Barry Schwartz revealed this recently in an article for Search Engine Land. He noted that in late April, Google began offering a rich snippet markup for prayer times. For the non-Orthodox and uninitiated, very religious Jews and Muslims are duty-bound multiple times a day to stop what they are doing and pray. What times they are required to do this varies with their geographical location.
This can be a problem for religiously observant world travelers. One of the men I’m privileged to call a friend is an Orthodox Jewish lawyer who is heavily involved with broadband and Internet issues. On business, he has visited places to which I can only dream of traveling, such as Singapore. I know that he continued his regular prayers while there, but not at the same times he would have prayed at his eastern United States office!
So you would think that rich snippets for prayer times would be – you should forgive the expression – a blessing. As with many areas where religion and technology cross paths, though, it’s not quite that simple. Schwartz examined Google’s technical documentation for rich snippets for prayer times, and noted that “it says ‘prayer times format can be used by any religious organization’ but the markup gives us no way to specify if it is Jewish, Islamic or another religion.”
If Google doesn’t give you some way to tell it in the markup which religion your prayer times are for, how does it know which one to display when someone searches for “Jewish prayer times [geographical location]” versus “Islamic prayer times [geographical location]”? The truth is, it doesn’t. All it does is hope that the pages returned for prayer times in a particular city rank for the correct religion. In other words, they let not God, but the algorithm sort it out. And unlike God, the algorithm is not infallible.
Schwartz discovered this as the result of certain experiments he performed. Testing out the prayer times rich text snippets, for him, became part of a larger online project to create content management systems useful for shuls and synagogues. And oy! Did he have some mishegoss to deal with!
Part of Schwartz’s project involved putting in Jewish prayer times for a shul in Pomona, NY. Once that site started to rank, he was able to do some searches. When he searched on “islamic prayer times pomona,” for example (without the quotes), the first result to show prayer times in the rich snippet was the eighth one – and it was for Jewish prayer times for that location. In other words, it was showing the wrong religion.
Similarly, Schwartz did a search for “jewish london prayer times” (without the quotes). This time, the sixth result showed prayer times in rich snippet format – but the prayer times shown were for devout Muslims. Like Schwartz, I’m not an Orthodox Jew or Muslim, so I must assume that any pious member of the appropriate religion can tell at a glance that Google pulled up the wrong information. Even so, it must be a bit frustrating.
It’s actually a little more complicated than just checking to see if the listing is for Jewish or Islamic prayer times. At least in Judaism, as Schwartz observes, “there are several different religious sects that hold by different calculation methods for [prayer] times.” If one of the sites turned up by my cursory search of Google was any indication (), there is also some disagreement as to the correct calculation methods to use for prayer times in Islam. Fortunately, Google displays the “calculation method” as part of the rich snippets for prayer times, which should be of at least some assistance to searchers.
If you’re building a website for a synagogue or mosque that wants to list the local prayer times in rich snippets, you need to be aware of an even more irritating issue. Google seems to be operating under a “blacklist until proven otherwise” policy. Say what? I’m not kidding. Schwartz went through some back and forth with Google when he noticed the prayer times for his network were not showing up, until “I was instructed by Sarah at Google via a Google Web Search Help Forum thread to email the Google engineer who was responsible for this at email@example.com. I did, and Essam from Google worked out some kinks and then had to Whitelist the sites in the network to enable them to show this rich snippet prayer times details in the search results,” he writes.
That’s right – if you want something as simple as a rich snippet for prayer times to show up for your website in Google, you must email them to get on a white list. What’s worse, nowhere is it written in the documentation for prayer times rich snippets that you need to go through this process to get that information to show up in the search results. And you can hardly expect your average web master, website designer, or SEO to figure this out on their own. It’s not like you’re trying to do something that Google would consider to be black hat, after all! If anything, the search engine seems to be encouraging it. So why make it so difficult?
Still, aside from the jumping through hoops, and the wrong religion showing up at times for the searches (something Schwartz believes most Jews and Muslims will be able to spot quickly), prayer times rich snippets look to be a useful addition. Indeed, as Schwartz notes, “after a few more tweaks, including specifying religion and telling webmasters how they can be included on this whitelist, we will have a nice new rich snippet to work with.”