Meta Tags

A meta tag is a little snippet of HTML code that only search engine spiders can see. (Well, actually anybody can see them if they are looking at the HTML code, which is something you can do by finding “View Code”,  “View Source Code,” “Page Code,” or similar in your browsers menu.)  All of the meta tags can be found inside the head tag, which means between a <head> and a </head>.

Here’s what it looks like:

Actually, any sort of information can be conveyed to the search engines by way of a meta tag. Most of engines are only set up to recognize a few of them. In the illustration, you can see three meta tags, named “Description,” “Keywords,” and “Author.” For the purpose of this discussion, we’re going to count another tag as a meta tag, although it technically isn’t one: the “Title” tag. (If you’re interested, it’s not a meta tag because the information in it appears visibly in the browser, although I lump it in with meta tags because the title tag information is displayed outside the browser main section, right at the top of the window.) As it happens, the “Title” tag is the most important of them all, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Historically, the meta tags that have had some influence on search performance are title, description, and keywords. There was a time, way back in the early years of this millennium, when search engines read the keywords meta tag to actually determine what a web page was about. Hoo-hoo! Party time for SEOs! All you had to do was stick a few highly searched terms in the keywords meta tag and you were golden! “Free MP3,” “sex,” and “software” started showing up in the keywords meta tag of all sorts of web sites that nothing whatsoever to do with any of those things. Since almost no real people ever look at source code, no harm was done to a company’s reputation, and search spiders ranked, say, leading department store sites for searches on “Free MP3.”

The “Keywords” meta tag was the first one to be almost universally devalued, then finally, ignored completely. (I still use it, but for a different reason: it’s a convenient place for me to keep a page’s primary keywords in case I ever need to remember what the heck I was thinking about this one of the 425 pages I optimized on some random site and don’t have my spreadsheet handy.) So, scratch the keywords meta tag. I has zero (0) value in today’s search environment.

Then there is the “Description” tag. This tag has also lost a lot weight over the years due to abuse by enthusiastic SEOs. However, it does serve a valuable search function. In many engines (other than Google, who tends to do things their own way), the description meta tag is what gets displayed in a search result (along with the title tag). That means it’s one of your best shots at convincing a searcher to visit your site. Ever web page should have a short description meta tag that contains an important keyword and is, well, descriptive. Google calls these little pieces of info “snippets” and uses the description meta tag sometimes. They seem to prefer picking a sample of text from the page themselves as the snippet (which sometimes leads to pretty funny search results). Still, you should put some effort into description meta tags.

All the other meta tags are there for uses other than SEO keyword ranking. An “Author” meta tag will help the webmaster keep track of who created what content. A “Robots” tag can be used to tell search spiders not to index a particular page.  Etcetera.  If a webmaster has a use for some weird meta tag, they will use it. But there aren’t any others currently in use by major search engines. Subject to change without notice, of course.

Title tag

Now, the honorary meta tag, “Title.”  This little sucker is deadly useful. If you have a web page it absolutely, without question, doubtlessly, not-subject-to-debatedly, seriously, no-kiddingly, positively, needs to have a concise, unique, relevant, and descriptive Title.

This is the primary identification used by search engines to label your page. It shows up as the link in a search result. It carries significant weight in terms of ranking for a keyword phrase. It is your very best shot at convincing a potential customer to visit. It can be an effective reinforcer of branding. So.

A lot of SEO pros will try to tell that the title tag is awesome, but the meta tags are no longer worth bothering with. There is some truth there, but as far as I can tell, there is no harm in populating your metas, and just maybe some small good can come of it. Regardless, it is entirely up to you.