What Are Meta Tags?
Meta tags are a great way for webmasters to provide search engines with information about their sites. (They) can be used to provide information to all sorts of clients, and each system processes only the meta tags they understand and ignores the rest. (They) are added to the
<head>section of your HTML page. (GOOGLE)
Do Meta Tags Help SEO?
Ranking in Google these days is more to do with RELEVANCE, REPUTATION and POPULARITY than meta tag optimisation, but meta tags, when used properly can still be useful in a number of areas out with just ranking pages. A lot of search engines once looked to hidden html tags to help ranking pages in search engine results pages, but most search engines (in 2014) have evolved past this, and Google certainly has.
Meta Data can help describe any page in a more convenient machine readable format, more suited to search engines, but they are very easy to spam, and so ultimately limited on there own, when it comes to ranking documents on the web. As a result, metatags optimisation is not a critical part of professional seo in 2014, with most focusing on the only the most important tags.
Google may use meta data, amongst many other signals, to CLASSIFY pages, or DISPLAY information about a page in serps, although in natural results in the UK, I see it’s impact, where detected, when used at all, being used mainly for DISPLAY purposes. Note that ultimately,
Google will pick it’s own preferred serp listing, based on elements that can still be influenced.
Google’s generation of page titles and descriptions (or “snippets”) is completely automated and takes into account both the content of a page as well as references to it that appear on the web. The goal of the snippet and title is to best represent and describe each result and explain how it relates to the user’s query. GOOGLE
Over the last few years, a page title tag (which is not a meta tag and actually called the Page Title Element) could be relied on to provide the title of a search snippet in Google, and the meta description (if they keyword phrase was present) often provided the snippet description of the page, making it relatively easy to construct a message in Google listings.
Google has radically changed how it creates page snippets, both to improve user experience, and obfuscate how it works as a search engine. I think that long term Google would want any intended manipulation of a search message in SERPS to be a benefit of it’s paid AdWords scheme, rather than it’s organic results. That aside, in 2014 Google no longer requires information in various tags to rank or display pages, relying increasingly more on newer signals to both rank and display pages in SERPS.
How To Write Meta Tags
You can still be creative when thinking about some tags like the description, but meta tags are best used when accurately describing the page, and helping Google to short cut to information about your page. If you are helping Google serve, especially informational queries, and helping short-cut to data, Google is your friend, and anyone can still befit from that relationship.
When used properly they traditionally helped form the ultra-important ‘hook’ of your advertising in the free SERPS.
Your tags should be accurate, relevant and descriptive, and be careful focusing them all unnecessarily on just one keyword, but don’t think ‘meta tags’ until you have thought ‘topic’ and ‘user experience’. Satisfying both is key to building reputation, in Google, and on social channels. If you are optimising for Google, don’t think page or article, think ‘topic’ or ‘subject’ or information ‘hub’. Google aims to return rich, informative pages in organic results in future – that trend is clear.
All major search engines recommend sensible use of meta data and if you’re writing useful, descriptive tags it will be unlikely any major search engine will penalise proper use. Most search engines use or have used meta information in some way to help classify a document, but just because a search engine ‘uses’ meta-description tags, for instance, doesn’t mean they are using it to factor where your page ranks in the SERPS.
What Are The Important Meta tags?
For the purposes of this article I focus on the meta I am asked about the most:
Below I share my observations over the years. Google’s advice about most on page elements and tags is a lot clearer in 2014 than what it was when I first wrote this article (2007).
Meta Description SEO Best Practices
The meta description tag is still important from both from a human and search engine perspective, if used intelligently and properly.
<meta name="Description" content="I wouldn't waste 2 minutes optimising my keyword meta tags for search engines." />
If your page is INFORMATIONAL in nature, you can make it relevant to a valuable query you are focused on, but write it for humans, not just search engines. If the keyword phrase you are optimising the page for is found in the meta description, you can usually depend on the meta description showing in Google listings.
Google looks at the description but there is debate whether it actually uses the description tag to rank pages (see tests and observations below). I think they might at some level, or for specific tests, or specific types of pages. From my testing, it is a very weak signal (if any) in INFORMATIONAL SERPS. Google certainly indexes meta description for snippet display, not so much for ranking pages, in my observations.
