The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Meta Elements
Article updated October 20th 2020
As a small business owner who has been advised by an SEO Agency or has read SEO tips on blog posts, you must have heard of the term meta tag and how they play an important role in your website's SEO. It is always unclear though how important these meta tags really are.
The SEO trends keep changing with the blink of an eye and hence it is imperative that we get our facts straight about the role of meta tags, in today's age.
This post will explain in plain language what a meta element was years ago, what it is today, how important it is and the various types of meta tag that will help the SEO future of your site.
- What Are Meta Tags
- Types Of Meta Tags
- Meta Description
- Meta Content Type
- Meta Robots
- Meta Title
- Meta Keyword
- Meta Author
- Meta Copyright
- Meta Language
- Miscellaneous Meta Tags
- How To Add Meta Tags To Your Site
What Are Meta Tags?
Tags in its literal meaning stands for a name or an identification mark given to an object. Ever since the internet came into existence, early websites implemented these identification marks in the form of textual tags enclosed within the element of the website's HTML code. These tag were known as meta tags and were also referred to as the meta element.
In simple words, meta tags are data that describe the content of the website and is one of the first information available to search engine robots to crawl, index and classify a given website. These tags are not visible to human visitors of your site, but the content is visible to the search engine bots. However, the content in two of the meta tags "“ title and description "“ is visible to humans on search engine results of a given website.
The most common syntax for HTML meta tag is as follows:
<head> <meta name=" " content=" "> <head>
Types Of Meta Tags
There are two broad categories of meta tags: Important and Optional.
Important Meta Tags:
These tags are important for a website. The SEO importance of these tags may have declined with time, but these are mandatory for every website as they give important information about the site to the search engines.
The following are the tags that are important meta tags:
- Meta Description
- Meta Content Type
- Meta Robots
Optional Meta Tags:
Some of these meta tags (e.g. meta keywords tag) were considered the most important tag to help identify the keyword category of a site on search. However, due to spammy usage of these tags, they have been deemed insignificant and shifted to the optional category. Some other tags are just optional because their existence or non-existence does not make much of a difference in how your content is interpreted by search engines bots.
The following are the tags that fall under optional meta tags:
- Meta Title
- Meta Keyword
- Meta Author
- Meta Copyright
- Meta Language (For Non-English Sites)
Now let's look at each meta tag individually.
The meta description tag is simply one or two lines that describe the content of your page. Ideally, you must write the meta description content within 156 characters to avoid it being cut short, but the size of search snippets tend to vary on different search engines.
Take a look at an example of a search snippet below that was taken from Bing search:
Sample Screenshot Of Bing Search Snippet (image credit "“ bing.com)
And this search snippet was taken from the meta description of the site, which is shown below:
Source Code View Of Meta Description Of Sample Site From Search Snippet Above (image credit "“ keurig.com)
However, not every search engine uses the meta description in their search snippets.
Sample Screenshot Of Google Search Snippet (image credit "“ google.com)
And this is how the coded side of the site looks, which shows that the content in the meta description does not match with that in the Google search snippet of the sample site.
Source Code View Of Meta Description Of Sample Site From Search Snippet Screenshot Above (image credit "“ downtownhouston.org)
This is because Google chooses from among the best description of the site found either in the meta description, the on-page content or ODP (open directory project) data and displays it on search. The selection of the description content is not under your control anymore, as far as Google search is concerned.
Read more about it in this Moz blog in a post titled Why Won't Google Use My Meta Description?
How Important Are Meta Description Tags For SEO?
On a scale of 10 for significance in SEO, meta descriptions score a 5.
It may not directly effect SEO because of the keywords in it, like it used to in the distant past. Nevertheless, it is a tiny part of the bigger algorithm search engines use to position content on their SERPs.
Whether or not your meta description is displayed on search snippets, you must provide the meta description anyway. This is because there are other search engines that use them.
Meta descriptions improve the user experience and therefore play an important role in increasing click through rates on search results. When your website's search snippet has a good rate of click throughs it has a higher chance of ranking better in SERPs. Thus, meta descriptions also indirectly affect SEO of a site.
Example of meta description tag.
<meta name="description" content="Put your webpage description here.">
Meta Content Type
This meta tag is used to declare the character set of a website. This tag specifies the character encoding for the HTML document. The common codes are UTF-8 (character encoding for unicode) and ISO-8859-1 (character encoding for the Latin alphabet). In HTML 4.01 the meta content type tag looks like this:
<meta http-equiv="content-type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-8">
HTML 5, on the other hand, has a new attribute called charset which makes it easier to declare the character set, as shown in the example below:
It is recommended that you always use this tag along with the DTD declaration format by the World Wide Web Consortium. Failing to do so may cause display problems in the website.
How important is Meta Charset for SEO?
This tag does not directly affect your search engine rankings, but if implemented incorrectly, search engine bots may not interpret the code correctly on your site. This may lead to various unpredictable consequences that may affect the usability of your site, cause high bounce rates, reduce chances of third party sites linking to your site and subsequently the SEO of the site.
