In your efforts to improve the search engine rankings of your website, you’ve probably come across some if not all of the following terms: metadata, meta tags, meta descriptions, meta keywords. So what exactly is all this meta talk and why does it matter to the search engines and your search engine rankings?
The Makeup of Metadata
No matter how deep or shallow your technical knowledge runs, there are a few basics everyone can grasp. So let’s put on our HTML hats and learn the bare bones of meta language …
Meta data means “data about data.” For our purposes, it is the data about your site that search engines use to index it. The metadata that you would use on a web page includes a meta title, meta description, and meta keywords.
Meta elements provide information about a page to help search engines categorize them correctly. They are inserted into the HTML document, but are often not directly visible to a user visiting the site.
In the mid to late 1990s, back before Google was a verb and SEO was an industry, the search engines depended on metadata to categorize and index webpages. Webmasters quickly caught on to the commercial significance of having the right metadata – they realized that monkeying with a site’s metadata would quickly and reliably lead to high search engine rankings and thus greater website visits. In this Wild West of SEO, webmasters ran amok, and started using not-so-legitimate techniques that falsely inflated rankings for their clients.
What the Search Engines See
But it turns out, Google (and the other search engines) are intelligent, constantly evolving and don’t appreciate being fooled. So the search engines started punishing the websites that practiced these unethical techniques. Robots also now index sites using more sophisticated algorithms. As a result, metadata has less impact on ranking pages today than it did in the 1990s, but it still matters.
Keep in mind that the search engines do not really read your content. Instead, they index by seeking out information from defined metadata fields. Can you see why this metadata stuff is so important? When you add the right metadata (such as meta titles, descriptions and keywords), you’ll increase the chances of your content being located in response to a search engine requests.
The Ingredients of Metadata
The three main elements the search engines look for are (1) the meta title, (2) the meta description and (3) meta keywords. Let’s break these down:
1. Meta Title
The meta title (also called a title tag) is a keyword-rich title that the search engines use to index your page. The search engines can also see your meta description and meta keywords, which assists them in indexing your page properly. (We will get to the description of both in a minute).
A title tag is the main text that describes a web page. Besides the overall content on your web pages, the text of the title tag makes up the single most important on-page SEO element. Because the title tag is what shows up for your listing in search results, search engines and search directories place a lot of importance on this tag when determining how to index your site.
The meta title is the most important part of your metadata, and probably the most important part of your web page in general: it’s where you tell the world what the actual webpage is about and what it does or can do. It’s how you let the search engines and web users know exactly what you do and how it matches what they are looking for.
Think of a meta title like a book title – it gives a good indication as to what is inside.
Where to Find The Title Tags
So know that you have an idea of what a meta title, or title tag, is and understand its relative importance, where the heck do you find these wonderful title tags? Actually, you will find the title tags reliably in two places:
Your Browser – Every title tag appears in the top of a browser and in applicable tabs. If users bookmark the site, the title tag is usually what shows up in the bookmark.
Search Engine Result Pages (also known as SERPs) – Title tags also show up in search engine result pages.
You already know this, even if you didn’t know what to call it. Whether or not you know HTML or even if you’ve never even heard the term meta title, you’ve been reading and depending upon them every time you’re online. Let’s say you’re online and you need to find what car washes are near your house. Type in your search term in Google and all those clickable results in blue? Those are title tags.
Writing Meta Titles
You don’t need to be a developer or web guru to write your own meta data, and if you do learn how, you could save yourself a good deal of time and money optimizing your website.
Here’s how to get started: A title tag should start with your most important keywords and be anywhere from 8 to 12 words in length, with important keywords toward the beginning of the title. The order of your keywords is actually important: according to testing and experience, the closer to the start of the title tag a keyword is, the more helpful it will be for ranking and the more likely a user will be to click them in search results.
It bears repeating: be careful with keywords! In addition to the order of your keywords, also pay attention to the number of them. It’s not a case of more is better, so don’t overdo it! Use only one to two keywords in your title. This is the MOST important location for keywords in a document used to rank web pages. Anything longer will at the very least be truncated, or at the very worst be flagged as spammy. And that’s exactly what you don’t want!
So, keep that as a guideline: 70 characters (about 8 to 12 words) is the maximum amount of characters that will display in the search results. Anything longer will show as an ellipsis – “…” to indicate that a title tag has been cut off.
Finally, don’t let your title tags simply become a jumble of keywords. That type of online real estate is way too valuable to be treated so carelessly. Your meta titles must be enticing enough to encourage browsers to click through your title on the search results pages.
Optimal Format for Title Tags
Here’s a few suggestions for writing those tags: Primary Keyword | Secondary Keyword | Brand Name. Or Brand Name | Primary Keyword and Secondary Keyword. For example, the title tag for the Coca-Cola homepage reads; Coca-Cola Global: Soft Drinks & Beverage Products.
One thing to always keep in mind when adding meta titles to your web pages is that you never want to duplicate title tags. This is frowned upon by search engines. So make sure every web page has a unique title tag. You can rearrange your keyword and brand name combinations so that every page is slightly different.
2. Meta Description
The second element of metadata is the description. The meta description for a web page is an elaboration of the meta title. The description is used to describe the page in search results.
The meta description is basically a summary of your web page. You should use important words and key phrases that you would want people to know about your company, like what your company does, for example, and where you are located.
Google uses meta descriptions to give searchers more information about your site. While it has no impact on how the search engines index your site, your meta description DOES affect the behavior of the web users looking at those Google results. A well-written, well-targeted description can make the difference between a person clicking on your link or on the links below or above you on the SERP page.
So even though the search engines don’t count the meta description in their algorithm, having a clean and well-written meta description can really entice searchers that YOUR site is the one they are looking for. As such, it can help click-through rates and visits to your site. And isn’t that what SEO is all about?
Where to Find The Meta Descriptions
Meta descriptions are the snippet of text directly underneath the meta tags. For example, directly under the meta tag for Coca-Cola we mentioned above is the meta description for Coca-Cola’s home page: A global leader in the beverage industry, the Coca-Cola company offers hundreds of brands, including soft drinks, fruit juices, sports drinks and other beverages.
Writing Meta Descriptions
Your meta description for each page should be 165 characters or less to ensure that the full description can be seen on the search engine results page. Your main keyword phrase for the page should also be incorporated into the description and should be toward the very beginning to ensure that the search engines index the keyword.
Write your meta descriptions by following the same rules for writing your meta tags. Like the title tag, the meta description needs to be different for every web page. And as with the title tags, watch out for keyword stuffing! Yes, absolutely use your main keywords, but use them as they occur naturally in the logic of the sentence. Write naturally, don’t force in keywords and make your message clear for the readers.
Most importantly, make the description relevant to the page it is describing! Neither humans nor search engines like being misled, so accurately summarize the content of the page so people know exactly what they will get when they click on your link and visit your page.
3. Meta Keywords
Of all the terms we’ve covered so far, “keyword” is probably the one you are most familiar with. Meta keywords are not the keywords that are in the visible content of your web page. They are only visible to the search engine and contain the main keywords your readers will be using in search engines to search for your blog.
Writing a Meta Keywords List
Your metadata keywords are simply a list of key terms that tells people what a particular page is about. Keywords are similar to metadata descriptions, however instead of explaining to people what the web page is about, keywords instead tell search engines. While descriptions are written in complete sentences, keywords are simply key words describing the content on the page so that search engines can accurately show people the results of what they are searching for.
So as you can see, SEO is all about telling the search engines what your pages are about. Help them understand the theme of each page by using well-conceived, powerful metadata and watch your search engine results improve!