It’s also very important in my opinion to have unique title tags and unique meta descriptions on every page on your site. It’s a preference of mine, but I don’t generally autogenerate descriptions with my cms of choice either – normally I’ll elect to remove the tag entirely before I do this, and my pages still do well (and Google generally pulls a decent snippet out on it’s own which you can then go back and optimise for click-through rates if you think of a better approach.
Can You Control The Google Search Snippet?
I always thought if your titles are very spammy (keyword stuffed), your keywords are very spammy, and your meta description is very spammy, Google might stop right there if classifying your page – even big corporations want to save bandwidth at some time. While search engines have much better ways of classifying spam in 2014, it’s still worth remembering search engines are always on the lookout for manipulation that goes to far. Bing has (since I first wrote about this topic in 2007), publicly stated they look to meta data for signs of manipulation, so you should realise there is probably a degree of risk attached to optimising meta data.
In most organic results I have looked at, putting a keyword in the description won’t take a low quality page to number 1 or raise you 50 spots in a competitive niche – so why optimise for a search engine when you can optimise for a human? – I think that is much more valuable, especially if you are in the mix already – that is – on page one for your keyword. An argument to be made is to ALWAYS focus on the USER in INFORMATIONAL listings in Google, if you want some semblance of cooperation from Google.
The meta description tag is important at some level in Google, Yahoo and Bing and every other engine listing, and you can use it in multiple ways, but focus on the user, keep it informative and relevant.
Depending on the page in question and time I have open to me, the meta description in rarely a priority for me. I OFTEN leave out meta descriptions on pages because I think my time is better focused on more important issues on the site, or when I can’t yet decide on one. I often revisit pages to create better descriptions, and I often rely on automatically generating UNIQUE, INFORMATIVE meta descriptions, that Google approves of.
For larger database-driven sites, like product aggregators, hand-written descriptions can be impossible. In the latter case, however, programmatic generation of the descriptions can be appropriate and are encouraged. Good descriptions are human-readable and diverse GOOGLE
If Google has a reason to, it will truncate your meta description for display purposes.
This is the most interesting example Google gives for e-commerce sites:
Include clearly tagged facts in the description. The meta description doesn’t just have to be in sentence format; it’s also a great place to include structured data about the page. For example, news or blog postings can list the author, date of publication, or byline information. This can give potential visitors very relevant information that might not be displayed in the snippet otherwise. Similarly, product pages might have the key bits of information—price, age, manufacturer—scattered throughout a page. A good meta description can bring all this data together. For example, the following meta description provides detailed information about a book.<meta name="Description" content="Author: A.N. Author, Illustrator: P. Picture, Category: Books, Price: $17.99, Length: 784 pages">
Meta Description SEO Tests & Observations
While I usually focus mainly on the human user when creating meta descriptions, I’ve spent a lot of time making observations, taking notes and infrequently testing if there was any opportunity when it comes to everything to do with seo, including on page elements, and including meta data, and including the meta description.
Does Every Page Need a Meta Description?
While Google says:
Make sure that every page on your site has a meta description.
…I don’t think that advice is practical on every page, but it is probably advised on pages you are putting a lot of time and investment in, and want to rank, display and convert as best as possible. A good meta description may be another sign of a quality page, and that can only be a good thing.
Does Google Use The Meta Description When Ranking A Page?
This is a typical question I was often asked, and as I always liked to back up my recommendations with at least some individual observations to back it up, I often tested to see if I could get a definitive answer to this. A lot of people use gibberish words in tests so I don’t. I use unique numbers which only appear in hidden elements – and I have a lot of pages all over the place. I am only interested in what I can see and what actually helps a page rank in SERPS. Using numbers has usually made this observation easy to replicate. The simple test page I used for educational purposes is still live.
My test page was, and still is, returned as No1 for the keyword search. THE QUERY search result is here. It’s no1 – note that.
I have a unique number in the meta description which is not on the page.
Back in 2010, If I searched for – “THE NUMBER” + “THE QUERY” I got no results - Google says there was no single page in it’s index with those 2 terms on the page, even though there is. Query here.