Meta robots tag is perhaps the most important meta tag. The following are the varieties of instances where a meta robots tag is used.
- When you do not want your site's pages be indexed or the links be followed, you can use the following code:
<meta name="robots" content="noindex, nofollow">
This tells the search robot not to index your page in search results and not to follow the links on the page. This is done mostly during development stage when a site is not ready to be exposed on search. When you launch a new website always check whether this robots meta tag has been removed.
- When you want your site to be indexed but do not want the links on it to be followed, you can use the following code:
This tells the search robot to index your site but not to follow the links on your site. This can be done when you site has a lot of user generated content that can give rise to spammy links.
- When you don't want your page to be indexed but want your links on the page to be followed, the following code is used:
This is a rare instance when you want your page not to be indexed and exposed on search but want links on the page to be followed.
- When you don't mind if your site is indexed and the links are followed, the following code is used:
This is used commonly for those pages who want to be found in search results and also encourages people to link to the site.
Some miscellaneous values that can be specified on robots tag are as follows. (These values are followed by googlebot):
- nosnippet: Prevents the snippets from showing in search results.
- noodp: Prevents alternative description from ODP/DMOZ being used in search snippets.
- noarchive: Prevents Google from showing cached link for a page.
- unavailable_after[date]: To specify exact date you want to stop the crawling and indexing of your webpage.
- noimageindex: Prevents your pages to be specified as a referring page for images on Google image search.
NOTE: When you do not specify robots meta tag, the page is considered as index, follow. Also, it is not necessary that all search engine robots follow the robots code.
How Important Are Meta Robot Tags For SEO?
From a scale of 1 to 10 on significance in SEO, meta robots tag score a 8.
It is important because it instructs the search engine whether your site content must be indexed and whether the links must be followed. A little mistake in declaring the meta robots tag incorrectly may cause the whole site to be de-indexed from search. So you must be always cautious about this meta tag.
There are some other cases where the meta robots tag are important in terms of SEO concerning the correct distribution of link juice.
Say for instance, you have blocked a page from being indexed in your website's robots.txt file. But the page still appears in search as plain URLs (without title and description). What if that URL accumulates links and gains link juice? They will never be able to pass that link juice as the links on them do not get crawled, and thus the link juice is wasted.
On the other hand, if you use meta robots tag on that particular page with the 'noindex, follow' value, the page would not be indexed on search but can pass its pagerank to other pages, because the links on it can be crawled.
This is what Google says about meta robots tag.
Meta title is often confused with the <title> tag that is used within the <head> tags. While the <title> tag is compulsory to have on your site, meta title tag is optional. The content within the <title> tag is seen on the browser tab and also as the title in a search snippet.
Take a look at the following example:
Title Tag Shown On Search Snippet On Google Search (image credit - google.com)
This search snippet shown above displays the content in the <title> tag.
Shown below are screenshots of the source code section of the site containing the <title> tag followed by a screenshot of the browser tab that shows the page title.
Source Code Of Sample Site Showing Title Tag Content (image credit - frankspizza.com)
Page Title Sample Seen On Browser Tab (image credit - frankspizza.com)
However, if you do have a meta title tag, the content on it will be seen in the search snippet and the content in the <title> tag will be seen on the browser window tab. Most websites do not use the meta title tag unless in a few rare cases as the following.
Say for example your title tag is short to fit into the browser tab text area - Frank's Pizza | Houston and you want your search snippet to have more information than that. You can then use a meta title tag that says Frank's Pizza Best 24 Hour Pizza Place In Houston. The meta title tag is represented as follows:
<meta name="title" content="Your title content goes here">
Most industry experts say <title> tags are meta tags, but they aren't. Nevertheless, they are very important and here is a post that gives you 10 tips on title tag optimization.
How Important Are Meta Title Tags For SEO?
You can have <title> tags instead of meta title tags or have both with the same content. The keywords in the meta title tag (or the <title> tag), plays a minute role in your SERPs position, provided other SEO elements are implemented correctly on your site.
In early 1996, two search engines, Infoseek and AltaVista that were crawler-based used the meta keyword tag to identify, classify and position websites in SERPs. Following their footsteps, some other search engines such as Inktomi and Lycos also started using these tags to rank websites in search. Soon, spammers started manipulating this tag for higher rankings, thus resulting in the decline of support via rapidly developing search engines. Thus meta keyword tags were rendered useless for SEO by most major search engines.
The meta keyword tag is represented as follows:
How Important Are Meta Keyword Tags For SEO?
The meta keyword tag has been declared of no use to major search engines. Google openly declared in 2009 that they do not use this tag. The only search engine that uses this tag is Bing, in order to help detect spam. It is best recommended to not to use this tag and add on to the code of the site causing code bloat. And even if you do use this tag, make sure you have no more than three unique keywords in them.
This meta tag refers to the author of the page, i.e. the one who developed the HTML document being viewed. It is used as a reference to track the author of a particular page in cases where multiple developers are used.
It is represented as:
<meta name="author" content="first and last name, email address"
How Important Are Meta Author Tags For SEO?
