The Noisy Little Monkey Blog

What are meta tags?

Posted in SEO by Jon Payne on 10-Feb-2008 09:39:00

This is a follow on from the post Does a blog make a good business website? I guess the other question we need to ask in addition to what are meta tags? is... how can they benefit my business?

Meta tags are the bits of a web page that you don't ordinarily see, but they are there hiding at the top of all web pages. Here's what a meta tag looks like:

<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html">

This one would tell your browser to render the page as text. But that is soooooo tedious and nobody cares. So lets get to the useful stuff.... what you can do with your meta tags to make them improve your site's visibility in the search engines results pages.

The main meta tags you should concentrate on when you are considering launching your new website are:

Title (not a meta tag, but now is a good time to take a look at it)
Description
Robots
Keywords

The title appears in the blue bar at the top of your browser. And along with the description, the title also appears in the search engine results.


So it's a good idea to have the search terms you'd like your page to be found for in both the title and the description.... There are no hard and fast rules governing what you can put in the title, but it's best to keep it simple and under 20 words. For the description, I try to keep to under 35 words. Different search engines will show different amounts of the title and description in their results pages so, make sure all your important information is in the first few words.

If your site is listed in the Open Directory Project or ODP (a human edited search engine, and your isn't listed yet, submit it NOW!) then Google, MSN & Yahoo! will not show your description in the search results but the description that ODP has written for you. You can override this with the robots tag. "Robots" is a catch all term for the automated browsers (or "search engine spiders", "crawlers") which follow all the links on the web to build up the index of web pages for their parent search engine.

<meta name="ROBOTS" content="NOODP"&gt

tells the search engines to show your descriptions, not those which ODP has written on your behalf. You can also give the commands "NOFOLLOW" (tell robots not to follow links on this page) and "NOARCHIVE" (tells robots not to include this page in the index), but really this should be done in a separate file called robots.txt, which all robots look for to get instructions when they arrive at a website.

Finally we come to the meta tag "keywords" - way back in the 1990's when the web was young, and search engines weren't as rich, rather than waste expensive resources on sending out their robots to read an entire page, the robots would read just the meta tags (including the keywords) for a kind of synopsis. The page would then be ranked according to the title and description and because there wasn't much info in here you could tell the robots what else existed on the page by giving it a list of "keywords". For this page the keywords might read something like:

<meta name="KEYWORDS" content="search marketing tips business uk">

Sadly, some people would stuff their keywords with hundreds of words hoping it would improve their ranking and even worse, some other naughty people used misleading keywords so that unsuspecting surfers might search for "spice girls" and arrive at a page showing pictures of ladies with no tops on. This wouldn't do, so search engines pretty much ignore keywords now and look at the title, description and actual 'on page' content to see what the page is about. I still use the keywords attribute myself, but keep it to 4 or 5 words per page. I'm not sure it has any real value, but if the keywords are accurate and brief, I'm confident it doesn't do any harm.

There are a few of final comments:

Keep your titles and descriptions meaningful and accurate, search engines like providing their users with accurate results. You will not achieve high rankings in the search engines if you over egg the pudding.

I know it's difficult but try to make sure you have a unique title and description for every page, to reflect the content on the page. This way all your pages are more likely to rank highly in the search results and you are more likely to be found by people who are looking for your products and/or services and who have never heard of you.

Need more help? Confused about this? Post a comment or contact Noisy Little Monkey

Tags: SEO

Jon Payne

Jon Payne

Founder and Technical Director of Noisy Little Monkey, Jon blogs about SEO and digital marketing strategy.