There used to be a time when the contents of a web pages Meta Tags was very important to search engine rankings, it was around about the same time the Berlin Wall was still standing!!
For Google SEO 2014 meta tags hold little value to Search Engine Optimization (SEO), in fact as Google’s latest Hummingbird algorithm takes web page loading times into account as a ranking factor (faster load times = better rankings) adding code (meta tags like the keywords meta tag) that Google ignores is SEO damaging (more to download = slower load times)!
What Are Meta Tags?
Way, way back when that wall was still upright search engine algorithms were so dumb they couldn’t work out what a page was about just from the content. Some bright spark had the ingenious idea to create a set of hidden HTML tags (meta tags) that inferred information about a pages content to the search engines: hidden in the head of a web page.
Below is a screenshot of what meta tags look like HTML code wise. Load a page in either the browser Firefox or Google Chrome, “Right Click” on the text of the page and click “View Page Source” and a window like the one below will load. I’ve highlighted the meta description tag and meta keywords tag code in blue (the HTML code for this entire web page is under the HTML Meta Tags section below.
Meta tags were a great idea, except there was nothing to stop a webmaster stuffing or spamming their Meta Tags with irrelevant keywords, but very high traffic keywords and keyword phrases. Which of course they did with enthusiasm, you would find adult sites using words like Disney and Pokemon in their Keywords Meta Tag for the high traffic: Disney Porn, it was the in thing back then!!!
Today the vast majority of meta tags are worthless and those that are still considered by search engines aren’t worth that much. Google confers no search engine RANKING benefit from any meta tags, so if you expect a high Google ranking from perfectly optimised keywords in your meta tags, don’t hold your breath.
If a web page is ranked 5 today in Google, nothing you do to the meta tags will result in a better Google ranking in the future.
HTML Meta Tags
Let’s look at the HTML code that generates your web pages meta tags. There are a LOT of possible meta tags, most of them have no value at all, a few are useful (meta robots tag for example) in specific circumstances, below is the sort of typical HTML code for a basic webpage (very basic).
<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/html4/loose.dtd"> <html> <head> <title>Title Element : NOT a Meta Tag</title> <meta name="description" content="Meta Description Tag : This has no Google ranking value, but could be shown within Google search results, consider this advertising text, make it enticing to potential search engine visitors"> <meta name="keywords" content="Meta Keywords Tag : Google, ignores, the, keywords meta tag, don't, even, bother, adding, meta keywords"> <meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=ISO-8859-1"> <link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="style.css" media="all"> </head> <body> Main content here </body> </html>
The title tag isn’t actually a meta tag, if you’ve spent any time researching SEO almost everyone calls it a tag some even the title meta tag, the title is an HTML element: the correct name is title element.
Unfortunately since I like high traffic SERPs and more users search Title Tag vs Title Element I have to call it the title tag :-( see my Title Tag SEO Tutorial (the title tag is VERY important SEO wise).
Testing SEO Experts: Tags, Elements and Attributes SEO
If you ever decide to hire an SEO consultant to advise on how to search engine optimize a site, why not test them with these two SEO/HTML questions, will confuse your non-HTML experts who think they are SEO experts.
you know what, let’s throw in a third question:
How important are alt attributes to SEO 2014?
If they know their SEO in-depth and haven’t learnt what they know from forums which are filled with SEO misinformation and SEO myths I’d expect them to know the title element is the title tag, the title attribute is the hoverover text you can add to text links (title=”Hoverover text here which Google ignores”) and the alt attribute is the hoverover text of images (alt=”Hoverover text here which Google Uses as a Ranking factor”) they’ll answer as such.
The answers are the title element or title tag as most people call it is very important to SEO 2014, Google uses it as a major ranking factor.
The title attribute which is the hoverover text of a text link has no SEO value in 2014, Google ignores it (Google has never used the title attribute as a ranking factor), but does have a role in user accessibility for some visitors.
The alt attribute or alt text is the hoverover text of an image or linked image, Google does use the alt text as a ranking factor for both linked and non-linked images. It also has a role in user accessibility for some visitors, informs visitors what an image is about so don’t keyword stuff it.
If an SEO company doesn’t know this basic 2014 SEO (the above is a minimum response I’d expect) do you really want them working on your business website?
How to Use Meta Tags
I’ve been researching search engine optimization for over a decade and in 2014 on this website you will find I do no use any of the meta tags others advise webmasters use for SEO rankings, I rarely create a meta description tag, I allow Google to decide the best text from the content and would never use a meta keywords tag.
There are newer meta tags I do use, I develop a WordPress SEO Theme and it has them built in, meta tags like the viewport meta tag (used by mobile devices). That being said I’ll cover the basic meta tags below.
For Google adding the Description Meta Tag won’t result in a boost in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs), but the description might be used for the description for your SERP listings in Google. So though you won’t get a ranking boost, if you write an interesting description meta tag (a really good ad basically**) and Google uses it (not guaranteed), you might get a higher click through rate compared to a random snippet of text from your pages. All other meta tags (including the Keywords Meta Tag) are either completely ignored or won’t result in a SERPs boost.
