RDFa: The Inside Story from Best Buy

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.

Best Buy and RDFa

It’s a lengthy interview, so grab some popcorn;

1. I know you’ve been interested in RDFa for some time. Was this Best Buy effort your first effort at implementation of RDFa?

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.

2. Many seem to fear that RDFa implementation is a formidable task. Others question its contribution to ROI. I would think that would make it difficult to convince some organizations to make the investment of time and/or money. How difficult was it to sell the concept internally at Best Buy?

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!

3. What medium-to-long-term benefits did you expect to see for Best Buy?

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.”

4. What benefits turned up?

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.”

5. What led you to choose RDFa over alternative formats, such as microformats or microdata?

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.”

6. What architecture strategy did you employ, and what were the specific reasons for that 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.”

7. How hard was it for Best Buy to implement RDFa? What was the methodology?

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.”

8. What are the greatest benefits you’ve seen from implementing RDFa?

The rise in our organic search traffic, and the adoption by major companies like Facebook and Google.”

9. How fast did you begin to see benefits, and what were they, intially?

Within 3 months of our initial deployment we saw a surge in our organic search engine traffic. That eventually reached 30% and held it.”
Jay Myers

10. Did you see a rankings increase on Google?

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.”

11. You said you saw about a 15% increase in CTR. Did you notice any appreciable change in your bounce rate?

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.)

12. What are your plans now?

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.”

13. Do you foresee any major impact to the acceptance and implementation of RDFa by the release of Drupal 7?

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.”

14. Any specific comments or recommendations you’d like to offer those that are either on the fence about implementing RDFa for their site, or have decided it doesn’t offer them sufficient ROI to make it worth the effort?

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.”

Making the Case for RDFa

As you can see by the results achieved by Jay’s “experiment”, the effort was well worthwhile. 30% higher organic search results and 15% higher CTR are nothing to turn your nose up at. The results showed up fast and have been sustained.

I think Jay made a very important point, when he said that implementing RDFa allowed him to, “weave meaning and rich data directly into a web page without having any impact on the front-end user experience.” Users will see nothing different on our pages. Machines, however, will be able to understand more of what our pages are about.

The second very important take-away, I think, is this: “… 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.

Just that easy.” Simply a different mindset, for the everyday developer. Or if you prefer, you can use Drupal 7, which automatically includes RDFa, or one of several WordPress plugins for the purpose. The point is, utilizing this technology is not rocket science. It can, however, take you to the stars.

Your comments and questions are welcomed. Jay will undoubtedly be stopping by, and should be able to offer clarification or further detail. You can also visit his blog, Random Musings of Jay Myers or follow him on Twitter.

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About Doc Sheldon

Doc Sheldon has been providing SEO consulting services for 14 years. His passions are technical on-page SEO and the Semantic Web. Fluent in Spanish, he has also provided consulting services to several large clients, specializing in cross-border operations in Latin America.

Early on, he saw exciting potential for those who could figure out what the search engines might do next, and were willing to work within the guidelines set by the search engines. To that end, he first founded his content strategy agency, and later launched his SEO agency, now serving clients on four continents with content, WP website customization and SEO services.

13 Comments

  1. Great to see an interview like this one that goes into some depth – nice work, Doc.

    Hope that Jay does indeed have the opportunity to drop by again, because I have a standing question about the 30@ Best Buy organic search traffic boost so often cited as a benefit of an RDFa implementation.

    Simply put, were there any other notable changes to the front- or back-end of the site around the time of the RDFa implementation, or in the months immediately preceding it? Obviously if this is the case then it is, unfortunately, very difficult to determine to which degree the structured data was responsible for observed SEO benefits.

    I ask this not as a detractor (I’m a big advocate of employing semantic web technologies in aid of findability and search engine visibility), but (at least in part) as an ecommerce SEO with little in the way of the reliable data concerning the SEO impact of structured data. If on could reliable assert that, say, a GoodRelations implementation is likely to result in a 25% increase in search traffic, then it becomes a no-brainer for almost any ecommerce site with at least nominal search traction.

