by James Smith | Jun 11, 2010
Meta tags, also known as meta elements, are tags used in HTML files (individual webpages) which provide structured data about the content of the page. They are commonly misunderstood in spite of their importance in search engine optimization, and there are various tags which are still essential for any webpage, while others have long since been rendered obsolete by changing search engine algorithms.
Most seo courses will tell you that the primary purpose of meta tags is to provide the search engines with information about your website so that they can more effectively index and rank it. While the content of the meta tags will not be visible to visitors when they are browsing your website, certain tags, such as the description, accompany listings in search results.
You'll find the meta tags in the <head> section of the HTML page, but if you use a content management system rather than coding your website from scratch, there will likely be a feature allowing you to add meta information in a more user-friendly way.
The meta description tag is by far the most important one, since it provides a brief description of the webpage that it applies to. Although search engine algorithm updates have diminished its usefulness in terms of SEO, it is still essential due to the fact that this description will be one of the first experiences that people will have with your website. Without a meta description for a webpage, the result in the search engines will show nothing more than the URL and the page title, which often isn't particularly helpful to your potential visitors.
When someone enters a search query in Google, any instances of the keywords they entered will be highlighted in bold in the title, URL and the description. A meta description should ideally be under 160 characters and carefully formulated to describe the webpage it applies to in one or two sentences. There is also no harm in subtly including your targeted keywords in the content. You should ultimately think of the meta description as an opportunity to encourage people to click on your link in the search results, so it should never be written solely for the search engines.
The meta robots tag exists to manage webpage accessibility. The most important function of the meta robots tag is the nofollow value, a value which prevents the search engines from crawling the specified page. The nofollow value is particularly useful for preventing the search engines from indexing duplicate content, such as printable versions of webpages otherwise containing exactly the same text content. Just ask Google about duplicate content that confuses the search engines and can harm your ranking, so any webpage containing such content should be listed in the meta robots tag, or in the robots.txt file in the root directory of your website. You may also want to prevent indexing incomplete or private webpages.
Page Titles and SEO
The title tag in HTML isn't technically a meta tag, but it should be included in this guide due to its great importance in SEO. All HTML documents need a title tag, and as the name suggests, they are the titles of the webpages concerned.
The title appears at the top of the browser window or tab as well as in the search engine results pages above the URL and meta description. Just ask any seo consultant and they will tell you that while using the same title as the one you use for the content itself is usually fine, it is important to remember that Google has a 70-character limit on what it displays.
For this reason, you'll need to reword your HTML titles if they are longer than 70 characters. As is the case with the meta description, it's a good idea to include a relevant key word or phrase.
Obsolete Meta Tags
There are various other meta tags which either have no influence on search engine rankings or are now obsolete, the meta keywords tab being a prime example. While the keywords tag was once useful, it was so frequently abused that the major search engines entirely stopped using it as a ranking factor.
Although you can still use it, there is absolutely no point in doing so. Another obsolete tag which no longer serves any purpose is the meta language tag. This tag was once used for declaring the language of the content.