If you want to stay ahead of the SEO (search engine optimization) curve and have your content show up high in the search engine rankings, you should be learning how to embed rich snippets in your web pages.

Snippets are the brief summaries that appear in search results, and their purpose is to help you recognize at a glance what the information is about. The problem is that search engines are machines and cannot think, and they cannot comprehend what names and words correspond to.

Rich snippets provide a way to label information to give search engines more clues about its meaning.

As Google explains: “With rich snippets, webmasters with sites containing structured content—such as review sites or business listings—can label their content to make it clear that each labeled piece of text represents a certain type of data: for example, a restaurant name, an address, or a rating.”

If Google’s search engine can understand the content on your web pages, it can create rich snippets to help users find it. One of the most popular rich snippets is the rating snippet, which shows ratings in stars.

Google currently supports rich snippets for reviews, people profiles, products, business listings, recipes, and events. An example, Google explains, is a snippet for a recipe page that might show the total preparation time, a photo, and the recipe’s review rating.

Rich snippets, says Google, “help users recognize when your site is relevant to their search, and may result in more clicks to your pages.”

You enable Google’s search engine to recognize and display rich snippets by adding semantic HTML markup to your web pages. There are three main competing standards for doing so—microdata, microformats, and RDFa.

However, Google, Bing and Yahoo! have banded together to form a consortium called Schema.org in which they have agreed to back microdata as their official standard.

The formation of the organization has been seen as a momentous development for instilling rich snippets into web sites and online marketing. Said Marshall Kirkpatrick on ReadWriteWeb, “This will change the way people design websites, it will change the way people do search marketing, it will change a lot of things. It should be very, very interesting.”

Google recommends using microdata as the preferred rich snippet format, but accepts microformats and RDFa as well.

While you may have noticed more detailed and graphical information appearing in search results, thus far relatively few companies are taking advantage of rich snippets. According to Google product manager Kavi Goel, only about 5% of web pages are using rich snippet markup.

By embracing rich snippets, you can make your search results stand out to searchers. As Ninja Bonnie noted, “A competitive advantage, specifically, if you’re using rich snippets and your competitors are not—the link to your site will feature much more prominently then your competitors.”

Rich snippets is part of an overarching movement to the Semantic Web, in which descriptive information is being attached to content in the form of metadata. The Semantic Web is the web of the future, so get on board by familiarizing yourself with the concept and begin by employing rich snippets.