There has been a flurry of chatter around the potential impact of RDFa on SEO after my brief presentation at SES Chicago 2009. In subsequent conversations with SEOs at the SES conference and folks from around the industry, I was surprised at how many people practicing SEO weren’t involving their web developers in their solutions, but rather focusing mostly on content, linking and social strategies. While these solutions are key in any SEO activities, the fact that our panel discussion and presentation was the only one involving code and coding techniques surprised me. This raises an interesting question: are many SEOs missing a core element to success, namely well structured, semantically-rich core web sites?
One can look at the current state of HTML on many web sites as an indicator of where people are focusing their efforts. The research performed to create the hProduct Microformat draft spec gives some good insight as to the condition of front-end HTML code. For years we have been building web sites mostly for visual, presentational (human-readable) purposes, and this is clear in many pages of source code analyzed for the hProduct spec. Luckily, search engines have done an incredible job of parsing out the junk and extracting the contextual and important data from billions of web pages. Machines have become vital to helping us learn, but up to this point there has been an imbalance in human-readable vs. machine-readable front-end code. Now there are emerging techniques and technologies that web developers can easily use to correct this by coding their pages to give them meaning to humans AND machines.
By combining rich front-end user and data experiences utilizing RDFa, Microformats, or the emerging Microdata spec, we build direct pathways to rich datasets, which enable machines (mostly search engines, but also next-gen parsers, browser plugins, etc.) to easily access important data and apply their algorithms, etc., to make sense of it all and index it in the ways they see fit. My personal theory is that by providing more direct access to data through front-end semantic code, machines will spend fewer CPU cycles parsing presentational code. These extra resources could then be re-allocated to better natural language processing, extending search into the “deep web”, or other efforts to make the web and it’s users smarter.
Of course this has implications to the SEO/SEM world. It forces SEO professionals to engage their web developers or become slightly more code savvy themselves. It shifts more emphasis on developing strong, data-driven semantic web sites that balance the visual needs of humans and the data needs of machines, rather than focusing on seemingly artificial techniques that increase “link juice” or utilize “secret sauce”. Using traditional SEO content strategies in combination with building strong data-rich web sites can lead to a more intelligent and useful web, which is ultimately good for businesses, users and consumers.