Tutorial: Meta Tags

Using the Title Tag, plus Description, Keywords, and Robots Meta Tags

 
Introduction to Meta Tags

Meta tags are a part of HTML that the surfer never sees. They are not included for the surfer's benefit and their contents are not printed to the screen. The main use of meta tags is to provide information for the search engines to use when evaluating a page's content. HTML pages do not need to include any meta tags at all. In recent years, meta tags have become less important in the algorithms of major search engines. Because visitors don't see them, meta tags were too easy to abuse by search engine optimizers; search engines devalued them. Note that the Title Tag isn't a "meta" tag, but is extremely important.

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Meta tags belong in the head section of a page and each meta tag contains two elements or properties; (1) its name, (2) its content. Example:

<meta name="keywords" content="keyword one, keyword two, etc">

For best search results, each page of a web site should contain the unique, relevant meta tags. The tags should contain the correct information for the page. On the same site, different pages are often concerned with different topics and the 'content' of the meta tags should reflect the page's topic or content. Sometimes it is desireable for a page not to be indexed by the search engines, in which case only the 'robots' tag need be included. Of the many different meta tags, the ones that concern us in our dealings with the search engines are:- keywords (as the example), description, refresh and robots. The keywords and description tags help us to achieve top rankings in most search engines, the refresh tag has the capability of destroying them and the robots tag gives instructions to the the search engine robots/spiders (the web travelling programs that are used to index web sites and pages).

The 'keywords' meta tag

Example:
<meta name="keywords" content="widget buying shopping bargains discount prices">

The keywords tag has been largely devalued by search engines. Some minor search engines and "private" search engines may still use it, though, so it is good design practice to fill the tag with appropriate content. Nevertheless, one shouldn't spend much time agonizing over the content - it simply isn't that important.

The 'description' meta tag

<meta name="description" content="Acme Industrial offers the web's lowest prices on blue widgets - great bargains with fast shipment and guaranteed delivery.">

When you look at a list of search results, each listed site/page usually has a description of what the site/page is about. This is not the title which is normally dispayed in bold. Some search engines get the description from this meta tag although today most take it from the printable text in the page itself. To take advantage of the engines that use the description meta tag, this is the place to write a short piece of text to grab the surfer's attention.

Today, the major search engines seem to place very little (or no) value on the content of the description tag from an algorithmic standpoint. Nevertheless, it remains good design practice to put a unique and appropriate description tag on each page. Include relevant keyword content in the tag.

The 'refresh' meta tag

Example:
<meta http-equiv="refresh" content="0;url=newpage.html">

It's effect is to automatically load the next page in the number of seconds specified. The example would fetch the next page in 0 seconds. It is sometimes used unscrupulously to redirect surfers to sites and pages that they didn't choose to go to. The search engines are wise to it and penalise sites and pages that use this technique. The moral is - don't do it. The main appropriate use for the meta refresh is a non-search related redirect, e.g., a magazine printed a nonexistent URL in an article. Even in that case, other redirection methods are probably better.

The 'robots' meta tag

Example:
<meta name="robots" content="noindex,nofollow">

This is one tag that is still widely respected by search engines. It is used to pass instructions to the search engines' robots - often referred to as spiders or crawlers. The default (i.e., if there is no robots meta tag) is for search engines to index the page and to follow links on the page - if this is your intention, you can omit the tag entirely.

index = index this page *
noindex = don't index this page
follow = follow the links from this page to get more pages *
nofollow = don't follow the links from this page
all = index this page and follow the links from it *
none = don't index this page and don't follow the links

* = default setting (no need for a tag)

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