The Rich Snippet And The Prisoners’ Dilemma

Posted on April 23, 2012

Marking up your content with Schema and RDF code is a good idea. At least in the short term. If we look at the rich snippet markup through a prisoners dilemma perspective, it might not seem as such a good long term strategy.

The Prisoners Dilemma

You might very well know the prisoners dilemma. But in case you don’t, the Library Of Economics And Liberty sums it up nicely:

The police have arrested two suspects and are interrogating them in separate rooms. Each can either confess, thereby implicating the other, or keep silent. No matter what the other suspect does, each can improve his own position by confessing. If the other confesses, then one had better do the same to avoid the especially harsh sentence that awaits a recalcitrant holdout. If the other keeps silent, then one can obtain the favorable treatment accorded a state’s witness by confessing. Thus, confession is the dominant strategy for each. But when both confess, the outcome is worse for both than when both keep silent.

 - Library Of Economics And Liberty

As the illustration shows, both subjects can get 1 year prison if they both remain silent. If one prisoner confesses and the other doesn’t, the one who confesses get 0 years and the silent one 20 years. This means that both prisoners have an incentive to confess, entailing they each end up with 5 years in prison. A very suboptimal outcome, as they could have gotten away with 1 year each.

The point of the prisoners dilemma is that everyone would be better off if they could cooperate. Alas, cooperation is impossible, because everyone has an incentive to cheat.

Rich Snippets In A Prisoners Dilemma Context

Okay, so what does this have to do with rich snippet markup? Right now, everyone has an incentive to implement rich snippets. The first-order effect is improved CTR from SERPs, which might have some second-order ranking benefits. In short, rich snippets = win. Or so it seems.

For the real winner of the rich snippet markup in the long run is Google. As The Wall Street Journal reported:

Under the shift, people who search for “Lake Tahoe” will see key “attributes” that the search engine knows about the lake, such as its location, altitude, average temperature or salt content. In contrast, those who search for “Lake Tahoe” today would get only links to the lake’s visitor bureau website, its dedicated page on Wikipedia.com, and a link to a relevant map.

For a more complex question such as, “What are the 10 largest lakes in California?” Google might provide the answer instead of just links to other sites.

And guess what. Whenever Google nails this, a lot of web content is not going to see as much traffic anymore. The irony of it all is that it is largely the Schema data and rich snippet markup that enables Google to do this.

For example, websites doing live coverage of champions league matches probably lost a lot of traffic after Google implemented this:

But at least someone got a link for recap and box scores. But in the next example, Google is generously borrowing data from Freebase, without attributing a link in the SERP:

So if all websites in the world could collaborate, everyone (but Google, in this case playing the role of the police) would be better off in the long term. But right now, You, I, and everyone else have an incentive to mark up content with schema data to get more traffic. And it works. At least in the short term.

Ps. Although for other reasons, counter-rich snippet initiatives are already starting. For example: Why I Am Removing Google Authorship, and the possibilities of De-Authorship.

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