Google Patent on Displaying Breadcrumb Links in Search Results

Once upon a time, when you searched the Web at Google, the results displayed were limited to a list of 10 pages with page title, snippet of text from meta description or page content, and URL to that page. We’ve been seeing the search engines diversifying what they might display for certain pages, with special formats for things like forum posts, Q&A listings, pages that include events, and sometimes sitelinks or quicklinks to other pages as well.

The URL shown for some pages might have hinted at the structure of sites and locations of pages within a site hierarchy, if they showed directories and subdirectories within paths to pages. Some websites include breadcrumb navigation on their pages to show you more explicitly where you might be at within a site, and provide an easy way to visit higher categories. Google has started showing those breadcrumb listings for some pages, to make those listings more useful for searchers, and to make it more clear where those pages are within the hierarchy of a site.

An example from the patent of the search engine showing breadcrumb links in a search result instead of a URL for the page listed.

A decision by Google as to whether or not to include breadcrumb navigation within an augmented search result might depend upon an analysis that looks at the structure of a site, the structure of links within a site, navigational menus, a sitemap associated with the site, user behavior related to navigating through a site, category trees and terms that might be associated with the site, and webmaster or user classification associated with the site.

While the process described in this patent might also look at breadcrumb navigation that might appear upon a page that shows up in search results, and breadcrumb navigation on a page might be used to generate breadcrumb links within that result, a page doesn’t need to have breadcrumb navigation upon it for Google to display such navigation in a search result.

In addition to breadcrumb like displays in results, the patent also notes that it might display instead a dropdown that can point to other pages on the site or a navigational menu tree could be used.

Visualizing Site Structure and Enabling Site Navigation for a Search Result or Linked Page
Invented by Beckett Madden-Woods, Jeremy Silber, and Jian Zhou
US Patent Application 20110276562
Published November 10, 2011
Filed: January 16, 2009

Abstract

Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer program products, for attaching a visual representation of hierarchical data associated with a resource identified by a search system to the resource. The resource and hierarchical data can be presented to a user as a search result. In some implementations, breadcrumbs that describe a traversal path toward a starting or entry page associated with the resource can represent the hierarchical data.

The breadcrumb path or navigation structure that might be shown within results could use the homepage of a domain as a starting point, but it’s also possible that it may use an entry page that could be associated with the page. For example, if the page is within a blog that might be in a subdirectory of a domain (“http://www.example.com/blog/”), that blog main page could be considered the starting point for breadcrumb navigation as easily as the homepage for that domain.

If breadcrumb navigation is found on a site, a hierarchical data extractor might try to extract that information and use it to determine a hierarchical structure for that site.

Some sites do use breadcrumb navigation in a static manner where each page only has one pathway via breadcrumbs to arrive at a page, while others may use a parallel approach so that for example, a pair of sneakers might be found at the end of navigation that comes from different categories, such as Home > Shoes > Men > Sneakers or Home > Sales > Shoes >Sneakers. Other sites sometimes use a dynamic breadcrumb approach that shows someone the path that they’ve been taking through a site to arrive at the page that they are presently upon.

We aren’t told in the patent how the search engine might decide between different breadcrumb possibilities when there might be more than one that could be displayed upon a page if a parallel approach or dynamic approach is used by the site.

Conclusion

Google announced that they were going to start displaying site hierarchy through breadcrumb navigation in augmented search results like this back in 2009, in an Official Google Blog post, New site hierarchies display in search results.

The Google blog post shows a number of examples of when Google might decide to display breadcrumbs as well as some of the reasons why they may. For instance, even if a URL does show off directories that might make the structure of a site more clear, the URL might be so long that Google may not show all of it. Or directory names might be somewhat obscure, and not very helpful in understanding the structure of a site.

I’ve assumed after reading that blog post a few years ago that it was more likely that Google may only show those types of breadcrumbs when the site itself uses them. It appears that including breadcrumb navigation on your site may make it easier for the search engine to analyze your site structure and include breadcrumbs (with links in them) to additional pages within your site such as a home page or category pages.

The patent though seems to point to the possibility that Google could include search result breadcrumbs even in some cases when a site doesn’t use breadcrumbs.

Why might you want these additional navigational breadcrumb elements to pages within your site appearing in Google’s search results?