The result is different today, with Google returning the page.
These tests were running (in that the page was live) for years and at least in this qualitative test, it certainly appeared as if:
- Google ignored the meta description when ranking the page for the query - if keywords are only in the meta description and not on the page, the page gets NO Benefit in a real life search.
Google knew it’s there – you can check that using the info: operator with the same “THE NUMBER” + “THE QUERY” search and it’s clearly visible in the SERPS when the page IS returned.
BUT – AT THE TIME OF TESTING – Words in the meta description were not used to help rank a page in any noticeable way.
Observation: Google Counting Numbers Within The Meta Description Tag?
That test page now displays details (a number) only found in the meta description tag in Google, and is being treated in much the same way as Google treats the ALT tag (*attribute) – that is - counting the text found only within the meta-description - and lending it weight – although very very minimal weight.
Here’s the meta:
Here’s the SERP result:
That text and number above is only in the meta description……. and this test seems to clearly shows Google using the meta description in terms of relevancy for a keyword search (albeit a very very weak signal):
Google seems to be counting the meta description tag ON THAT PAGE at least. My test page could be compromised, or it could be that Google is at least looking for numbers in the meta description in organic listings. If I have more time, I’ll add more observations to this page, and check why that number now shows.
Does Yahoo Use The Meta Description When Ranking A Page?
Yahoo DOES use the Meta Description when ranking a page it seems….
Does Bing Use The Meta Description When Ranking A Page?
It does not return the page. Bing seems to work the same as Google – effectively ignoring the meta description tag according to this test.
- Google is ignoring the meta description when the keyword is not also present on the page - which kinds of suggests Google ignores the meta description WHEN RETURNING A BASIC SEARCH RESULT TO A USER.
- Google still reads the meta description and uses it in snippets if you are using certain operators – if you want the meta description to appear as the snippet, place your keyword in it (and that keyword needs to be on the page, too).
- Yahoo does seem to still use the meta description when returning a page in this manner
- Bing is similar to Google – it does not apparently use keywords in the meta description that are not on the page (when scoring the relevance of documents)
Meta Keywords SEO Best Practice
Google is very clear about meta keywords (or keyword meta tags) – they don’t use them:
Example Code Use
<meta name="Keywords" content="seo, search engine optimisation, optimization" /
If you are relying on meta-keyword optimisation to rank for terms, you are dead in the water. Before Google confirmed it didn’t look at meta keywords – seo like myself had to test and make observations to find out. Google generally clarifies only common knowledge in professional circles.
From what I tested, Google + Bing ignored meta keywords for years - or at least places no weight in them to rank pages. Yahoo may read them, but really, a seo has more important things to worry about than this nonsense.
I’ve seen OPs in forums ponder which is the best way to write these tags – with commas, with spaces, limiting to how many characters, how many words to use… but sensible advice would be to spend your time on other things.
If you spam meta keywords, you’ve just told Google by the first lines of code on your page what to penalise the page for if manipulation is detected – that’s what I always thought – and BING confirmed they do do this. While Meta name=”Keywords” was originally for words that weren’t actually on the page that would help classify the document, I’d be wary of stuffing keywords in any element of a page.
Meta Keywords SEO Tests & Observations
From my tests over the years, Google and Bing ignored the keywords in the Meta Keywords Tag, but Yahoo Still used them when ranking pages.
Using the same methodology as my previous observations, it’s clear (and unsurprising) Google and Bing 100% ignore keyword meta keywords when ranking a page on a keyword search.
The test page in question disappears if I add the unique keyword in the meta keyword tags to the same query (if it is not on the page and only in the meta keywords tag).
So – it appears no benefit of having a keyword in the meta keywords tag on this level, for Google, if it is not on the page.
Bing seems to work in a similar fashion to Google, however Yahoo clearly apparently still uses the meta tag for ranking purposes as the following image shows…
I think it can do more harm than good to optimise meta keywords, in terms of possibly spamming, giving away business knowledge, or wasting time spent better elsewhere.
