Meta tags are snippets of HTML used to convey metadata about a document. This information is generally hidden from the average user, but can be useful in conveying information to the non-human clients that may connect to a website, such as search engines. Here we’ll cover some of the meta tags most commonly used for SEO purposes.
Meta descriptions are used to provide a concise and engaging summary of a webpage. They are primarily used by search engines as the snippet text that accompanies results on search engine result pages (SERPs). If the meta description is left blank most search engines will use a portion of the text present on the page itself and, when possible, they will use text that is relevant to the user’s search query.
Even though they have no direct impact on a page’s position in the search rankings (as Google announced in 2009), meta tags are still an important consideration when optimizing a page for search. When a user reaches a SERP, the meta description is one of the two pieces of information that can be used to convince a user to click on a result. Meta descriptions should be clear, descriptive, and compelling, and they should illustrate the page’s unique selling point so that it can stand out among other potentially similar results.
There are a couple of other considerations to keep in mind while writing a meta description:
- Keywords in the meta description will be highlighted on most SERPs when they match the search query. This can be used to catch the user’s attention by including commonly searched keywords.
- The optimal length of the description is roughly 155 characters. Any more than that and the description will be at risk of being truncated.
- Avoid using quotes in meta descriptions; when Google encounters a quotation mark it will cut off the rest of the description. If necessary, consider using single quotes instead.
- A page’s description may be picked up and displayed on social sites, such as Facebook, so make sure to consider what different contexts it may appear in.
While not strictly a meta tag, the title element (or title tag) is still often referred to as one, and is highly important when it comes to SEO. The title element defines a page’s title, which is used in a number of different places, such as in browser tabs, on social sharing sites, and on SERPs.
Unlike the meta description, titles do have an impact on search rankings. While the exact algorithms that search engines use for their rankings are kept secret, the general understanding is that the closer a word is to the beginning of the title the more weight it is given. This means that the recommendation is – unless the site’s brand is strong enough to drive clicks on its own – to front-load titles with the page’s keywords when possible. As with the meta description, titles should also be relevant to the content of the page; there’s no faster way to drive away a user than by making them feel misled.
When crafting page titles, also keep the following points in mind:
- Optimal title length is generally between 50 and 60 characters, but what is actually being measured is the physical width of the title in pixels as it appears on the SERP. Not only is this affected by the specific characters being used, it is also influenced by how closely the title matches the search terms; these terms will be bolded and increase its pixel width. Making use of a title tag preview tool is highly recommended.
- The title is the most prominent part of a search result, and your very first point of contact with a user; make sure it puts the site’s best foot forward.
- As with the meta description, a page’s title can be picked up and displayed when linked on social sites, so make sure to similarly consider these different contexts.
In the early days of the web, search engines used to look at a website’s meta keywords to determine its relevance to a search query. This was easily abused by people looking to increase their search presence by adding keywords that were unrelated to the website, but that generated a lot of hits. As the meta keywords would not be displayed to the visitor, this could be performed without compromising the design of the website. Search engines tried improving their metrics to reduce the potential for abuse, but over time the keyword meta tag became a less and less trusted way to measure search relevance.
Currently, Meta keywords are at best an insignificant measure, and at worst can actively harm your rankings. Google has stated that they do not use the keywords tag at all, while Yahoo! and Bing only use keywords as one of the least influential factors taken into account; the potential benefit of maintaining your meta keywords is very minimal. Additionally, given their somewhat disreputable past, if the meta keywords of a page are poorly managed there is a potential for search engines to perceive it as an attempt to game the system and reduce that page’s rankings.
Whether or not you should use meta keywords is ultimately a matter of discretion, but there is no doubt that there are many other more significant things that should have a much higher priority.
Daniel – Developer