SEO Meta Tags Best Practices


Table Of Contents

 

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 high in Google in 2016 has far more to do with relevance and reputation of high-quality content, user satisfaction and popularity than meta tag optimisation.

In my experience, Meta tags do not noticeably influence where a page ranks in Google, in a positive way.

Meta tags, when used properly can still be useful in a number of areas outside just ranking pages. Abuse them, and you might fall foul of Google’s punitive quality algorithms.

Does Google Use What Is In Meta Tags For Ranking Pages?

Some search engines once looked to hidden HTML tags like these to help order pages in search engine results pages, but most search engines (in 2016) have evolved past this, and Google certainly has.

Google is on record as saying it does not use some data in meta when ranking a page (in a positive way) and tests throughout the years have certainly seemed to confirm this.

What Do Meta Tags Do in SEO?

Meta Data can help describe any page in a more convenient machine readable format, more suited to search engines, but they are very likely to get spammed, and so ultimately limited on their own, when it comes to ranking documents on the web.

It is more likely, I think, Google would look for abuse in such tags and penalise it in some way, rather than reward it.

Google may use metadata, amongst many other signals, to CLASSIFY pages, or DISPLAY information about a page in SERPs, although, in natural results in the UK, I see its impact, where it can be detected, when used at all, being used mainly for DISPLAY purposes.

I look for duplicate boilerplate text in meta descriptions, as they are often a sign of lower quality pages. I do this because Google says they don’t like that practice – and it is in their guidelines NOT to do it.

Perhaps Google looks at how unique your meta description IS relative to other pages on your site.

Pages are supposed to ‘stand on their own’ – perhaps algorithms check that they do, and you are not using low-quality techniques to generate them.

Do Meta Tags control my search snippet listing in Google?

Sometimes, yes, at least in the case of the Meta Description, but not always, and this is dependent on many factors. Google will pick its own preferred search snippet for SERPs for display purposes, based on elements that can still be influenced by whoever made the page (and site) – and what Google knows about the page.

Can I force My Meta Description To Be Used By Google?

It is possible, but to get, for instance, the meta description to display for a keyword, you generally need the keyword phrase in the meta description. If the reason the keyword is in the meta description is because it is a duplicate of the title, then, according to Google’s recommendations – that’s not ideal – perhaps even unnecessary duplication.

I pay very close attention to what Google says these days, especially after the May 2015 Google Quality Update and other site quality updates, like Google Panda, that Google may be using to rank your site.

Just because it is possible to influence if your meta description appears – doesn’t mean you should do it if it duplicates text in the title element. That advice is direct from Google.

 

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.

e.g.

See the snippet? That's my meta description tag

Google has radically changed how it creates page snippets, both to improve user experience, and obfuscate how it works as a search engine.

There’s still plenty of things you can do to ‘draw attention’ to your page snippet but be careful using ‘stars’ or other special characters – if you ‘stick out’ like a sore thumb – that’s not really what Google is intending. Stick out with you call to action – don’t rely on glitches in 2016.

I think that long term Google would want any guaranteed ‘manipulation’ of a search message in SERPs to be a benefit of it’s paid AdWords scheme, rather than it’s organic results. It doesn’t want SEO doing that….. not outside of Schema.org mark-up.

In 2016 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 Meta Description, but meta tags are best used when EXACTLY describing the page in question, 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 most can still benefit from that relationship.

When used properly Meta Descriptions 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 about what the ‘topic‘ and ‘concept‘ of a page is, its ‘purpose‘ and and end ‘user experience’.

Satisfying all 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 editorial pages in LOTS of organic results in future – that trend is evident in some niches.

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 – when no low-quality shortcuts are took, at least.

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 as a positive ranking signal where your page ranks in the SERPs.

What Are The Important Meta tags?

For the purposes of this ‘beginners guide to meta tags’, I focus on the three meta I am asked about the most:

  • description
  • keywords
  • robots

Below I share my observations over the years.

Google’s advice about most on page elements and tags is a lot clearer in 2016 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.

