SEO: Breadcrumbs Are Bread-and-Butter
Some of the more subtle search engine optimizations involve engineering your web pages to influence how their listings will appear in search results. Listings with special layouts and features stand out from the crowd, inviting attention and extra clickthroughs. One effective treatment you can do is based off of a common navigation feature that may already be on your site: breadcrumbs.
Navigation breadcrumbs are common features that help users orient themselves within the hierarchical structure of large websites. A breadcrumb is a line of sequential links that frequently appear near the top of pages, below a site’s standard header masthead. Usability and user-experience (“UX”) experts such as Jakob Nielsen have recommended the use of breadcrumbs for websites since the advent of the commercial Internet — see Nielsen’s “Breadcrumb Navigation Increasingly Useful.”
Breadcrumbs help users jump up levels in the navigation structure to find other related pages, if the page they land upon doesn’t completely satisfy what they’re seeking.
Google’s interest in breadcrumbs is probably three-fold. First, the classic Google PageRank algorithm is based upon link analysis. Since breadcrumbs are a type of link, Google likely has paid particular attention to them in interpreting a site’s relational structure, enabling them to automatically construct or verify a site’s hierarchy, informing them as to which pages where most important as elements in the hierarchical tree. Which page is an end leaf, versus a twig, versus a branch, versus a primary trunk?
Secondly, breadcrumbs are typically labeled in simple, descriptive words, ideal for helping to further verify keyword relevance on web pages.
Third, Google is highly interested in the usability of its own search results pages. So much so that Jakob Nielsen — a usability pioneer — used to be one member of Google’s board of advisors, and Google continues to perform usability testing of every new feature of its search results. Part of that analysis and development strategy involves incorporating methods for reducing user actions in achieving their end goals. For instance, Google’s suggestion feature displays a list of keywords each time one begins to type a query into one of Google’s search forms, enabling users to skip the rest of their typing to click on a selection from the more popular queries beginning with the same initial typed sequence — this feature is also called “autocomplete.” Since breadcrumbs sometimes allow users to find what they’re seeking on websites, Google undoubtedly theorized that exposing these choices directly in their search results, enabling users to potentially skip the interstitial pages.
Google’s typical usability and UX testing would indicate that these breadcrumbs must be used by some degree by searchers, and therefore can be valuable to a website when they appear in search listings. So, Google began reproducing breadcrumb links in search results. Here’s an example from a search for “juicer blenders,” where a listing from Amazon.com displays breadcrumb links directly below the linked title of the page:
Here’s another example from FareCompare for a search for “cheap flights to las vegas.”
One part of Google’s original PageRank algorithm assumes that all web pages have some statistical likelihood of being visited by users – this potential was incorporated in the PageRank calculations. In a similar way, this same sort of statistical law can improve your site’s overall clickthrough rates and visits where breadcrumbs are concerned, because it stands to reason that if there are a certain number of links to web pages on search engine results pages, each link has some percentage chance of being clicked-upon. If you can increase the number of links to your site on the search results page, you also increase your odds of having one of those links clicked-upon.
In some cases, Google may automatically detect breadcrumbs on your site. But it’s most likely that you will need to apply some special coding to invoke the breadcrumb links in search results. Google’s Webmaster Tools’ help pages — “Rich snippets – Breadcrumbs” — describe how these breadcrumb treatments can be enabled through applying some semantic markup in the HTML code of your page. Google provides for two different methods: microdata or RDFa.
For example, a hypothetical site about classic American pastries could have the following breadcrumb line of links on a page about Twinkies:
Baked Goods: Snack Cakes: Hostess: Twinkies
Using the RDFa option, this could be coded like this, below.
The microdata coding option can also be used for the same web page and search results display, as follows.
While Google’s help pages note that the breadcrumb markup is experimental, it is worth using for the advantages it may lend your listings in search results now. Also, don’t worry too much about which of the two formats you use — use whichever is most compatible with your site. However, the microdata version is the more contemporary format and seems a bit more “future-proof.”
While Microsoft’s Bing search engine doesn’t display additional links in search results for breadcrumbs, it does display the breadcrumb sequence in non-linked text below the result titles, making the listing stand out slightly more, as shown below.
Generally, the addition of breadcrumb markup is pretty simple to implement. So don’t be intimidated. If your site has thousands of pages, this small code addition could greatly increase your clickthroughs over time and become a significant force for upping your game. And, those increases in clickthroughs could indirectly improve your rankings as well, since some of us within the search optimization industry theorize that clickthrough rates from search results could be a ranking factor. Either way, having this treatment appearing with your listings in Google and Bing can increase your site’s traffic.