HTML5's new semantic tags - what's the SEO value?

SEO may have evolved dramatically over the years, but one constant throughout has been Google's mission: to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. As a result, Google have been constantly striving to improve their algorithm. The more advanced the algorithm becomes, the better equipped it is to serve user requests. This ensures the search engine is a better product, consolidating Google's market share.

Fulfilling this mission has been the driving force behind the algorithm updates, which were so keenly felt with the release of the Florida Update in 2003 and then the May Day Update in 2010. However; this was nothing compared to the shockwaves caused by the first iterations of Google Panda and Penguin, first introduced in February 2011 and April 2012 respectively.

It is this concept of striving to provide high quality content and websites to users that has got me thinking about the future of SEO.

At a fundamental level HTML is the bedrock of SEO, links are the driving force, but HTML is the foundation. Getting your site right from a technical stand point in the beginning is a crucial part of any campaign and Google stress this in their guidelines:

"Make your site easily accessible"

Making your site more accessible seems a no brainer. It makes sense to create website content that is accessible from a technical standpoint; content should be correctly tagged and have a clear internal linking structure, as well as a defined page hierarchy and architecture.

Indeed, recent updates have focused on rewarding sites that offer responsive mobile design. This is all driven by Google's mission to have more accessible sites in the SERPs, websites that deliver - high quality, relevant websites and content to users.

Semantic tags & HTML5 - before & after

Historically, accessibility has been defined by the following HTML semantic tags:

  • <h1>

  • <h2>

  • <title>

  • <p>

  • <ul>

  • <ol>

These tags form the basis for on-page SEO, with some of the most important tags in the optimisation process (i.e. title and h1) contained within this list.

With the release of HTML5 we've seen the introduction of some interesting new semantic tags; and it is these tags that interest me:

  • <article>

  • <aside>

  • <details>

  • <figcaption>

  • <figure>

  • <footer>

  • <header>

  • <main>

  • <mark>

  • <nav>

  • <section>

  • <summary>

  • <time>

Fundamentally these tags exist to give context, semantic meaning and assign value to your content. Using these tags you could provide better structure in your document, and provide contextually rich information to robots, page readers, and potentially, search engines.

How & why would Google use HTML5 semantic tags?

There are a few reasons why HTML5 semantic tags could be (or may already be) adopted by Google to make sense of content or grade content and websites:

1) It is well known that the standard HTML semantic tags (title, h1, etc) are used by Google and other search engines as a core ranking metric. It therefore seems a logical progression of current practice for search engines to adopt the new HTML5 semantic tags into the algorithm.

2) We know that Google has readily adopted structured data in the form of Schema, allowing webmasters to mark-up content to provide extra context and value to users in the SERPs.

3) Apart from giving context to content, semantic tags can also be used to assign priority to sections of content. Considering one of the benefits of an XML Sitemap is that you can assign priority pages, there are clear similarities between the function of the Sitemap and the HTML5 semantic tags (albeit at a content structure, rather than site architecture level).

4) Many of the factors that are important to on-page SEO are intended to aid crawlers, by either giving content context or helping with site accessibility (such as the sitemap and standard HTML semantic tags). Generally speaking, the more information and assistance you provide crawlers with, the higher the rewards.

WAI ARIA Role Attributes

In addition to the standard HTML5 semantic tags, WAI ARIA role attributes can be used to mark-up content and give even further context to your content. Roles are categorised as Abstract, Widget, Document Structure and Landmark Roles; below are some examples:

  • article

  • columnheader

  • definition

  • group

  • heading

  • list

  • presentation

  • application

  • banner

  • complementary

  • contentinfo

  • form

  • main

  • navigation

  • search

Currently, there is no hard evidence or official statement from Google that they have been adopted as a ranking metric in the algorithm. However;there is also no evidence that they have not, or will not be incorporated in the future.

Very little literature or case studies exist to explore the SEO potential in these tags. I have started testing and will produce a case study in the next couple of months with my findings so watch this space. Feel free to leave comments below, any extra insights would be helpful!

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