What is structured content?
Structured content refers to the concept of organizing and treating digital content like data. Publishing content as modular, discrete pieces of information that are tagged with machine-readable descriptions can transform how people find, understand, share, use, and reuse government information.
Why is structured content important?
According to analytics.USA.gov, most people today use mobile devices to view government websites. Structuring content allows it to be separated from presentation, making information easier to consume on devices with small screens. Content published on static HTML web pages (“unstructured” content) doesn’t always adapt well to smaller screens, and it’s harder to discover, share, or reuse.
Structured content gives you granular control over your information, so you can Create Once, Publish Everywhere (known as the COPE model), instead of re-creating similar content for different platforms.
Search engines use structured content to deliver more meaningful descriptions in search results. The more context and information you provide about your content, the more machine-readable it becomes, enabling web services and search engines to get your content to the people who need it. Social media platforms also use structured content to ensure your content appears in an easy-to-read way when you promote it on their network.
Additionally, adding context to content helps all types of predictive artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms make better predictions for users. It also supports aggregation and reuse of information via Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds, which automatically publish frequently changing information, and application programming interfaces (APIs), which enable websites, programs, and devices to interact with one another. AI, RSS, and APIs can automate many tasks, and automatically present information. The effectiveness of these technologies can be greatly increased by structured content.
As an example, if you publish information about an event as structured content, the same event information could be displayed as part of a calendar of events, or published via a news feed, or aggregated with other related events via an API. Your event can also be highlighted in an infobox alongside search results on commercial search engines. A short description of the event could display on the smaller screen of a mobile device, and a longer description could display on a laptop. The possibilities are endless, and structured content is your way to leverage all these possibilities.
How to create structured content
Structure content by adding metadata (“data about data”). Metadata is a way to tag pieces of content with information describing what the content is about.
Web pages typically consist of several common pieces of information, such as titles, dates, descriptions, or contributors. It’s important to describe things consistently by using a common taxonomy and controlled vocabularies. When you add metadata to your content that consistently identifies and describes each of these elements, you’ve created structured content.
Examples of how to define and apply metadata include:
- GOV.UK Taxonomy principles - How to apply a common taxonomy to content.
- DHS Lexicon | Homeland Security - The controlled vocabulary DHS uses to consistently define common terms used across the agency.
Popular search engines also provide helpful tips on how to use structured data to mark up your content:
- Introduction to structured data markup in Google Search - Produce richer search results
- Marking up your site with structured data in Bing Webmaster Tools - Annotate structured content to stand out in search results
To understand how structured data can affect search results, read this case study on how USA.gov added SpecialAnnouncement markup to make COVID-19 information easier to find on search engines.
This approach makes it easier for people to find, understand, and use government information. The key is to think about your content as building blocks, instead of pages.
What can I do next?
You can test whether your public web pages contain rich results with several free online tools, such as the Schema Markup Validator. Enter a few URLs into the tool to see if your pages have structured data markup or not.
Then, use this information to kick off a conversation with the developers on your team to improve the markup on your site. The best time to start is now.