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It’s easy to gravitate towards the search engine optimization (SEO) of elements that you can see on a web page, like copy, headers, titles, and images. They’re the most accessible and the easiest optimizations to make.
But behind any website lie powerful meta tags – pieces of HTML code – that can help take your SEO performance from good to great. Not only do they make content easier for search engines to understand, but they are the biggest affector of whether someone actually visits your web page when they see it in search results.
Today, we cover what they are and how to use them to their potential in a comprehensive on-page SEO strategy.
What are meta tags?
Meta tags are text/HTML snippets that describe your web page to search engines. They provide information about the elements on your page.
Because they’re part of a website’s source code, only crawlers (the search engine robots that categorize and index web data) or people who look at the page’s source code will be able to see meta tags. However, even though users won’t see the tags specifically, the use of meta tags can affect the way content looks to users.
These tags can provide crawlers context for the data on the website, and they can even help persuade searchers to click through to web pages. Because of their ability to drive traffic, meta tags are useful SEO tools that every brand should use.
How do meta tags affect SEO?
Meta tags affect SEO in three primary ways.
- They give search engine crawlers instructions for crawling and indexing the information on your site. The indexing process ultimately determines where your website will show up on SERPs, and meta tags allow you to influence it.
- Meta tags establish the first impression that users will have of your website. When properly created, tags like the title tag and meta description give you the power to attract new customers and improve your click-through rate (CTR) on search engine results pages.
- Using meta tags to determine how your content will be displayed on various devices can improve metrics like bounce rate and site speed. These are important factors that Google uses to rank websites.
All in all, meta tags are powerful SEO tools that you can use in order to direct crawlers, influence users, and improve user experience. However, not all meta tags are essential for SEO.
Meta tags for SEO that you should know
For most webmasters, it’s unnecessary to include meta tags for every possible piece of metadata on their websites.
While there are dozens available to use, the most important meta tags are the ones that directly impact user experience and engagement. After all, SEO is centered around providing value to search engine users. Here are the tags that everyone should know.
The title tag is the descriptive title that is displayed on SERPs. It also shows up on the web browser tab at the top of the page and whenever the post is shared on social media.
This tag is crucial to a site’s SEO because it often determines whether a person will click on the web page and interact with the rest of the content.
When a title tag is expertly-crafted, it will tell search engine crawlers how valuable your page’s content is for the key search terms it’s targeting. Also, it will convey the benefit of clicking through for the user. Here are a few suggestions for writing your title tag:
- Keep it at 60 characters or less
- Use keywords but avoid keyword stuffing
- Make a new title tag for every page on your website
- Consider using capital letters for emphasis
- Pose a question to the user
- Include important statistics or a quote to generate interest
- Appeal to the user’s self-interest
- Satisfy user intent by providing information relevant to the search terms
As you can see in the example below, the title tag includes the target keyword “SEO tips” and has an inviting tone that makes the reader want to learn more. Plus, it’s just the right length to fit on the page.
To add a title tag, go to the header section of your web page and paste this code into it:
<title>WRITE YOUR TITLE TAG HERE.</title>
If you have the Yoast SEO plugin, you can do this by entering your title tag in the “SEO title” text box.
A website’s meta description is the small paragraph or sentence displayed in your search engine listing that explains the subject of your web page. It’s important because it can improve your CTR by persuading users to learn more.
In a video, Matt Cutts points out that “if the meta description is really well-written and really compelling, then a person who sees it might click through more often.”
So, even though many SEOs treat the meta description as an afterthought, it’s anything but. In reality, the meta description is a powerful tool you can use to turn searchers into actual visitors. After all, what point is there in ranking if higher rankings don’t earn you more traffic?
Well-written meta descriptions are like organic ad text that provides the most important information about a web page. The language should be both informative and persuasive, and it should include your target keywords along with more details about the content on the next page. What are you going to show users that they want to see? Expert tips? Real-life examples? Proven research? This is where to tell them.
To keep Google from truncating your meta description make sure it’s less than 160 characters total.
In the meta description tag example shown below, you can see that it tells the reader exactly what the web page contains. The description is personal by referring to the reader (“you”) and isn’t too long or short.
Meta descriptions are all about improving the accessibility of your content to potential customers/visitors. After reading your description, search engine users will be able to decide if they want or need to click on the link and browse the content on the website.
Robots meta tag
You may have information on your website that you don’t want to factor into your SEO performance. Robots meta tags tell crawlers what to do during the crawling and indexing process.
Because these tags can allow you to block web pages and links from the search engine crawling and indexing process, you have to use them carefully.