A searcher makes decisions as to which pages it might visit when looking at the results for a query based upon a number of factors, such as how persuasive and engaging it might find the title and snippet displayed for a page, and how relevant, trustworthy and credible those might appear to be.

Searchers may also be drawn to certain results when those stand out in different ways, such as the inclusion of an image like Google Authorship profile images, or a Google Maps pins, or photos associated with a news story.

A search result that Google appears to be treating differently than other results, by adding more detailed elements regarding the structure of a site might seem to imply some special treatment of that site as well as drawing searchers attention to those results.

As I noted, the patent seems to imply that you don’t need to have breadcrumb navigation on your pages to have breadcrumbs show up in your search results, but also explains how such navigation could make it easier for the search engine to understand the structure of a site and to include that kind of navigation within search results.

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42 thoughts on “Google Patent on Displaying Breadcrumb Links in Search Results”

  1. Hi Bill,

    As per usual a long and well analysed seo article.

    While I have been dabbling in seo for a few years now, i really couldnt afford to design a site from scratch anymore and put up with my substandard coding.

    This article just makes me think that at least this is one vote for free joomla templates that include breadcrumbs which I am so glad I have now! ITG is so hard to second guess what google will want in the future and often hard to integrate it into your site, so I am really glad this is one change that I wont have to do!

  2. Bill-

    I find this article of particular interest. I’ve been trying to get a retail site to show it’s breadcrumbs in the SERPs for quite some time, and this article has some valuable insights as well as links to resources for additional information.

    Something as common as breadcrumbs in the SERPs can be difficult to achieve because there really isn’t a lot of great ‘how to’ SEO articles out there on this particular subject.

    Thanks, @anthonydnelson

  3. I think breadcrumbs are good for the users of a website… I use them on my websites but google rarely displays the navigation bread crumbs in the serps. If you don’t display breadcrumbs… you really need to organize your site correctly using sub-directories.

  4. Hi Bruce,

    Thank you.

    There are also a number of plugins that work with content management systems that make it fairly easy to add breadcrumb navigation to pages as well, including some for WordPress sites as well.

    If using breadcrumb navigation may make it a little more likely that people may visit one of your pages when they see it in search results, it’s worth considering adding it to the pages of your site.

  5. Hi Anthony,

    Thank you very much for your kind words here in your comments and on Twitter.

    Between the Google blog post about breadcrumbs and the patent filing, I really haven’t seen much else from the search engines on how to make it a little more likely that breadcrumbs will show up in search results for your site. It’s not really a topic that too many other people have seemed to pick up upon and write about either. So I was really excited to come across the patent.

  6. Hi Brian,

    I do think that breadcrumb navigation can be helpful, especially when you do have a number of directories and subdirectories on your site, and they can help visitors understand a little better how your pages are organized.

    It’s a little tempting going around and seeing how many different breadcrumb results I can find, and looking to see if there are shared characteristics amongst those that make it more likely that breadcrumbs will appear within search results for those pages.

  7. @Brian Just using breadcrumb trails on your website aren’t enough for the breadcrumbs to display in the SERPs, they have to be identified using the correct markup.

    It took us a few times to get this right but eventually they started appearing in the serps for our webpages.

  8. @Bill – Interesting article. I had no idea that the breadcrumb implementation into Google’s search results was patented. As always, things usually aren’t as simple as they seem. :-)

    @Geoff – Curious… I have seen many breadcrumbs that show up in the SERP’s that have different markup from domain to domain. Some using ordered or unordered lists, while some keep it simple to what Google has mentioned in the link you provided on Google’s Webmaster Tools Help site. While, I have also seen that same markup used and the search results are not using the breadcrumbs. Now, I am not sure how long it had exactly been since these sites added breadcrumbs, but to me there doesn’t seem to be one cookie cutter way to do this.

  9. Thanks for sharing the link to how Google specifies the markup language, I’m trying to set it up on mine currently. I really like the breadcrumb style of results, its a great way for a user to browse or jump to a specific category quick. Smart Google.

  10. I haven’t seen this kind of link displayed for my website. if we have couple of sub domain which have been displayed in breadcrumb navigation menu, will it be chance that Google will also display link to sub domain as above.

  11. @Michael

    Sorry, I may not have explained myself perfectly. When I say it needs correct markup, I mean marked up labelling the items with microdata or RDFa markup.

