Conceived by the Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group (WHATWG), HTML 5 has been the basis of a W3C working group since 2007. The first working draft of the new HTML 5 specification on was released in January 2008. (source: http://www.w3.org/TR/html-design-principles/ )
As mentioned over at WebConfs.com, on the surface, HTML 5, other than the exciting <canvas> element, does not appear to be much different than its predecessor, HTML 4. It will still be XML based and is not making any moves towards being a scripting language like PHP or similar complex programming languages. It looks like the new standard will mainly introduce more effective tags for organizing the content of a webpage to make it more readable by search engine spiders. The main prerequisite of HTML 5 was to keep it accessible to the masses and to have it continue being backwards compatible…which means you will not have to re-learn the whole language.
Most HTML 4 content is currently wrapped in <div> or <span> tags regardless of what it is. New tags introduced by HTML 5 have a more semantic meaning. Tags like the <article>, <nav>, <footer>, <header>, <dialogue> and <aside> (which can be used to indicate a piece of content removed slightly from the rest of the page in terms of relevance) will be increasingly important for SEO efforts. The new <audio>, <video> and <dialogue> tags will be part of the upcoming HTML 5 standard and will allow for further segregation of page content in relevant categories.
The biggest change with the new standard will be the concept of Page Segmentation. Google already has a patent for this and many believe that the practice is already in use today. Currently, there is no way for a website developer to tell the bots how to segment the pages correctly. By dividing pages in to separate sections, a cleaner more organized structure will be created allowing for increased efficiency by bots to parse your pages for content. This also means that bots are able to more efficiently analyze the segments individually and are not wasting time trying to divine content from navigation, scripts, css and other inline elements. This will drastically increase the understanding of the relevancy of the page and will allow bots to rank multi-topic pages more accurately.
Here are some of most important new HTML 5 tags and how they will relate to SEO:
The new article tag is probably one of the best additions to HTML 5 from an SEO perspective. This new tag will allow SEO’s to mark separate entries in online publications. It will clean up the code by reducing the need for excessive <div> tags. Search engines will probably place more importance on the content wrapped in the <article> tag compared to content on the other parts of the page.
The new section tag will be used to further organize the structure of the HTML document. By using the new <section> tag to identify separate sections on a page/chapter/book and maintaining a consistent hierarchical structure, each section can have its separate HTML heading. As with the <article> tag, it can be assumed that search engines will place more attention on the contents of identified sections. If the words of a search string are found in one section for instance, this implies higher relevance, as compared to when these words are found all across the page or in separate sections.
Not to be confused with the <head> element, the <header> tag is similar to the <h1> tag. The key difference being that it can contain <h1> elements, text content and hard –coded links (bonus!) and anything else you like. This one will be huge to SEOs!
While maybe not as important as the new <header> tag, this new tag will also allow for lots of “extra” SEO content. The real bonus is that both the <header> and the <footer> tags can be used repeatedly in each <section> of the page. This gives a lot of flexibility for SEOs!
The new <nav> tag allows for the definition of site navigation or a series of internal or external links. This is another instance of HTML5 trying to organize page content in order to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the bots that parse your site for content.
Like all W3C implementations it will take some time for the standard to be completely ratified and for people to begin implementing the new tags into their website design. Once enough web pages are using the new HTML 5 standards, search engines will inevitably begin to use it to improve search results in the SERPs. Links and content within certain tags will be treated differently than from those using redundant or archaic tags making the new HTML markup far more important to SEO efforts than it is currently.
Unlike other less popular HTML recommendations for past standardizations, I think this one is long overdue and will be embraced by SEOs and SEMs alike. Embrace the change and start building your sites with an eye on the not too distant future. Fortune favours the prepared!