Schema Story: Ryan Rodden, Witblade

This Schema Story features Ryan Rodden from Philadelphia, the founder of Witblade.  What we love about Ryan’s interview is his detailed understanding of schema.org and his passion for understanding where Google is taking this field. How does he “sell” schema work? He shows his clients an example, maybe wow them a little bit results and then convinces them that it has to be done.  If I’m doing this job, we’re gonna do scheme.org.  This is Ryan’s Schema Story!


Tell us a bit about yourself and your company.
I studied english in college, I was not a tech guy at all. I’ve spent almost a decade in the advertising agency world. Everywhere from pharmaceutical marketing to giant e-commerce platforms. I actually didn’t do SEO a lot in that time, believe it or not, but I got to know the whole development process cycle – content writing, graphic design, WordPress, things like that. Overtime I just sort of  decided that I was obsessed with the idea of marketing, especially online marketing. I think all of us can agree in SEO that becoming an affiliate marketer that makes a ton of money on the side would be great; just from the sheer, sheer power of SEO and internet marketing. So that’s how I got into it.  As I started learning WordPress and looked up resources online, YouTube videos, learned how to blog, things like that I just sort of started getting into the SEO space, pretty aggressively. Which led me to start my own business. I do a lot of the SEO work itself but I also consult which led me to Schema.org.

When did you first learn about Schema.org and semantic marketing? What was it that interested you?
It definitely happened when I started hanging out with really nerdy SEOs. You talked to people about SEO and they talk about backlinks and great content and all that and then occasionally you’ll get on a webinar with people or you read a blog and somebody gets really technical and nerdy on you. I remember reading an article about Schema.org and basically the idea of giving Google extra metadata or just giving them extra information. This has been around for a while now, it’s 2016 now but this has been around for a long time and I don’t know if people have largely ignored it or they just didn’t find it worth doing at the time or maybe Google hadn’t given it the weight that it deserved then and maybe they are now. So once I stumbled upon Schema.org or just the semantic web in general, I obsessively researched it and obviously that leads you to schema.org itself. I think the first thing I ever looked at was the schema hierarchy and that one page that just has pretty much every ‘thing’, imaginable on one gigantic page. When I saw that page I started to really understand what it was. You can go read about schema.org and it’s not really clear if you’re a newbie and you’re not really sure what they’re talking about and then when you see the classification, the hierarchy, you can kind of understand what the goal is.

In your words, in one sentence, how do you describe semantic marketing?
If I was going to describe it to a client I would just describe it in a way that says “I’m going to utilize technology to the to the highest capability, with industry-standard best practices, to give Google what they want. They want data and they want information and if they have to just scrape your HTML website it can be really hard to discern that. So they are saying, you know based on new technology, here’s what we want you to do and if you don’t have an SEO person or marketing person or tech person that’s aware of these new technologies you can’t take advantage of it.” So that’s how I explain it.

What do you see as the value of doing schema.org markup when the value is being debated? Is rich snippets the be all and end all or is it something else?
A lot of people might say “oh it’s not really worth doing, I never see rich snippets yet, I’m not seeing a lot of increased traffic from having schema.” The thing you have to think about is that, just because you put schema on your site that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to get any immediate results or you’re not gonna get rich snippets or you not going to be in the knowledge graph. What you have to understand is you should give Google schema to consider so that in the future when they flip a switch and they decide to add things to the knowledge graph or give you a monstrous chunk of rich snippets that you are eligible for that. You might add a giant schema chunk to your website today but not until September or sometime later this year, does Google make a change and all of a sudden they are using all of that great information that you’re giving them. So the idea is to just be ahead of the game and be ready. I think Aaron Bradley had a great way of describing it: almost as if you’re creating a database on your website, that’s almost like an API connection, so that when Google wants something they go to the source, which is your website, and then they pull all this great information from it, that you provide it, and if you don’t provide that information then you’re not going to be eligible for the cool rich snippets or that awesome new knowledge graph. I’m actually seeing some really cool medical related knowledge graphs today. Yes, so you see some of those, you know, that are really cool when it seems like Google is generating all that information by extracting it from authority sites and things and this is all stuff that they’re probably gonna test and make people eligible for but if you’re not in the game, too bad.  

What have been some of the challenges when you’ve been trying to figure out schema.org as well as execute it?
So at first, I stumbled upon the micro data format where you kind of do it in line and a challenge at first was, “how do I apply this to somebody’s website right?” I actually do not have a development background, I go pretty much as far as a nerdy WordPress guy, but I don’t know PHP, I don’t know JavaScript, I don’t know programming languages. So at first my challenge was understanding that you actually don’t really need to know JavaScript or programming to do this. When somebody was like “Oh well Ryan you have to add like a JSON-LD snippet or chunk to your pages and you have to put in the head of your website” you know I can add code to the head of my website, but I was immediately confused or didn’t understand and possibly even intimidated by the fact that I had to create a JavaScript chop, because I don’t know JavaScript. So, at first the challenge was just understanding and learning the fact that this is actually not that difficult. And I know you guys are creating awesome tools where you just fill in the information and bam, you have it like that, which is awesome! But that’s the challenge, a lot of people say ‘I don’t wanna learn it’s too complex’ or ‘I don’t know how to code so I can’t do it.’ You do not need to know how to code to add schema.org. It can be challenging to add it to a really large website but just to get the basics down, you can learn it in one day. Now, the other challenge is understanding the hierarchy and how the types work. So if you’re on schema.org and if you’re looking up the code for person, you have to understand the properties. So the property column and the expected type column are challenging at first to understand what the search engines are looking for when it comes to the actual data that you’re creating because you want to try to drill down and get as specific as possible. You can start really broad as a ‘thing’ at the top and then you can give Google like a really broad chunk but learning how to really drill down and make it specific is the challenge.