    The way a website or standard CMS template uses to display breadcrumbs on the actual website could vary somewhat between sites (as you rightly specify) but this won’t make them display as breadcrumbs in the SERPs (unless schema data is built into the CMS). You would need to edit the template files to markup with microdata for example:

    ===As taken from our website===

    <a href=”http://www.clubnetsearchmarketing.co.uk”>
    Home
    </a>

    <a href=”http://www.clubnetsearchmarketing.co.uk/blog”>
    Blog
    </a>

    <a href=”http://www.www.clubnetsearchmarketing.co.uk/blog/panda-sneezed-your-website-catch-cold”>
    Panda Sneezed – Did Your Website Catch a Cold?
    </a>

    Notice how the relevant breadcrumb items are marked up with:-

    itemprop=”title”
    itemprop=”url”

    This explains to Google the items of the breadcrumb trail on your website using microdata markup.

    Hope this explains a little better.

  12. @Geoff – No apologies needed. :-)

    I guess what I really meant was that if Google is wanted the markup to be a certain way, why is it recognizing the breadcrumb trail while formatted differently for other websites? This is more of a rhetorical question that is up for discussion, but it has always struck me as weird. More like inconsistent.

  13. @Michael, sorry my example above wasn’t outputted correctly, when I submitted the comment, it included the itemprop classifications.

    A lot Google does appears as inconsistent, nothing moreso than the scheme data, any rich snippet markup has a variety of ways of implementing and from our experience, a lot of it just simply doesn’t work on all sites even when the rich snippet testing tool states it is correct.

    Specific markup is what tells Google et al what to pay attention to for particular data regardless of the design, language and code; In this instance, it is the itemprop title, url and child references. Displaying a breadcrumb trail on a website has a number of options from a development perspective which is why the correct microdata/RDFa markup has to be added to the design in order to display breadcrumbs in SERPs for your web pages. I see where you’re coming from however.

  14. on my blog I have seo pack and it has the breadcrumbs feature, if I’m honest I never really knew what they were or what they were for.

    Now I get it!

    Thanks for this, I wonder if I go back now and edit my posts base on this will it have an effect???

    Neil Asher

  15. When you make the rules, you can change them however and whenever you want. Or not follow them at all. Thanks for this post, I’ve always ignored the breadcrumbs feature, as I didn’t know why it might be important. Now I do; I’ll start changing it now. But like Neil said, will it matter? We shall see. Thanks!

  16. Interesting article – well written and original. I like how the subject is touched half as usability (breadcrumb as navigation) and half by SEO. Not many blogs do this. I will follow you on Twitter and your blog in the future.

  17. Hi Geoff,

    Thanks for linking to the schema markup for breadcrumbs from Google. I hadn’t actually come across that page before, so it’s much appreciated.

    Thanks also for trying to provide an example of how it might look. The “code” element didn’t save your formatting, and I tried to fix your comment, though some was still stripped out.

    I’m not sure that you absolutely need to follow that formatting, but anything that makes it easier for the search engine to do what you want it to do (or hope that it will) is worth trying.

    I think that Google sometimes requires something else be in place when you use their markup. For example, Google supposedly incorporated authorship markup automatically into Blogspot and YouTube back in June when it was introduced, but I’m not seeing a lot of blogspot posts that include Google profile pictures when I see them in search results.

  18. Hi Michael,

    I didn’t know that Google had filed a patent on showing breadcrumbs in search results either, until I ran across this patent filing. :)

    That’s part of why I like looking through the patents though – sometimes they provide more information about how they might be doing something.

  19. Hi Mason,

    The breadcrumbs in search results are smart, and definitely worth experimenting with where you have sites using many categories and subcategorie.

  20. Hi Alex,

    I’m not so sure that Google would include links to subdomains within breadcrumbs like that. They might include them in quicklinks/sitelinks below the snippet for a search result, when they show a single line of related links.

  21. Hi Michael,

    The patent hints at the possibility that Google might show breadcrumbs for pages even if the pages don’t use breadcrumb navigation.

    I can’t say that I’ve seen that happen before, but it’s possible.

    If you do want breadcrumbs to appear in search results for a page you control, I don’t think that it would hurt to use the breadcrumb markup and see if that makes a difference.