Example Code

<meta name="Description" content="I wouldn't waste 2 minutes optimising my keyword meta tags for Google, but Google tells us to pay attention to meta descriptions." />

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. If the keyword in the search query is NOT present on the page, chances are your meta description WON”T show up.

Although meta descriptions should be UNIQUE – be careful writing unique meta description text that DOES NOT APPEAR ON THE PAGE – or you are just giving scrapers free text you are not getting any actual rankings benefit from.

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 – and this is very reliant on the query. 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.

I don’t autogenerate descriptions with my cms ON A SMALL SITE – normally I’ll choose to either write a meta description using natural language, or omit the tag altogether.

Can Pages Still Rank High Without a Meta Description?

Yes. Google is usually able to extract a relevant snippet from the page which you can then go back and optimise for click-through rates if you think of a better message you want to display in SERPs for that page.

NOTE: Google tells you in 2016 to use a meta description on pages rather than leave it out, so I would listen to them on this point.

What Does Google Say about Meta Descriptions?

Googles says you can programmatically auto-generate unique meta descriptions based on the content of the page.

Follow Googles example:

<META NAME="Description" CONTENT="Author: J. K. Rowling, Illustrator: Mary GrandPré, Category: Books, Price: $17.99, Length: 784 pages">

….and their advice why to do this:

No duplication, more information, and everything is clearly tagged and separated. No real additional work is required to generate something of this quality: the price and length are the only new data, and they are already displayed on the site.

Google also says:

Programmatically generate descriptions

For some sites, like news media sources, generating an accurate and unique description for each page is easy: since each article is hand-written, it takes minimal effort to also add a one-sentence description. For larger database-driven sites, like product aggregators, hand-written descriptions are more difficult. In the latter case, though, programmatic generation of the descriptions can be appropriate and is encouraged — just make sure that your descriptions are not “spammy.” Good descriptions are human-readable and diverse, as we talked about in the first point above. The page-specific data we mentioned in the second point is a good candidate for programmatic generation.

Use quality descriptions

Finally, make sure your descriptions are… descriptive. It’s easy to become lax on the quality of the meta descriptions, since they’re not directly visible in the UI for your site’s visitors. But meta descriptions might be displayed in Google search results — if the description is high enough quality. A little extra work on your meta descriptions can go a long way towards showing a relevant snippet in search results. That’s likely to improve the quality and quantity of your user traffic.

Can You Control What Message Appears in 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 2016, it’s still worth remembering search engines are always on the lookout for manipulation that goes to far. Bing has 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 to address it, the meta description is 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?

Google says:

Make sure that every page on your site has a meta description.

A good meta description may be another sign of a quality page, and that can only be a good thing in 2016.

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 didn’t. I always used 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 (but compromised today).

My test page was, and still is, returned as No1 for the keyword search.

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 its index with those 2 terms on the page, even though there was.

The result is different today, with Google returning the page – but I think that is either compromised or due to better obfuscation at Google’s end.

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 world search.

Google knew it was 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.

Does Bing Use The Meta Description When Ranking A Page?

It did not return the page. Bing seemed to work the same as Google – effectively ignoring the meta description tag according to this test.

Takeaways from testing

  • 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)

Problems with Unique Meta Descriptions

Google has said for years “create unique meta descriptions”. If you follow that advice to the letter – you also conveniently give somebody else free text for their spam site. A good unique meta description only increases click through rate if the page actually appears at all for the query.

HOWEVER. You never get the benefit from a unique meta description that ONLY appears in your meta description and is not duplicated somewhere else on your page.

For example:

My unique meta description for that page:

Screenshot 2014-10-22 09.28.39

Looks like I am getting the benefit? I am number 1 out of 11 million results. Google does it’s job – but that’s other page metrics that Google looks at, that can successfully return my page as the originator of that text string – but only because my PAGE TEXT copy has a VERY high relevance for that particular query.

It’s nothing to do with the meta description.

Lets try that with that number I have in the meta:

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 09.34.02

 

Because I don’t have that number (word) on the actual visible page – I’m all of a sudden not the most ‘relevant’.