And how have you solved that? What are some of the ways you have learned to do that better?
Just doing it, over and over and over. So I would have test websites, I would have client websites. Now clients I wouldn’t necessarily just grab a chunk and throw up like a test block or anything. I would always test first. The Google structured data testing tool is the best way to learn because you can build your schema right in there, if you want to, or anything that you build tool you can drop in there and check to see if it works. As long as it’s passing the test you can start to understand what they’re looking for and then you can start expanding it to really large blocks of data. So if you look at any one of the ‘things’ under schema.org some of them have like 40 properties. Most people had like three: the name, the address, a date or something, but you could add like 40 different properties. So at that point is just a matter of organizing it all into a nice big block, and that’s what your tool does really well, and add all those fields and toss it on your website.

What do you think are some of the challenges mid and large size agencies are going to have as they try to adopt this to scale?
I think e-commerce sites are probably going to see the greatest benefit right away versus somebody that has a client that has 50,000 web pages and you said “Ok we need to deploy code on every single one of these pages.” Now if you’re a one man shop like me, it could be really difficult to take on a challenge like that unless you had something to help you. First, you would have to convince the client or the developer or whoever owns the website that this metadata is important and get their buy-in. That’s kind of like the opening challenge. I think moving forward into the future, what you want to do is show live examples and what I do is I show restaurant menus. If you go and google something like Wildflower Bread Company menu, you can actually see Google build menus right in the search results. So you can show clients live examples of schema in the works and just wow them. Especially if it has a huge blogging presence you can convince them that they might be eligible for Google News or ‘”You know you might be right at the top with rich snippets if you have all this stuff marked up and you guys publish as much as you do. So you have an extra 50,000 opportunities for all the articles that you have, you really need to do this!” So that’s my approach, to show an example, maybe wow them a little bit and then convince them that it has to be done.  If I’m doing this job, we’re gonna do scheme.org.

You recently posted about schema.org, entities and the future of search. Can you tell us a bit about your thoughts on where this is going?
If you read the Google patents that have come out in the last couple of months and also the changing of the guard when it comes to who is running Google search it sounds like they’re definitely going down the artificial intelligence path. A patent that came out in February said that they are clearly training rank brain or whatever it is to understand and identify entities. Right, so if you ask Google who is the president of the United States, it will say Barack Obama. It’s not gonna send you to a website to give you that answer. Google seems like they’re trying to become an answer engine rather that search engine. So at any time they can just give you the answer  rather than sending you to a website. It seems like they prefer to do that. But the only way they can do that is if they can definitively identify, what they call entities, or in schema.org terms a ‘thing.’  So if you have the word ‘bat’ – b a t –   without semantics it’s unclear whether that’s a baseball bat, whether that’s an animal, or whether I batted away a volleyball. The word itself is not enough but if you can attach meaning to it, like animal, now you’re talking about the entity that the animal is. Now Google goes ‘Oh, right you’re talking about the animal.’ That chaps away all of that extraneous crap that they don’t have to think about when trying to figure out what your site is about. You can also do this with companies. So you can say I’m declaring this company as an entity, they are cleaning company or they are an insurance agency and, like I said, this might not pay off right away, but as machine learning gets better, you’re going to train it to understand that this is what people are looking for. They’re not looking for a baseball bat, they’re looking for the animal, the bat or they’re not looking for a cleaning company in Texas when they are in Philly, so you can give better location based results. It seems very clear that moving forward, technology and artificial intelligence are going to advance very fast and the ways in which people can experiment with the data that they have, has showed great results in both mobile and desktop, is going to vastly change in the next couple of years. You also have to consider voice search, and the other ways in which people search now. A lot of times, with text search, people just throw keywords in the search bar sporadically. But with voice search people actually talk like “I need a laundromat that’s one mile away right” or they say things, they say like a sentence. So if you’re trying to train artificial intelligence to understand that, it’s going to be more difficult. I mean if you’re not focusing on voice search at all, and you offer voice search then it’s going to be very problematic but if you can help the machine learn over time and we can tell that these things are getting extremely powerful, you saw that game of go. A world champion of the game go, which is far more complex than chess, was defeated by artificial intelligence. Who knows what’s really in store. I even sometimes go as far as to not even believe what Google says sometimes because I think they’re trying to mislead you little bit, and you should just stick to your guns and know that schema.org is an awesome asset to your website. Just believe in it and just move forward. So whatever they say, they might just be playing around with stuff, they might try to fool people into thinking one way, but if you have it, just put it there, relax and move onto the next item.

What is your go to blog to learn about what’s going on in structured data and semantic marketing?
Definitely, Aaron Bradley’s SEO Skeptic. I go to the community for interaction in news but he seems to be the guy that just honestly keeps up with it. He’s very technical. That’s where I go.

If people want to connect with you, what’s the best way to find you?
You can find me in the semantic group that we’re apart of. You can also find me at witblade.com, that’s where I blog. You can find me on LinkedIn and social media.  

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