|RDFa: The Inside Story from Best Buy|
|Written by Doc Sheldon|
|Monday, 07 February 2011 06:08|
An Interview with Jay Myers
Late last year, I approached Jay Myers, Lead Development Engineer for Best Buy, and asked him if he’d be willing to be interviewed about his project of implementing RDFa on Best Buy’s web site. He accepted, and we began exchanging information, a process that culminated in a voice interview last Monday.
It’s a lengthy interview, so grab some popcorn;
“Yes. It’s going on three years since our first foray into heavy duty Semantic Web coding. I initially started out using microformats, but found that RDFa (and subsequently microdata) was a more powerful and stable coding methodology based on many years of work in academia and by semantic web practitioners.”
Jay went on to say that in the beginning, he played a part in reviving a microformat called hProduct. He was attempting to address some issues using code and the microformats he was using weren’t meeting his needs. That’s when he realized that RDFa was more robust, offering more flexibility. That’s also about the time that he made contact with Dr. Martin Hepp, developer of the Good Relations ontology, with whom he began to communicate closely.
“Initially we didn’t do any “selling” of the concept…it was something I worked into a project as an experiment. The great thing about RDFa is the ability to weave meaning and rich data directly into a web page without having any impact on the front-end user experience.”
Expanding on this, Jay says he was simply experimenting initially, in an effort to see if they could incorporate RDFa into some of their 1,100 stores’ pages, without any adverse affects. “Management doesn’t read code”, he said. So with no front-end impact, he didn’t have to sell the concept, he just did it!
“We really didn’t go into it with any expectations. We just wanted to see if it was something we might want to do. That’s why we were caught by surprise by the results… we weren’t really expecting any.”
“Within just a couple of months, we began to see an increase in our organic search results. Before long, it had increased by 30% over historical rates. We also saw an increase in our click-through rate. Yahoo did a study a while back and found that people that had rich snippets on the results pages were seeing around a 15% increase in CTR, which has proven to be the case for us. And of course, it makes our web site “smarter” and more open to machines, which ultimately benefits customers.”
“I found that RDFa was a much more stable concept – based on the use of long established vocabularies (also known as ontologies) that have existed for years. My first foray into giving objects better definition on the web was revitalizing the hProduct microformat. Working through that implementation I found limitations in microformats that left me searching for a “beefier” solution. At the time, microdata hadn’t hit the scene yet, so RDFa was the natural choice.”
“Initially, we deployed RDFa markup through our local stores’ WordPress blogs simply by weaving the rich markup and attributes into the WordPress themes. An advantage to “front-end semantics” is that a developer or team doesn’t have to use a particular platform or employ a particular arch strategy to populate their sites with rich data. A savvy developer could hand code the stuff into their work just as easily as adopting a semantic-specific platform.”
“Initially, implementing RDFa was a personal challenge, as a developer has to shift their development mindset and consider not only what the visual output of the code is, but what the machine output is as well. Outside of a couple of extra validation steps to confirm the RDFa output could be successfully distilled by machines and software, the coding methodology really didn’t change that much. Over the past two years I have worked hard to automatically build semantics into my project methodologies – making it a standard rather than a separate implementation step.”
“The rise in our organic search traffic, and the adoption by major companies like Facebook and Google.”
“Within 3 months of our initial deployment we saw a surge in our organic search engine traffic. That eventually reached 30% and held it.”
“This is hard to tell – I’ve had a difficult time separating search traffic from scraper applications utilizing traditional web analytics. To my knowledge, there are a handful of interested individuals running distilling and parsing software against our RDFa pages.”
“Not really. Some stores, of course, may be less active on their blog, and they see a higher bounce rate because of that, but that’s something we want to watch closer.”
(This started out as an experiment, so the results caught them by surprise. They hadn’t really been monitoring to the extent they might have, had they expected such results.)
“We’re continuing to implement RDFa on product pages across our various web properties and have our attention focused on the perceived impact that rich RDFa markup could have on sales numbers.”
“Kudos to the Drupal folks for implementing semantics into their CMS. I believe that the Drupal 7 release will make semantics even more accessible than ever before to everyday developers (and many people with no dev experience working on the web) , and allow them to easily open up and release useful data through RDFa.”
“There’s definitely a benefit in being an early adopter, that’s one thing. Additionally, with RDFa, we’re getting closer to the Semantic Web. Tim Berners Lee is the one asking for our data, and I think it makes sense to do that. RDFa is one of the… what I call a gateway drug… to the Semantic Web.
You don’t have to be an expert, you can be an every day developer or somebody that uses a tool like Drupal or another CMS to put out rich data in RDFa. So I think it’s not as hard as people make it out to be. Again, it was more of an experiment for us, it wasn’t a hard-core effort, and the hope is that we can make this part of the everyday development, just like coding HTML… it should be just that easy.
We’re seeing a lot of adopters, including some big names, like Google with its rich snippets and also Facebook. Facebook has something called the Open Graph, that also uses RDFa and rich data. So there’s a benefit there, and I see more adoption by the larger and more important firms. It just makes sense. We’re living in a world where there’s a huge amount of data on the web, and it’s only going to continue to get larger. And I don’t believe that current or traditonal SEO practices, page sculpting, things like that… I think that can only go so far. But traditional SEO efforts, in combination with RDFa and some more development-centered efforts, can really go a long way for people. So that would be my words of encouragement.
We’re starting, as the Semantic Web community, to engage the SEO community a little bit more, to try and get everybody on the same page. So I’m going to be speaking in Austin on March 1st, at the Semantic Web Meetup there. What I’m trying to do is tailor this message not only to a technical audience, but to the SEO audience, too. There is an effort now to try to tie development and SEO together. The more rich data we have on the web, the better off we’re going to be.”
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