As always with any on-page SEO factor, there has been considerable debate as to the merits and use of Meta Tags. Ask 20 experts and you’ll get 22 opinions! Some question whether or not they continue to serve any purpose and whether using them will really make any difference to the search engine ranking of your site. The current thinking is that although the use of Meta Tags by no means provides any level of guarantee as to search engine inclusion or placement, their effective use remains important.
The TITLE Tag
Since the Meta Tags are contained within the HEAD section of a page, before looking at them in detail it is worth mentioning the importance of the TITLE tag which is also contained within this section. Although not a Meta tag itself, proper use of the TITLE is widely held to be essential in any effective on-page SEO strategy. The TITLE tag determines the value displayed in the browser window or tab title and is argued to be one of the most important on-page SEO factors. It is essential that your TITLE contains the main keywords or phrases for which you want the page to rank. You should keep the length of the TITLE tag to within the W3C guidelines of no more than 64 characters. A good TITLE tag should describe the page sufficiently well for the reader to understand the type and scope of its content.
The Meta Description Tag
The Meta Description tag allows you to, as the name suggests, describe the page in greater detail than is possible within the length constraints of the TITLE tag. Indeed there are up to 250 characters available. Clearly the content of this tag should support the content of both the TITLE and the Meta Keywords tag (see below). Consistency between these elements and with the rest of the page content is important although making them identical could be seen as over-optimising and thus counter-productive. The search engines’ treatment of the Meta Description tag varies. Google is believed to use it for relevance and ranking but will create its own description for use in natural search results page (SERPs) listings. Other engines may use the contents of the Description tag either fully or in a truncated form depending on the length of the Description you provide and the available SERPs page space.
The Meta Keywords Tag
Originally designed to allow webmasters to provide the search engines with guidance as to the terms for which the page is relevant, the poor old Keywords tag has probably seen more abuse than almost any other HTML element, literally stuffed with endless and repetitive variants of search terms. As a result, the major search engines have for some time largely ignored the Keywords tag. Note the word “largely” here. Although use of the Keywords tag in isolation has very little bearing on ranking, effective use of it to REINFORCE the keywords on page MAY in some cases have a marginally positive effect on rankings. There is absolutely no doubt that it will only have any level of positive effect when used in conjunction with the main page content and to reinforce the contents of the TITLE and Description tags.
Some argue that excessive keyword stuffing here may have an adverse effect on rankings. It certainly doesn’t send the right message to the search engines and with the algorithms constantly being refined it makes sense to keep the keywords real and valuable. Many SEO advisors even suggest that those new to the field omit this tag and there is no real evidence that so doing will have a negative effect.
The Robots Tag
The Meta Robots tag should ONLY BE USED TO EXCLUDE THE PAGE. There is otherwise no need to specify this tag. Some have argued that specifying “follow, index” for this tag can be a positive factor but there is no evidence in support of these claims. By default, the search engine crawlers are designed to index unless otherwise asked. The Robots tag has various extensions, for example to prevent the indexing of multimedia content. Support for these is not, however, uniform across the search engines and most SEO experts recommend the use of the robots.txt file for exclusions.
Other Meta Tags
There are a range of other tags related to, for example, internal site indexing such as the “Dublin Core” Meta tags. There is no specific support for these tags believed to be present in the current search engine algorithms and their use is therefore highly site-specific and irrelevant to SEO.
Meta Tags and WordPress
Since WordPress is used by so many affiliates to add articles and content to their sites – indeed for many it is the primary technology by which they build sites – it is worth a mention. Although generally fairly well optimised, by default there is no option in WordPress to include or edit a Meta description and include keywords for each post. A title is the only element that is included and is generated automatically when you publish. As a result in its basic form you have little control over the information that is conveyed via the Meta tags. If the titles of your posts don’t contain the keywords used elsewhere on your page then those keywords won’t appear in the browser bar or potentially in the search engine’s description of your page. There is a solution to this problem in the form of the ‘all in one SEO’ WordPress plug-in, allowing you to customise these tags; add keywords and phrases that you’re using as part of the SEO for your site; and generally influence the Meta information about each page.
So Should I Use Meta Tags?
What all of this boils down to is that on-page management of keywords is fundamental to the performance of a web page, and that you should include them as effectively as you reasonably can. This includes adding keywords into the relevant Meta tags with each tag acting IN COMPLIMENT to the others and to the rest of the page content. This is advisable even if you’ve heard people saying that search engines don’t pay attention to them any more. Search engines do not stand still: they are constantly changing and evolving and the different engines treat on-page elements in very different ways to one another. As a result, sticking to the results of one example over another or the opinion of one source over another, no matter how demonstrable the effects or lack thereof of Meta tags has been, just isn’t a safe strategy. Some publishing tools may not offer Meta Tag support by default, but there are open source solutions to many of these problems as we’ve seen with WordPress. The best option is thus to include valid Meta tags anyway, whether you believe that they will have an effect or not, and to make sure that you are careful about the keywords you place in them.
The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts
No matter how well you think you may have optimised your Meta tags and TITLE, your hard work will be of little value unless you also pay reasonable attention to other key on-page SEO factors including overall keyword density; use of header (H1, H2, H3) tags; use of ALT text for images; W3C compliance; use of anchor text in internal navigation and links; reduced code redundancy with the “meat” of the content being as close to the top of the page as possible (perhaps using CSS to control layout and sequence) . .and so forth.
Effective SEO in 2009 requires that you address ALL areas effectively. The good news is that there is plenty of public domain information as to how to go about this, both here at Lammo and elsewhere – and some of the experts even agree with each other . . well largely anyway!
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