** I’m not very good at writing ads, which is why I tend not to use meta description tags, if writing awesome ads was in my skill set I’d probably add a meta description tag to most pages.
Let’s go through some meta tags and other code you might find in the head of a web page.
<!DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/html4/loose.dtd">
Is the DOCTYPE, it’s not a meta tag and it’s not essential you add this to a page for good search engine placement, but if you want a page to validate in an HTML validator (i.e. http://validator.w3.org/ ) you’ll need to add the right one.
<title>Title Element : NOT a Meta Tag</title>
Again this isn’t a meta tag, but it’s sometimes referred to as a meta tag by those who don’t fully understand meta tags. The title element is very, very important to a pages optimisation, which is why we have an entire page dedicated to Title Optimization. The title should include the most important phrase for that page and possibly one or two highly relevant keywords to create related phrases.
<meta name="description" content="Meta Description Tag : This has no Google ranking value, but could be shown within Google search results, consider this advertising text, make it enticing to potential search engine visitors">
As covered earlier in Google the contents of the description meta tag will not have an impact on the pages search engine rankings, but may be used as the description in the search results: like an ad. So be descriptive, think about what a potential visitor might click on not keyword stuffing, though add the main SERP for that page so Google highlights it. In the Google search result screenshot below I searched for “Stallion Responsive Theme” note how the three keywords are in bold for both the title and the description.
For the two web pages listed above (note one is the home page) I haven’t created meta description tags (those are Google’s automated choice), if I wrote descriptions I’d make sure I used the main SERP within the first 150 characters: Google tends to truncate descriptions before 160 characters, so not much point creating a 200 character awesome ad if you loose a 1/4 of it!
Only problem is what’s my main search phrase for the home page, do I concentrate on WordPress Themes, WordPress Plugins, WordPress SEO…. some web pages generate traffic from multiple SERPs, by allowing Google to choose the description it will always choose text that uses the keyphrase searched.
The home page of this site ranks number 2 in Google for the search “Monetary Value of SEO Advice” as well as “Stallion Responsive Theme”, I don’t want an ad like description for a WordPress theme as the description for the value of SEO SERP, by not adding a description Google uses the text that includes the phrase “Monetary Value of SEO Advice” for that result:
As you can see it’s not a simple case of always/never use a meta description tag. If you have a web page that ranks for a really high traffic SERP, by all means write an awesome ad for that one search phrase, might increase the CTR, but if your web pages tend to pull in a lot of traffic from long tail keyword SERPs (like this site does) your well crafted ad like description meta tag may cost you visitors.
<meta name="keywords" content="Meta Keywords Tag : Google, ignores, the, keywords meta tag, don't, even, bother, adding, meta keywords">
Of no value to Google and probably little value to other major search engines. If you add a meta keywords tag in 2014 you do not understand even basic SEO, do not waste time creating keywords meta tags.
<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=ISO-8859-1">
Not a meta tag and will have no impact on a pages search engine placement, the Character set is used by browsers so the right set of characters are used to display your page. Don’t add one and the browser will use its default (it will guess), this might mean your page doesn’t look right to a visitor if you use characters from a particular character set (your visitors will see funny ?s and other weird code).
<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="style.css" media="all">
Robots Meta Tag
<meta name="robots" content="noindex,nofollow">
The robots meta tag can be used to prevent (but NOT encourage) search engine spiders access to individual web pages.
In the wrong hands the robots meta tag can cause a lot of damage to a sites rankings, the very popular WordPress SEO Plugins Yoast and All In One SEO (millions of users) both add meta robots tags to multiple sections of a WordPress blog (categories and tags for example) without explaining the potential SEO damage.
If you want a web page indexed do not add a robots meta tag, you will find many sites use this code:
<meta name="robots" content="index,follow">
Index the page and follow all links from it. If this is what you want don’t use the robot meta tag at all since by default search engine spiders do this anyway.
Few robots Meta Tags examples:
<meta name="robots" content="noindex,follow">
Don’t index this page (so don’t rank it for any SERPs), but do follow the links.
Can’t think of many reasons why you’d want this on a web page, maybe a shopping basket page?
<meta name="robots" content="index,nofollow">
Index this page, but don’t follow the links. Before using the nofollow robots meta tag be aware nofollow deletes PR/link benefit. This means any pages with this robots meta tag are a dead end for PageRank flow, your internal web pages linked from a page with the above won’t gain any SEO boost from the links!
<meta name="robots" content="noindex,nofollow">
Don’t index the page and don’t follow the links. Use this on pages you don’t want the search engines to have anything to do with, but remember pages with the above on are a waste of SEO link benefit, the page can not rank for anything and Pr flowing to the page is deleted.
In conclusion meta tags are not important to good SERPs, so don’t waste too much time on them.