Posted Monday, June 28, 2004
Defining Meta Tags is much easier than explaining how they are used, and by which engines. The reason is very few engines clearly lay out what they do and do not look at, and how much emphasis they put on any one factor. So, we’ll start with the easy part
Meta Tags are lines of HTML code embedded into web pages that are used by search engines to store information about your site. These "tags" contain keywords, descriptions, copyright information, site titles and more. They are among the numerous things that the search engines look for, when trying to evaluate a web site.
Meta Tags are not "required" when you're creating web pages. Unfortunately, many web site operators who don’t use them are left wondering why the saying "If I build it they will come" didn’t apply to their site.
There’s also a few naysayers in the search engine optimization industry who claim that Meta Tags are useless. You can believe them if you like, but you would be wise not to. While not technically "required", Meta Tags are essential.
If you simply create a web site and register the URL with the search engines, their spiders will visit your site, and attempt to index it. Each search engine operates slightly differently, and each one weighs different elements of a web site according to their own proprietary algorithms. For example, Altavista places an emphasis on the description tag and Inktomi states on their web site that;
Inktomi "(...) indexes both the full text of the Web page you submit as well as the meta-tags within the site's HTML."
Other search engines like Exactseek are true meta tag search engines which clearly state their policy:
"Your site will not be added if it does not have Title and Meta Description tags."
They also use the keywords tag.
Of course, not all search engines work this way. Some place their emphasis on content. The search engines have over 100 individual factors they look at when reviewing a web site. Some of these factors deal with page structure. They check to see that all the 't's are crossed, and the 'i's dotted. They note sites that have omitted basic steps, like missing tags.
One reason so many engines de-emphasized the meta-keyword tag had to do with spam. There was a time when 'search engine promotion specialists' would cram keywords tags full of irrelevant information. The web site would be selling garbage cans, but the keywords tags were chock full of irrelevant terms like "mp3" or "Britney Spears". They figured that if enough people visited their site, some would buy.
So today, to avoid and penalize this kind of abuse, some search engines don’t specifically use the keywords tag as part of the scoring of a site, but they monitor the keywords to ensure they match the content in the site. The reasoning being that, if the tags are irrelevant, they must have an alternate purpose. Is it a spam site? When keywords tags are completely irrelevant to the content, some search engines, that don’t specifically use keywords tags, will penalize that web site.
Even for those engines that have downplayed the value of Meta Tags, there are situations where Meta Tags gain considerably in importance, e.g. sites with rich graphics, but poor textual content. Unfortunately, a picture is worth 1000 words to you and me, but zero to a search engine. If a site has poor textual content, the engines will be more dependent than ever on the Meta Tags to properly categorize it.
Even if you ensure you have completely relevant Meta Tags, some search engines will still ignore them. But better they ignore them, than they ignore your whole site because they suspect something is less than above board. Never hope that having Meta Tags will make the difference in all the search engines; nothing is a substitute for good content. But in cases where the engine depends on that content, it may be the only thing that does work for your site.
So How To Use The Meta Tags?
Meta tags should always be placed in the area of an HTML document. This starts just after the tag, and ends immediately before the tag. Here’s how the most basic set should look:
Always make sure that your meta tags do not have any line breaks, otherwise the search engines will just see bad code and ignore them. You should also avoid use of capitals in your code (html5 standard) as well as repetition of terms within the keywords tag.
What Goes Into a Meta Tag?
For the Description tag: ; Many search engines will display this summary along with the title of your page in their search results. Keep this reasonably short, concise and to the point, but make sure that it’s an appropriate reflection of your site content.
For the keyword tag;
Keywords represent the key terms that someone might enter into a search engine. Choose only relevant keywords. If the terms are going to appear in your keywords tag, they must appear in the content of your site, or be a synonym to a term on your site. Most search engines compare your meta content with what is actually on your page, and if it doesn’t match, your web site can get penalized, and suffer in search results.
for the Robots tag ;Many web pages have this tag wrong. An example of the wrong usage is content="index, follow, all" - wrong because some spiders can't handle spaces between the words in the tag or the word "all". Most engines by default assume that you want a web page to be indexed and links followed, so using the wrong syntax can actually result in the spider coming to the wrong conclusion and penalizing, or worse, ignoring the page outright. If by chance you do not want your links followed, or the page not indexed, then you would substitute "noindex" and or "nofollow" into the tag.
With the Internet growing at a rate of over 8,000,000 new pages per day, and the search engines adding a fraction of that number, Meta Tags are a common standard which can reasonably ensure a measure of proper categorization for a web site. So, always ensure that you cover all the bases, and use completely relevant terms in properly structured Meta Tags. Using tags properly will pay dividends in the short and long term. After all, using them properly only helps the search engines, which means they will send you more qualified traffic - customers.
About the Author
Richard Zwicky is a founder and the CEO of Metamend Software & Design Ltd., (www.metamend.com), a Victoria B.C. based firm whose cutting edge Search Engine Optimization software is recognized as the world leader in its field. Employing a staff of 10, the firm's business comes from around the world, with clients from every continent. Most recently the company was recognized for their geo-locational, or GIS, along with their phraseological and context sensitive search technologies.