This tag is not useful for your site's SEO ranking in anyway.
The meta copyright tag is used to include a copyright, patent or trademark. It is not responsible to protect your site's content or intellectual property. The tag is represented as:
<meta name="copyright" content="Copyright 2014">
How Important Are Meta Copyright Tags For SEO?
It is of no significance to SEO of your site.
If your site is a non-English site, you can declare the language of your site using this tag. The following is a sample meta language HTML code:
NOTE: Google does not require this code to detect the language of the website and hence it is placed under the optional meta element section. It may be of use to other search engines.
How Important Are Meta Language Tags For SEO?
It is of no significant use to the SEO Of your site.
Miscellaneous Meta Tags
There are many other miscellaneous meta tags, that we are not going to talk about in detail in this post. For your reference, however, they are as follows:
- Meta Designer - This tag is is used to declare the designer of the website. e.g.: <meta name="Designer" content="Robert Lewis">
- Meta Googlebot - This tag is used in cases where you want the Googlebot to do something specific. e.g.: <meta name="googlebot" content="nosnippet">
- Meta MSN - This tag is used for your site's description in Bing search, instead of that from DMOZ. e.g.: <meta name="msnbot" content="NOODP">
- Meta Content Style Type - This tag is used to specify the default CSS for the document. e.g.: <meta http-equiv="Content-Style-Type" content="text/css">
- Meta Distribution - This tag is used to declare the distribution of your web content (global, local or IU). e.g.: <meta name="Distribution" content="Global">
- Meta Expires - This tag is used to declare the date and time after which the document must be considered expired. e.g.: <meta http-equiv="expires" content="Thu, 5 Jun 2014 09:30:00 GMT">
- Meta Generator - This tag is used to declare the name and version of the tool used to publish the website. e.g: <meta name="Generator" content="FrontPage 4.0">
- Meta MS Smart Tags - This tag was used to highlight keywords on a website that would take user to competitor website. e.g.: <meta name="MSSmartTagsPreventParsing" content="True">
- Meta Pragma No-Cache - This tag is used to prevent users from seeing a cached version of a page. e.g.: <meta http-equiv="Pragma" content="no-cache">
- Meta Publisher - This tag is used to declare the name and version of the tool used to publish the website. It is similar to Meta Generator tag. e.g.: <meta name="Publisher" content="FrontPage 4.0">
- Meta Refresh - This tag is used to specify a delay in seconds before the browser automatically refreshes the document. e.g.: <meta http-equiv="Refresh" content="3;URL=http://www.domain.com/page.html">
- Meta Reply-to - This is a tag to harvest email addresses (usually used by spammers). e.g.: <meta name="reply-to" content="email@example.com" />
- Meta Resource Type - This tag is used to declare the resource of a page. e.g.: <meta name="resource-type" content="document">
- Meta Revisit After - This tag is used to inform search engines when to return to index the site. e.g.: <meta name="Revisit-After" content="30 days Days">
- Meta Set Cookie - This tag is used to set a cookie in the user's web browser. e.g.: <meta http-equiv="Set-Cookie" content="cookievalue=xxx;expires=Thursday, 5-Jun-2014 20:30:00 GMT; path=/">
- Meta Subject - This tag is used to declare the subject of the website. e.g.: <meta name="Subject" content="Web Page Subject">
How To Add Meta Tags To Your Site?
Before we learn how to add the meta tags to your website, let me give you a quick shortcut to check whether your website has a meta element.
Open your website in a browser and press Ctrl+U on your keyboard.
Alternatively, you can right click anywhere on your website and choose the option 'View Page Source'. Now, press Ctrl+F and type in 'meta'. If the word meta is present that means your website was built with the necessary meta element.
In any case, if there is any meta element missing, do the following:
If you are using a CMS or third-party tools, search for the software documentation on how to add meta tags to your site.
If you are not sure about handling HTML and adding it to your site on your own, ask a web developer to do it for you.
But if you do know a bit about HTML here is what you need to add the meta tags to your site yourself:
- Username and password to your web server.
- An FTP program.
- A text editing program or notepad.
Steps To Add Meta Tag To Your Webpage:
- Write your meta tag in a notepad or use a meta tag generator
- Make an FTP connection with your server.
- Find files that are either named as index.html, index.htm, default.html or default.htm.
- Open the file with Notepad or the text editor you use.
- Copy paste the meta tag between <head> and </head>.
- Save the page.
- Using the FTP replace the edited index file in your server.
NOTE: Always keep a backup of your site's original code before you make any changes.
The use of meta element may not have noticeable or substantial effect on how well your website fares on search engine results, but it is useful in controlling on how search engines crawl, index and list the pages on your site. As you have learnt a lot about meta element in this post by now and know it is not that tough to add these elements to your site.
You must at least add three tags to your pages - meta description, meta robots and meta title (optional if you use the same content on <title> tags). As discussed above these three tags are known to affect your site's SEO in a small way.
Let us know about your experiences with meta tags. Do you feel they help with your SEO?