What Are Meta Tags?
Meta tags are snippets of text that describe a page’s content; the meta tags don’t appear on the page itself, but only in the page’s code. We all know tags from blog culture, and meta tags are more or less the same thing, little content descriptors that help tell search engines what a web page is about.
The only difference between tags you can see (on a blogpost, say) and tags you can’t see is location: meta tags only exist in HTML, usually at the “head” of the page, and so are only visible to search engines (and people who know where to look). The “meta” stands for “metadata,” which is the kind of data these tags provide – data about the data on your page.
Do Meta Tags Help SEO?
Yes, they do, but not all of them and not all of the time. One of the goals of this page is to explain which meta tags help you to get the word out and which have become passé. (See Know Your Meta Tags below).
If you want to find out whether a given page is using meta tags, just right-click anywhere on the page and select “View Page Source.”
A new tab will open in Chrome (in Firefox, it’ll be a pop-up window). The part at the top, or “head” of the page, is where the meta tags could be.
The meta tags will look something like this:
Know Your Meta Tags
There are four major types of meta tags worth knowing about and we’ll talk about them all here. Some are not as useful as they once were. Others are worth using regularly, and will very likely increase your traffic by letting Google know who you are and what you provide. (There are more than four kinds of meta tags, but some are less common or not relevant to web marketing).
The four types we’ll discuss here are:
- Meta Keywords Attribute - A series of keywords you deem relevant to the page in question.
- Title Tag - This is the text you'll see at the top of your browser. Search engines view this text as the "title" of your page.
- Meta Description Attribute - A brief description of the page.
- Meta Robots Attribute - An indication to search engine crawlers (robots or "bots") as to what they should do with the page.
Meta Keywords Attribute
Meta Keywords are an example of a meta tag that doesn’t make much sense to use these days. Years ago, the meta keyword tags may have been beneficial, but not anymore.
Remember back in kindergarten and when your teacher gave you a stern look and said “if you can’t stop using those crayons while I’m talking, I’m going to take them away from you,” and you didn’t listen and, to your shock, they were indeed taken away? That’s sort of what Google did with meta keywords.
Years ago, marketers eager for page views would insert keywords totally unrelated to their pages into their code in an attempt to pirate traffic from the more popular pages, those that actually were about Lindsay Lohan, or whoever was then trending. This was known as "keyword stuffing." Google eventually got wise to this and decided in the end to devalue the tool. These days Google doesn’t use meta keywords in its ranking algorithm at all, because they're too easy to abuse.
Title tags, on the other hand, are the most important of all of the meta tags discussed here. These tags have a real impact on search rankings and, perhaps just as importantly, are the only one of the tags we’ll discuss here that are visible to the average user. You’ll find them at the top of your browser (for organic search pages or for PPC landing pages):
This is particularly useful if you want to give the page one primary title for the user but want to clarify or simplify that information for SEO purposes and for the user who’s shuffling multiple tabs on their desktop.
Meta Description Attribute
This is a quite useful meta tag as, very simply, it explains to search engines and (sometimes) searchers themselves what your page is about. Let’s say you were googling the phrase “meta keywords” for example. You might encounter the following results:
It’s important to note that the description tag won’t always show up in the results for a Google search (Google frequently picks a snippet of text from the page itself) but it’s useful in other ways. Google has also stated that keywords in meta descriptions won’t affect your rankings. However, a compelling meta description tag could entice searchers to click through from the SERP to your site, especially if the description includes the keywords they were searching for.
Google’s reasons are somewhat mysterious, but their actions speak loudly: meta keywords don’t much matter anymore, but meta descriptions most certainly do.
Meta Robots Attribute
With this attribute, you're telling the search engines what to do with your pages:
- index/noindex - This tells the engines whether to show your page in search results or not.
- follow/nofollow - This tells the engines what to do with links on your pages: whether they should trust and "follow" your links to the next page or not.
So What's Next?
We’ve talked about the ways in which meta tags can have a very real impact on search engine marketing. From all of the above, we can extrapolate that:
- The Title Tag alone can impact your search engine rankings.
- Descriptive tags may encourage users to visit your site.
- The meta description may serve as "organic ad text."
Using Meta Tags For Search Engine Marketing
Meta tags aren’t hard to implement yourself – you don’t really need a programmer, just some experience with HTML. WordStream can help you find your most effective keywords for use in meta tags – try our Free Keyword Tool.