A scraper – who HAS put it on the page – is more ‘relevant’. 

Lets try it with QUOTES so I can see if I am getting an exact match benefit….

Screenshot 2014-10-22 09.31.37

 

Nope. Nowhere.

Plenty of scrapers getting credit for something that ‘I’ wrote – because that EXACT PHRASE is not in my copy.

Basically – Google cares about who has got the text in the VISIBLE part of the page – not who published this piece of text, first.

TIP? If you are creating meta descriptions – find a way to work them exactly into the visible page copy, too. Or only scrapers benefit.

PS

It’s interesting to see Google totally fail (if I expected my meta description to count for anything):

 

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 09.46.07

 

….and then ‘almost’ succeed (because it now has my ‘Hobo’ term relevance and lots of text content to help it) but still 100% fail on returning the original page top. The scraper that puts it on the visible page text – when I don’t – wins again.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 09.46.22

PS My friend Rishi has a an interesting observation about the meta description – but I think Google are simply pattern matching on rendering results pages to produce bolding in the SERPs if a high relevance is already detected.

Where you put punctuation in a meta also can impact how it displays (or it has – over the years).

Google fails on some of these searches because of the importance it gives to VISIBLE page content the relative unimportance it gives to INVISIBLE meta descriptions. I *think* i can understand a little WHY it would work this way but still….

Adding unique meta descriptions with text that does not appear on the page just give scrapers free original text to publish.

Scrape your own page for meta descriptions before scrapers do it for you, or leave them out altogether. I saw a page recently where my SERP snippet was HUGE – much bigger than everyone else’s – guess what – I had no meta description tag on the page. I’ll try and remember what search it was and grab a screenshot.

Is the meta description an overall ‘page quality signal’?

Possibly. If it is, the impact on actual rankings is negligible. I have zero evidence it is a page quality signal.

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.

In the past, in Google, the test page in question disappeared if I added 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).

Meta Keywords Result

So – it appeared there was no benefit of having a keyword in the meta keywords tag on this level, for Google, if it is not on the page.

Bing seemed to work in a similar fashion to Google, however Yahoo clearly apparently still used the meta tag for ranking purposes as the following image showed…

Yahoo Search Results

Google is much better at obfuscating how it works under the hood in 2016, but it seems to me to work in much the same way as it has always done.

It’s just harder to use Google to show it.

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, and in 2016 Google, at any rate, is MOSTLY interested in VISIBLE PAGE COPY – it calls this MAIN CONTENT.

Search engines cannot quite understand graphics or images as well as they can handle text content or other proprietary technologies (don’t build your website with Flash!). Text content is key to accessible website design and search engine optimisation – and any valid attribute offers you an opportunity to add a bit more, relevant and descriptive text about your web page into your web page.

In 2016 search engines ignore most invisible elements traditionally spammed s 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

Example Code;

<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.

Examples:

  • 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”.

Quick Reference

NOTE to self…. I need to check the following table is accurate these days….

Terms Googlebot Slurp MSNBot Teoma
NoIndex YES YES YES YES
NoFollow YES YES YES YES
NoArchive YES YES YES YES
NoSnippet YES NO NO NO
NoODP YES YES YES NO
NoYDIR NO YES NO NO
NoImageIndex YES NO NO NO
NoTranslate YES NO NO NO
Unavailable_After YES NO NO NO

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 powerful. When I am optimising a page for Google, I am usually focused on the PAGE CONTENT and USER EXPERIENCE in 2016, and I am usually interested in the following:

  1. Title Element – ImportantUnique
  2. Meta Description (optional but advisable in most cases) – Unique
  3. 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 keyword phrase present) but NOTE it is probably BEST TO KEEP MOST TITLE TAGS SUCCINCT in 2016.

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.

External References



  • Site Quality Audit

    Meta tags are not the primary factor that Google uses to rank your website in 2016. Google is rating the quality of your website. If you are looking to increase traffic to your website, I can review it and tell you exactly what you need to fix to make more money with your site.

    Find Out More