What is a Meta Tag?

Kendall Brennan
By Kendall Brennan

When web based companies want to rank high in Google search results, their best course of action is boosting SEO. Meta tags are part of the fundamental building blocks of SEO. In recent years, there has been some negativity surrounding meta tags, but at the end of the day, they’re still firmly located in every good digital marketer’s tool belt.  

In short, meta tags are words that are hidden in the code of your website.  Website users won’t be able to see them as they navigate your site, but search engines can see them, and that’s why they’re useful. Meta is short for metadata, because they provide data about your website.   Search engines use meta tags to determine what a website is all about. For example, If they see the following words in your code — sports, equipment, products, checkout, cart, baseball glove — they can deduce that your website belongs in search results for online sporting goods stores.

Search engines also assess the validity of your website by comparing your meta tags with the visible content on your page to make sure they are related.

RelatedWhat is Metadata? And How Do You Use it to Benefit Your Brand?

To be even more specific, meta tags live in the HTML of your website — usually in the head of the page. There are a few different types of meta tags you can use, which are listed below.

Types of Meta Tags

Title A title tag is the most prominent and concise way of telling search engines what your site is about. It’s also the text that appears in the tab of your web browser, and the big bold blue lettering in Google search results. Here’s an example of what it looks like in code:

<head>

<title>Sporting Goods</title>

</head>

If you’re using a website builder that has an SEO wizard, it takes care of the code part for you, which makes entering title tags much easier.

This is a great meta tag article with a checklist of important criteria to consider when writing a good title tag. Summarized below:

  • Include all of the keywords that you want to be ranked for.
  • The first word of your title tag should summarize your company the most. The second word should relate closely to the first, and so on. Your brand name should come last. (Most important word to least important followed by brand name)
  • Maximum 70 characters in total.
  • Separate your keywords using vertical bars. Example: Keyword | Brand name
  • Do not use underscores, commas or other punctuation.
  • Do not write in sentences, only keywords.
  • Do not duplicate your title tags. Enter different titles for each page.

Meta Description – While this type of tag doesn’t impact search rankings, it does have a key role in SEO success — it tells search engines what your page is about in the form of a small summarization. This is the small black lettered blurb at the bottom of each search result. Users will be reading this, so you’ll want it to be captivating. It looks a little something like this in code form:

<meta name=”description” content=”Online sporting goods store specializing in high quality equipment”/>

Keywords – These are the meta keywords that make up all the different content in your website. SEO specialists will recommend not wasting time on these meta tags — Google, Bing and Yahoo have made it very clear that they don’t use meta keywords to rank pages anymore. If you use a website builder that streamlines this process go ahead and use it. It may work for certain channels of the internet, but do not go out of your way. They look like this in code:

<meta name=”keywords” content=”sports, equipment, baseball, gloves, etc”/>

Meta Robots Attribute – This type of metadata serves like special instructions for search robots on how to navigate your website. There are several instructions you can code for. For example, you can tell robots not to show specific pages in search results or you can restrict them from indexing certain images in Google images. This is how they look in code form:

<meta name=”robots” content=”noindex, nofollow”>

Viewport – These days your website has to look great across multiple devices and platforms. That’s where Viewport tags come in. They help specify the appearance parameters of your website so that mobile functionality remains smooth.  This is how Viewport tags look in code form:

<meta name=viewport content=”width=device-width, initial-scale=1”>

Meta Tags to Avoid

There are a multitude of types, but not all meta tags are created equal. As of 2008 Google only recognizes a few main ones when deciding how to rank web pages in search results. So it’s important to know which types of meta tags are unnecessary or even potentially damaging to your SEO.

Keywords – We mentioned these above, and digital marketers will confer that the internet has evolved past this type of meta tag. Search engines simply don’t use these anymore. So why the stray away from keyword reading? It’s easy for people to abuse.

Copyright – The only copyright text you need on your website is towards the bottom of your page, not hidden in code.

Date/Expiration – Date and expiration are used to indicate the date a page or content was created and its expiry. It’s more beneficial to make an XML sitemap rather than use date meta tags. And for Expiration, it’s simply unnecessary to continually update.

Author/Generator – Unless you’re in dire of need of having an author, web author or page builder name displayed, this is just excess code that doesn’t serve much purpose.

Rating – This is the meta tag version of PG-13, Rated R, etc. It tells search engines the maturity rating of a given page. If you do need to display mature content there are other methods that involve indexing them in a separate place.

Revisit After – This is a set of instructions for robots to return to a URL after a set amount of time. No search engines use it.

Distribution – Distribution is used to instruct whether a page is private or not — sometimes companies need pages that are private and not open to the entire world, but for most that defeat the purpose of having a website. By default, pages are set to public, so there’s no need to clutter things up with these distribution tags.

Cache – These control how frequently web pages are cached in the browser, but it’s recommended to use the HTTP header to set this value.

This is not even a complete list, there’s a lot of meta tags in the world of coding. The key takeaway is to avoid cluttering your HTML with unnecessary meta tags, because this can actually hurt your Google rankings. Bots tend to favor pages built on succinct, and cohesive code that supports a compelling and intuitive user experience.

RelatedHow to Write a Meta Description That Will Draw Your Audience In

Meta tag Tips with WordPress

Many websites owners and builders use WordPress. Here are some helpful tips for creating strong Meta tags:

  • Open the Yoast SEO plugin. It’s kind of like a user-friendly SEO wizard that helps less experienced users.
  • Fill out the Custom title box and meta description box for each page.
  • Keep in mind that when a page is still young (under 6 months) chances are you’re not going to rank, so don’t panic.
  • After 6 months or so open the Google Search console and assess the traffic and locate the numbers for each page.
  • For pages that are getting the most clicks, spend time modifying the title tag and meta description. Keep it concise, compelling and cohesive.
  • In the Google search console, you can view the keywords responsible for driving traffic to each individual page. Try inserting the keywords with the most clicks in your Title or meta description (if it’s not already done).

By continually monitoring clicks in the Google Search console, you’ll be able to update your title and meta description with confidence. The numbers don’t lie!

Google Overrides

In some cases, Google can override your title tag if it’s to their liking, or it’s just overall very weak. They will create a new one based on meta descriptions and page content. You might think, ‘Google is smart, they’ll probably do a good job.’ But that’s not exactly true because the process is automated. Chances are it won’t render an accurate and relevant enough title to boost your rankings.

Tying it All Together

Meta tags, coding, HTML, SEO plugins and more — all of this stuff can get pretty overwhelming, especially if you’re a novice when it comes to website building.

The main takeaway to remember when diving into meta tags is that you really don’t need to overload your web page with too much. In fact, less is more. The great part is that Google is very open about the backend criteria they use to rank web pages. So with a little bit of research, you can find out exactly what meta tags you need to worry about and why. Plus, most website building programs these days come with plugins or built-in wizards that streamline the process for you. Depending on your website size, most people can set up all of the necessary meta tags in under 30 minutes. Then it’s just a matter of monitoring and updating your highest clicked keywords.

Kendall is a Senior SEO Strategist at Power Digital. She specializes in SEO, but also has a passion for the holistic view of digital marketing and seeing how all channels work together to create a strong digital presence.