If you accidentally hide valuable content from crawlers, it won’t factor into your SEO performance and subsequent ranking on SERPs. If you don’t hide pages with either low-quality or duplicate content, they can negatively impact how the search engines value your page.
There are four main robots meta tags you should consider using:
- Index: Tells crawlers to index the page
- Noindex: Notifies crawlers not to index the page
- Follow: Instructs the crawlers to follow all the web page’s links and factor them into the overall site assessment
- Nofollow: Tells crawlers not to follow links and to ignore them when ranking the website
These tags get added into the <head> section of your code using this format:
<meta name=”robots” content=”noindex, nofollow”>
<meta name=”robots” content=”index, follow”>
<meta name=”robots” content=”noindex, follow”>
<meta name=”robots” content=”index, nofollow”>
There are other types of robot tags like “noarchive” and “nocache,” but they aren’t essential for SEO purposes. Here’s an example of what the robots tag looks like in the HTML markup:
Many CMS platforms and plugins have advanced settings where you can insert the code by changing the page’s settings. However, if you don’t add any of these robot tags to your page, your CMS should default to “index, follow.”
Viewport meta tag
The area that users can see on a web page is called the viewport. Search engines work on desktops, tablets, and mobile phones, so websites have to be able to adjust and properly display web pages on any device.
A viewport meta tag defines how a website should look on varying screen sizes by determining the viewport itself. Having this meta tag shows search engines that your website is user-friendly for all devices.
Since mobile-friendliness is an important ranking factor, using a viewport meta tag is an important SEO technique. You can add this tag to the <head> section using this syntax:
<meta name=”viewport” content=”width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0″>
Here, you can see an example of this tag used on the Patagonia homepage:
You can adjust the dimension specifications if needed, but this format works for most pages. If errors in your CSS scripting data are causing your mobile site to display incorrectly, a viewport tag won’t fix them.
Adding this tag will make users more likely to stay on your page if they’re accessing it from a mobile device, thereby reducing your bounce rate and making you look better to search engine ranking algorithms.
Keywords meta tag
The keywords meta tag is a type of tag that was initially supposed to provide search engines with more information about a web page’s topic.
Because these tags were hidden from users, many marketers began cramming as many meta keywords as possible into them, regardless of whether the terms ever showed up on the web page.
This process of keyword stuffing meant that some websites were ranking for keywords that had nothing to do with their content. It ultimately resulted in poor user experience and an unfair SEO playing field because the search engine algorithms couldn’t distinguish the validity of the tags.
Eventually Google and Bing stopped using the keywords tag back in 2009. That’s why, as Matt Cutts explains, webmasters “shouldn’t spend any time” on it.
The other meta tags Google can understand
There are additional meta tags you can use on your website, but they’re only helpful in certain situations. Beyond the primary tags mentioned above, these meta tags have very specific functions that most webmasters won’t need.
Google can understand many different meta tags, oftentimes using an http-equiv parameter to provide instructions to browsers and search engines. Here are some of the additional meta tags that Google identifies:
- Rating Content: A meta tag which tells Google that the web page contains sensitive adult content that should be filtered with the SafeSearch software.
- Refresh Content: This meta tag will redirect the user to a different page after a designated amount of time, but it isn’t compatible with all browsers and can be problematic if you’re using rel=canonical tags on your web pages.
- Content-Type (meta charset): It tells the search engine how to display the text on your website and which character set to use (usually UTF-8 or ISO-8859-1).
- Google Site Verification: Verifies to Google Search Console that you own the web content.
- No Read Content: This tag prevents Google Assistant from reading the web page out loud when voice commands are used.
- No Translate Content: A tag that won’t allow Google to translate the web page into another language.
- No Site Links Search Box: This meta tag won’t allow Google to display a site links search box for your website.
You may find a need for any of these special tags on your website, but they aren’t essential for most websites. The title, meta description, viewport, and robots meta tags are the ones everyone should focus on–any other tags are optional and unnecessary in most cases.
Tools that help with meta tags for SEO
If you need help creating or managing your SEO meta tags, there are many CMS plugins or meta tag generators you can use:
- Meta Tags
- Meta Tag Manager (WordPress plugin)
- Yoast SEO
These tools are particularly helpful if you struggle to read code syntax and would like some support either writing or auditing it.
Get a complimentary SEO audit
Using meta tags to enhance your HTML document is an essential SEO strategy. There are several types of tags you can add, but the title, meta description, viewport, and robots meta tags are the ones you should be focusing on most.
They will make your web page easier for crawlers to index, your web page more enticing to search engine users, and your website more user-friendly.
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