  2. Oops – the “30@” in my comment should of course read “30%.”

  3. I think if you are looking at RDFa for a boost… it is almost impossible to tell as it is likely done during a re-build. But it is a low cost add on. I don’t believe for a minute there are problems implementing… the problem is applying the proper values/labels to your goods.

    It is the future as machine language makes more sense then managing multiple feeds… it standardizes it…

  4. @Aaron – Thanks for chiming in, Aaron! As I understand it, Jay undertook the RDFa upgrade in increments of editing the existing pages, versus a redesign, per se. I got the impression that there were no other substantial changes made at the same time (excepting, I’m sure, the routine updates for price changes, new products, etc.). I’m hoping that he will stop by here to clarify that.
    Even so, the increase of organic search traffic can only be seen as a bulk effect, rather than being attributable to any particular portion of the upgrade. For my purposes, that’s sufficient, as increased traffic (especially more targeted traffic) and a higher CTR are meaningful enough, by themselves.
    My hope is that documented results such as Yahoo’s study, and the benefits resulting from the efforts of Best Buy and others will continue to demonstrate that RDFa is a technology well worth adopting.

  5. [quote name=”Terry Van Horne”]I think if you are looking at RDFa for a boost… it is almost impossible to tell as it is likely done during a re-build. But it is a low cost add on. I don’t believe for a minute there are problems implementing… the problem is applying the proper values/labels to your goods.

    It is the future as machine language makes more sense then managing multiple feeds… it standardizes it…[/quote]

    @Terry-
    I think you’re right about it being difficult to attribute any benefits to RDFa or any other technique after a total rebuild, Terry. The only way to really do so is to ensure that only one factor varies, which we all know is all but impossible.
    Of course, you’re right… it’s a low cost add-on, that seems to offer some substantial benefit, especially to an ecommerce site. I’m a little puzzled as to why so many folks seem to feel it’s so difficult to implement. It just requires a slightly different mindset during coding… a relatively minor adjustment, IMO.

  6. Aaron, those are absolutely fair questions. I can’t find the article at the moment, but Solutions Answers Results (http://www.saresults.com/) published an article a while ago where they said:

    “Tests we conducted using GoodRelations in a website sales page found that the website went from being at the bottom of Google search results Page 6 to being on the first page in position Number Three in 4 weeks over the extremely competitive Christmas/New Year period. A 10x improvement on highly-targeted web traffic. (At least!)”

    This suggests that no other factors such as URL form, page templates or anything else were done at the same time. Until Google actually copped to indexing this stuff, I still felt uncomfortable attributing it to just the RDFa, but now that they have (http://ht.ly/33muW), and with results like the above, I am more comfortable doing so.

  7. @Brian-
    I found the article you mentioned, at http://www.saresults.com/articles/demand/how-to-get-ranked-without-resorting-to-outdated-seo-tactics/, but it doesn’t really seem to give any detail at all about their test method. So it’s impossible to quantify the effects of RDFa implementation on their results.
    For my part, however, I’m comfortable that the increased visibility has to yield some benefits. My next site will be going live with RDFa incorporated into the design.
    Thanks for your comment.

  8. Doc, I think “Tests we conducted using GoodRelations in a website sales page” is pretty descriptive as well as defining the scope of what they did. The entire result doesn’t make sense if that isn’t what it meant.

  9. Great interview Doc. It does leave one wondering if implementing these semantic markup tags doesn’t make life too easy for scrapers? Not all scrapers – in fact, very few – have good intentions, and by implementing RDFa, microformats or microdata you make it much easier for others to steal your content. Isn’t that a big worry?

  10. @Barry if Google does get attribution right then scrapers are “citation/link” targets. Also it means coupon and feed sites become much easier to manage … makes the product feed redundant 😉

  11. [quote name=”Terry Van Horne”]if Google does get attribution right[/quote]

    That’s a mighty big “if”, T-Meister. 🙂

  12. Thanks for the follow-up responses Doc and Brian. It will be interesting to see how your RDFa site does, Doc – keep us posted as much as disclosure allows.

    Barry, I’m actually writing something that deals with possible exploits of structured data – I’ll ping you when it’s up.

  13. Really, really nice to read this! Not a lot of interviews with ‘the guys behind’. Compliments!

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