  22. Hi Neil,

    If you set up breadcrumbs on your site, it’s possible that your visitors will use them and find value in them, especially if you have pages on your blog that use categories and sub categories.

    It’s really an added benefit that Google might also show them in search results, especially since that might be something that makes search results from your pages stand out a little from other search results.

    So you get a benefit from it for your users, even if Google doesn’t pick up on your breadcrumbs for search results.

  23. Hi Pete,

    Thanks. This was interesting to me not only because of the potentially usability benefit for a site that has breadcrumbs, and how that can translate to a potential SEO benefit as well, but also because it’s fueled by a desire on Google’s part to be more usable, and make it easier for people viewing search results to understand the hierarchy of a site they are viewing in those results.

  24. @Bill, no problem, you could well be right…

    I’ve given up on our authorship markup, we’ve literally implemented at least ten different variations and approaches now and authorship markup still didn’t occur at all for us after re-indexation. I’ve got no idea what criteria needs to be met at Google’s end for it to work :( I’m suspecting that it has something to do with the fact we have a completely bespoke website and blog (although the rich snippet testing tool states we have our authorship markup correct and our author images should be displaying in the SERPs). Heh.

    Thanks

  25. Hi Geoff,

    I’m not sure exactly what the tipping point might be with Google and the appearance of author profiles in search results. I don’t know if there’s a certain “threshold” of some type that needs to be met in terms of activity on Google Plus, or data collected and indexed about authors by Google, or what. It is a topic that I’m paying a lot of attention to, and you’re not the first person I’ve heard express some disappointment about not having those profiles show up at Google Web search.

    It’s possible that using wordpress might provide an advantage at this point since it’s such a widespread platform, but markup is supposed to obviate a need for Google to understand different platforms by making it easier to find and use the metadata inserted into pages.

    I’d definitely recommend that you keep it in place for now and see if Google catches up, or if you do trigger something that will result in your authorship profiles to start showing in results.

    At this point, it’s possible that integration with Google Plus was one of the keys to implementing it, especially since Google is showing a circle count for authors – the numbers of circles they appear within. I’m keeping an eye out for any profiles that show up that don’t include a circle count like that. Are the people who you’ve implemented markup for active in Google Plus?

  26. I think that this can only be a good thing as it will make web designers pay more attention to having a transparent and easily navigable (to users and search engines) site architecture.

  27. Hi Raj

    It’s funny that adding something that might help a site provide a better experience for users on that site, like breadcrumb navigation can also help Google provide a better experience for searchers when Google incorporates a way to show those breadcrumbs in search results as well.

    I think it’s great when we see things like this from the search engines. I also like the way that Google is showing search results for forums where they show the number of people who have participated in a thread, and how long ago the last post was submitted. If you are looking for a discussion on a topic, and want to be involved in that discussion, that kind of search result can be really helpful.

  28. @Bill – It’s actually our own site for which the markup doesn’t appear to be working in the SERPs and yes, we’re relatively active in Google+ – I would imagine this is at least enough for Google to take notice… I may be wrong though. Thanks

  29. I’ve always found breadcrumbs useful in a website. Usually when I happen upon a search and it’s close, but not exactly what I want I’ll look elsewhere on the same site. If I’m linked to the category where that item is that’ll be my next click.

  30. I think many are still confusing breadcrumbs in search results for listings as the above patent describes and Bill discusses with actual breadcrumb trails on the pages of a website…

  31. Hi Geoff,

    I do know if Google has some certain threshold of activity and/or relevance that it waits for a site or Google + activity achieves before they will start showing Google authorship profiles next to links, but I’ve been seeing those profile images appear and disappear for me over the past few months. It’s possible that Google is very slowly easing those into search results, and limiting the amount that do appear while testing many different things. I’m trying to keep up with them, and find ways to test them, but it looks like the way they are being treated is being tweaked on a regular basis.

  32. Hey Bill, I’m going to see if we can ramp up our activity on Google+ and see if this makes a difference. I suspect you’re correct with your thoughts though and there is probably little we can do but wait patiently.

  33. I’m surprised that the idea of search results period aren’t patented. I was watching Shark Tank the other day when Mark Cuban got hysterical about stupid common sense patents in the US. I a google fanboy, but it’s just lame that this kind of patent can even exist.

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