Why You Shouldn’t Use GTM to Implement Structured Data

I’ve written quite a few blog posts and traveled extensively to speak at conferences about using Google Tag Manager to dynamically add structured data and semantic markup to your website(s). It’s one of the things I’ve become best known for. That’s okay (and I’m not complaining), because I really like that style of implementation and because it’s just plain cool to talk about, but, I wanted to write a blog post today to address a common misconception.

The misconception is this: that my talking a lot about using Google Tag Manager to implement structured data implies that I’m saying it’s UpBuild’s (or even, Google’s) recommended method for rolling out semantic markup and structured data on your web properties.

The fact is, it’s not.

So here are the two things we need to get aligned on.

  1. A tag management tool, e.g., GTM, can be super helpful for the implementation of semantic SEO*.
  2. Nothing about that statement means it’s the right way or best way.
  • It’s worth noting that everything discussed in this post applies to analytics tagging and tracking, too, not just semantic SEO. We’ll keep things focused, though.

When GTM Implementations Aren’t the Best Idea

Fellow Portlander Matt Brown recently shared his experience with implementing GTM-based structured data on an eCommerce site with half of a million pages.

Spoiler Alert: It did not go well.

The GTM structured data implementation did not go well

The thing is, I wouldn’t have expected that to go well! There are many cases in which implementing semantic markup and structured data via Google Tag Manager is straight-up inadvisable, as Matt’s experience shows.

Allow me to illustrate my point further by laying out the two most common development resource scenarios for an organization.

R{3} Dev Resources

The ideal situation in which to implement structured data (or anything, really) is when an organization has Reliable, Responsive, and Reasonably-priced development resources. That means they either have an internal team of developers who are specifically tasked with working on the website and who actually have the bandwidth to work with the SEO team or they have a 3rd-party development partner who they can easily afford to utilize for this type of project.

Depending on where you work (you might be fortunate enough to work for a company where you have R{3} Resources) or — if you’re agency-side — what type of consulting clients you have, you might be all set. In my experience (which is only that: one person’s experience), less than 1% of the clients I’ve worked with in my entire career have been lucky enough to be sitting pretty with R{3} Resources.

Everybody Else

For the rest of us, website development resources are either unreliable, inconsistent, or non-existent (due to budget). Many times, you’ll find yourself checking two of those boxes, if not all three. It’s likely that it will take an organization like that a few months and 3+ tries to get any technical SEO recommendation implemented properly.

When GTM Implementation Is a Great Call & When It Isn’t

Take a look at this Tweet from Google’s John Mueller from last month. He has a point and I think it’s a good one.

Don't rely of GTM for structured data

I agree with John; he’s not wrong. However, as with anything that a Googler tells you, you should take this with a grain of salt. John has a vested interest in telling people the ideal way to do things — the way that’s going to help Google do its job easier and allow your website to make reasonable improvements in search.

Again, he makes a good point: relying on a tool like GTM to add structured data is by no means “ideal”. And yet, the only folks who can afford to take John’s advice entirely at face value are those in R{3} situations.

If you’re in an R{3} situation, forget Google Tag Manager. Implement your structured data and semantic markup by having your development team add it to the CMS templates that drive your website. Have them build new fields into your backend that let you control your structured data while allowing other semantic data points to be driven by your database. Generate your markup server-side if at all possible. GTM, like most other JavaScript, is all client-side and only comes into play after the bulk of your site’s HTML and content have been sent to the browser. Don’t wait and try to add in structured data after the fact using GTM if you don’t need to. Get it done early and let it be driven by the same tech that drives your CMS.

On the other hand, if you’re an SEO working with an Everybody Else organization you’re typically faced with two options: wait until — through some minor miracle — you’re able to get a developer to finally implement your structured data properly, or try get it done today using a tool like Google Tag Manager. Back in my early days as an SEO, before the birth of GTM, working with Everybody Else usually just meant that no one got any structured data at all!

Yeah, your structured data is not getting implemented

Because Progress, That’s Why

Progress and forward motion: that’s why I’ve historically been so bullish on GTM. It empowers teams to get around roadblocks and get stuff done that wouldn’t simply get accomplished otherwise. If you were to give me a choice between hacking together a 90%-reliable solution in GTM (even if it meant we’d have to recheck every month just to make sure it didn’t break) and sitting on non-implemented recommendations for three months or longer, I’d take the GTM route every time!

Heck, take the GTM route while also putting in a ticket for the “proper way”. Then you can deactivate the GTM tags once you have something better to take its place.

DIY Home Improvement With Duct Tape

GTM is duct tape for your toiletUsing Google Tag Manager is a little like doing home improvement with duct tape. It’s not really the right way to do it, but if it’s your only option to have a usable bathroom, just make it happen.

Don’t get me wrong — leveraging Google Tag Manager to implement your structured data is super cool (cooler than actual duct tape, even) and can be a total game changer for your SEO program. But, if you have the option to get the same result in a way that gives you A) greater reliability and B) easier control, then that’s absolutely what you should do.

Google Tag Manager is a roll of really nifty, space-age duct tape. It’s incredibly powerful and will help you get a lot of great things done, but the implementation can break and will occasionally get things wrong. Your implementation will require careful maintenance over time and ought to evolve with your website as it changes.

I love GTM, but don’t put all your vegan eggs in that basket unless it’s the only option you have for getting things done. If you’re at an organization that doesn’t have R{3} resources, going the GTM route might very well be the best and only route to take, but even then, make sure you explore your options to see if a more elegant solution is available.

If you have any questions about whether or not you should use GTM for your structured data implementation, let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading and happy optimizing!

Written by
Mike founded UpBuild in 2015 and served as its CEO for seven years, before passing the torch to Ruth Burr Reedy. Mike remains with the company today as Head of Business Operations.

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