learn more about structured data?
We have answered the, "What is structured data?" question, but you can learn so much more about it. There are multiple approaches to structured data, including microformats.org (more here) and schema.org. Do note there are some technical differences between the two approaches, which are worth exploring.