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GS1 SmartSearch – a new standard for the web, supporting ecommerce

Date: November 18, 2015

Category: Industry news

Author: David Smith

At our recent AGM and briefing session - Unlocking the power of standards – David Smith, Head of Digital, introduced a new GS1 standard that will transform how we find products on the web.

There’s a lot more to the web pages that we browse than simply the content we consume and enjoy. This top layer of rich content is focused on us, as humans. We’re able to view, read and understand, placing this content into its intended context. Machines however can’t.

For a web page to be displayed in the results page for a particular query, a web crawler must have visited the page and indexed it. But, for a page to be related to a query the web crawler has to understand the content and identify it as relatable. To help this process web developers and Search Engine Optimizers (SEOs) use signals of various types to help give pointers and sign post what a page is about.

As search engines and their crawlers have become smarter, so have SEOs and web developers – giving clearer signals, improving search and increasing usability.

One such innovation has been the introduction of structured data, enabling crawlers to have points of reference to link millions of pages across the web. Digital marketers are now able to ‘markup’ their pages with a list of attributes, and assign values to these attributes for the crawler to index against this page.

Working with the world’s major search engines and, GS1 has announced release of our new standard, GS1 SmartSearch. Embedding the use of Global Trade Item Numbers (GTINs) into the web, this new standard will enable brands and retailers to take how they describe their products in the physical world and add this to their descriptions online – in an accessible way for search engines to understand.

David was joined on stage by Nick Lansley, Director and Innovation Insider, ex- Tesco Labs, for a question and answer session to explore the rich potential of GS1 SmartSearch.

Why is GS1 involved in this?

GS1 defines the vocabulary retailers use to describe their products. This description is then tied to a unique identifier for the product, what we call a Global Trade Item Number – the number that sits behind a barcode – which is licensed by GS1 UK. For 40 years this has enabled products in the physical world to be accurately identified and described.

Through GS1 Smart Search, these same products can be accurately represented in the digital world. This has led to GS1 being uniquely positioned, thanks to its membership, to provide a digital standard for product identification and data as good as the barcode.

Why do we need this standard?

Today 50% of shopping journeys start online, and 80% of online shopping starts with Google Search. Product information represented as ‘structured data’ makes it easier for Google and other search services to read and understand this data, and index it more accurately.

That sounds technical, what exactly is structured data and why is it so good?

Structured data is text representing data in a format easily read by computers. We call it ‘machine-readable’. A product description web page is designed to be read by humans. This makes it challenging for machines reading the product data. For example, a washing machine with a value ‘1500rpm’. A human knows what this mean. However, a search engine-indexing spider cannot.

A structured data format creates ‘name value pairs’. So if we stick with our washing machine example, we can assign an attribute of spin speed, with a value of ‘1500rpm’. When a search crawler then visits this page, it will then understand the value and what it relates to. With this added layer of context to the value, it can add the product to the search index accurately and deliver a better search relevance.

So if I add structured data to my web pages it will help search engines index the page better. I get that, but won’t the page look a bit rubbish for human readers?

The structured data is ‘hidden’ from the web page we see in our browsers. Using a script format called ‘JavaScript Object Notation’.

Web designers can then create great web pages for human readers without messing up the Google page ranking. Spiders will spot the structured data and index that data instead.

Ok, that still sounds a bit technical! Are retailers going to need specialist developers to add the structured data to their web pages?

Yes they are… but in truth they already have them. Front-end developers. Web page designers have all the skills to do this. There’s no need to pull ecommerce platform apart. It’s simple and easy.

There is a bit of technical work, then. So what benefits are there to brands and retailers?

Brands can create GS1 SmartSearch formatted product descriptions to make available to retailers, enabling them to have a greater level of ownership of their product data that is displayed online.

Meanwhile retailers are able to make better looking web pages without damaging their page ranking – using data from brands where applicable. They can still add their own unique selling points from price, offers, availability, and even their own ‘voice’ to the descriptions.

Ok, but will it actually improve the sales of my products?

Yes. Customers reaching a retailer’s product pages arrive due to a better search relevance meaning that the product is more likely to be what they are looking for. So it won’t just create more click-throughs, but vitally more clicks to buy.

So…what about returns? Do you think it could help with returned products?

Yes, better control and ownership of the product data that is used on web pages means better descriptions. And, a better informed customer is less likely to be disappointed with their purchase and return.

So you’re saying that using GS1 Smart Search on my retail site will drive more customers to it?

Like any new innovation, early adopters get a ‘first mover’ advantage. So in the case of GS1 SmartSearch they may see an improved page ranking on the search engine results page. But as we’ve already said, this won’t just drive more people to your product’s page, but more relevant and interested customers.

Slides from the session

Read more about search and SEO and the benefits structured data provides

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GS1 UK Annual Review

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