Since the beginnings of HTML, the meta tag was the designated device to provide information about web pages to search engines and browsers. The tags provided data in a number of categories, the most common being the page title, content description, languages on the page, keywords to alert search engines to the content, and information for automated bots to extract site data on the fly.
It was a great idea, but like many great ideas, it was abused. HTML programmers, whether driven by greed, corporate pressure, or just plain competitiveness, began to stuff the tags with exaggerated and erroneous information. Soon, sites were rising high in the rankings based on false data, and search engines had to rethink their algorithms to help trap spam.
For that reason, the usage and effectiveness of meta tags have evolved over the years, but some of them still play a role in search engine responses.
What is a Meta Tag?
Meta tags are specific fields of information built directly into an HTML page. Since every page on a website has its own HTML coding, it is possible to customize meta tag information for each and every page on the site. This gives the programmer and website owner the ability to provide information about site pages to search engines, so they can attract relevant users directly to the pages appropriate for the specific search requests.
How are Meta Tags Used?
Search engines routinely access and scan the HTML code of web pages around the Internet, reading their content and indexing this information for data search purposes. The meta tags on each page help define and describe the content, providing not only the search engine itself with this data but also the user performing the searches.
5 Common Types of Meta Tags
There are many types of meta tags, but there are five that are the most relevant for search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine results pages (SERP):
The Title tag is inserted within the HTML header. Whatever text is in the Title tag is displayed in the browser bar or tab. For example, a page with this Title tag:
<title>Surfs Up – Your One Stop Source for Surf Gear!</title>
will have the text “Surfs Up – Your One Stop Source for Surf Gear!” in the top browser bar or tab. Plus, perhaps more importantly, this text will also appear at the top of your listings in the Search Engine Results Page (SERP).
The Description tag is also listed within the HTML header. This is a more detailed explanation of the content of the page. This information appears right below the Title in your listing on the SERP.
<meta name=”description” content=”Surfing gear and supplies for big waves and all kinds of weather!”>
The Keywords meta tag has evolved to the point where it is almost completely eliminated. None of the major search engines read this field any longer, and it is believed that some may actually penalize you if the field seems stuffed with inappropriate keywords. Some developers still continue to insert it, in hopes that it may have an impact out there somewhere. As long as it is not being abused, continuing to add it should not cause any search or response problems.
The Keyword meta tag is inserted in the header. An example would be:
<meta name=”keywords” content=”Surfing gear, surfing supplies, wetsuits, surfboards”>
These keywords and phrases were made available to search engines to help categorize the site in the search indexes, but they are also open to everyone including your competition, so be aware that any data presented here also makes it easy for competitors to see what keywords you are using to pursue your rankings.
The Robots meta tag is inserted in the header. It is used to direct search engines to follow specific requests to not include a certain page in the search results or to not follow any links on the page. An example would be:
<meta name=”robots” content=”noindex, nofollow”>
This example tells the search engine to not index the current page and does not include the content of any links on the page in the search relevancy. By default, the robots settings are “index” and “follow”, so unless you need to change one of those settings it is unnecessary to include the tag.
The content-language meta tag is designed to indicate to the search engine and the browser what language or languages are available on the web page. Like the “keywords” tag, this meta tag has been mostly eliminated, although it is still believed that at least one major search engine still reads and responds to this information, so it’s a good idea to continue to include it. An example:
In this example, the tag is indicating that there are two languages on this page, English, and French. Most common languages are available to be listed in this field.
Title Best Practices
Since the Title tag is such a valuable part of your web page, it’s important that you take the time to tweak it for the best usage and response possible. Search engines use the title tag to help determine the content of your page but, perhaps even more importantly, the information in the title tag is also the first line displayed in your search engine results page. By having relevant and impelling information in that line, the user can be drawn to your page and choose to click through.
The SERP display is measured in pixels rather than characters, so there’s no cut and dried solution for how long to make your title string, although starting with about 60 characters is a good rule of thumb. Once you get the page in the rankings, you can check the search engine response to see how well your title is fitting and adjust it accordingly.
Since this is the first thing a user will see when they search and find your page, packing in as much appropriate data as possible is important. Basic information, followed by an enticing sales pitch or call to action, can often be the deciding factor for a user to choose your site over the others. Make every word and character count.
Since each page on your site has its own title tag, use that opportunity to tout the features of that particular page. Make each page’s title unique. Give each one its own character and appeal, as defined by title tag itself. It’s a great place to start.
Description Best Practices
The description meta tag, much like the title tag, not only provides data to search engines but also reaches directly to the user. It appears as the second line in the search engine results page, right below the title line, and it allows you to expand your description of the information on that page.
Since the title tag and the description tag are the two lines presented to the user when they receive the response to their search, this is your biggest opportunity to sell your site to them. Just like the title tag, you need to include as much relevant data as possible, along with an enticing sales pitch or call to action to inspire the user to choose your link and follow through.
The size of the description tag as displayed in the search engine results page is difficult to estimate, but it usually falls in around 150 characters, so that’s a good place to start. Again, choose highly relevant information that the user might be looking for, and follow it with text that will arouse their curiosity, entice them to click for more, or sell them on what you are offering. Choose information that will set you apart from your competition, since the user is likely seeing both on their results page. Give them a reason to choose your page.
Like the title tag, each page on your site has its own description tag. This gives you the ability to create a unique and personal experience with every page you offer. By customizing them and enhancing each one’s best features and most relevant information, you can better draw and satisfy visitors to your site.
Keywords Best Practices
If you choose to include the keyword meta tag, be sure to use keywords and phrases that are relevant for your page. They should be easily verified in the content of the page, and not overused or exaggerated.
Although there is no specific rule for how many keywords to use, most programmers stay between 5 and 10 per page. If your page is extra long with an extensive amount of content, that could go higher but generally, you want to keep it low and relevant.
Are Meta Tags Still Important to SEO?
Although the relevance of certain meta tags has declined in various ways over the years, it is still important to utilize the power of those that still remain. Search engines today tend to read the actual content of the site rather than the tags, but they still use the title tag, the robots tag and some others in the processing of their results.
The most important reason to continue to use tags effectively is for the information they provide to the search engine results page. The title and the description tags are usually the first and second lines of your site description on that page, so the information you place there has a direct impact on the user.
Best Ways To Use Meta Tags in SEO
Some of the most important principles of meta tag usage are:
- Provide accurate, relevant data.
- Don’t try to overstuff keywords or misrepresent yourself.
- Craft your title and description tags with your response page display in mind.
- Make every page unique through the use of their individual meta tags.
Take the time to make every page as accurate and relevant as possible. Give each page as much impact as you can, and use that information to attract visitors. Refine your data as you go. Watch for responses and reports to see how effective you are, and adjust the tags accordingly. Be patient, these things take time to propagate and bring in the responses.
Meta tags may not be what they used to be, but they’re still important and deserve a programmer’s attention. Adapting to an ever-evolving industry requires some adjusting, but keeping up means staying relevant to produce the best, most powerful results you can get. To learn more about how you can improve meta tags on your website, contact FarsideDev at 817.402.4151 or drop us a line here.