Search engines understand text, best. They cannot understand graphics or images as well as they do text content, and they are still years off properly understanding proprietary technologies such as Flash (which is probably on the way out with the advent of html5 – so don’t build your website with Flash. Text is key to accessible website design and search engine optimisation – and any tag offers you a golden opportunity to add a bit more, relevant and descriptive text about your web page into your web page. So, before you even worry about the correct use of meta tags: write relevant text content for your page.
Note: Meta tags are hidden in a document’s source, invisible to the reader. Some search engines, however, are able to include the content of meta tags in results – if they want.
Robots Meta Tag SEO Best Practices
<meta name="robots" content="index, nofollow" />
I could use the above meta tag to tell Google to index the page but not to follow any links on the page, if for some reason, I did not want the page to appear in Google search results, but I want Google to follow the links on this page.
By default, Googlebot will index a page and follow links to it. So there’s no need to tag pages with content values of INDEX or FOLLOW. GOOGLE
There are various instructions you can make use of in your Robots Meta Tag, but remember Google by default WILL index and follow links, so you have NO need to include that as a command – you can leave the robots meta out completely – and probably should if you don’t have a clue.
Googlebot understands any combination of lowercase and uppercase. GOOGLE.
Valid values for Robots Meta Tag “CONTENT” attribute are: “INDEX“, “NOINDEX“, “FOLLOW“, “NOFOLLOW“. Pretty self explanatory.
- META NAME=”ROBOTS” CONTENT=”NOINDEX, FOLLOW”
- META NAME=”ROBOTS” CONTENT=”INDEX, NOFOLLOW”
- META NAME=”ROBOTS” CONTENT=”NOINDEX, NOFOLLOW”
- META NAME=”ROBOTS” CONTENT=”NOARCHIVE”
- META NAME=”GOOGLEBOT” CONTENT=”NOSNIPPET”
Google will understand the following and interprets the following robots meta tag values:
- NOINDEX - prevents the page from being included in the index.
- NOFOLLOW - prevents Googlebot from following any links on the page. (Note that this is different from the link-level NOFOLLOW attribute, which prevents Googlebot from following an individual link.)
- NOARCHIVE - prevents a cached copy of this page from being available in the search results.
- NOSNIPPET - prevents a description from appearing below the page in the search results, as well as prevents caching of the page.
- NOODP - blocks the Open Directory Project description of the page from being used in the description that appears below the page in the search results.
- NONE - equivalent to “NOINDEX, NOFOLLOW”.
I’ve included the robots meta tag in my tutorial as this is one of only a handful of html head elements I generally focus on when it comes to Google (and Bing) seo. At a page level – it is quite powerful. When I am optimising a page for Google, I am usually focused on the PAGE CONTENT and USER EXPERIENCE in 2014, and I am usually interested in the following:
- Title Element – Important – Unique
- Meta Description (optional but advisable in most cases) – Unique
- Robots (optional) – Be Careful
These tags go in the [HEAD] section of a [HTML] page and represent the only tags for Google I really pay attention to. Just about everything else you can put in the [HEAD] of your HTML document is quite unnecessary and maybe even pointless (for Google optimisation, anyway). Google explicitly says in their guidelines:
Google will ignore meta tags it doesn’t know…
Open Directory Data
Google sometimes uses data from the ODP to create snippets, although you can tell Google to NOT use this data using meta tags, and I normally use this tag too.
<meta name="robots" content="NOODP">
To specifically prevent Google from using this information for a page’s description, use the following:
<meta name="googlebot" content="NOODP">
If you use the robots meta tag for other directives, you can combine those.
<meta name="googlebot" content="NOODP, nofollow">
Google Webmaster Tools
Google will also look to meta data when connecting your site to Google Webmaster Tools. If you ever need to use this verification method, it’s easy to apply to the HEAD.
NOTE – The Page Title Element is not a meta tag, although it is frequently referred to one. Best practices suggest about 1-12 words max (with focus keywords) – Google uses keywords and key phrases within the Page Title element when scoring the page, and often, but not always, as the title of the page search snippet in SERPS (search engine results pages) about 69 characters in SERPS – I like to keep titles to within this and ensure my important keywords are within the first 8 words. Read more about page Title Tag optimization.