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All you ever wanted to know about Meta Tags

Copyright Serge Thibodeau 2004 

For the past two or three years, many search engines such as Google and a few others have given less and less attention, and in some cases, no attention at all to Meta Tags. The sole reason for this is simply because in the past, in the go-go days of the Internet, ie: before 2000, many web site owners and webmasters stuffed their meta tags with useless information, basically spamming the search engines.

It wasn't long for the engines to realize they were victimized and since that time, many of them now pay little if no attention at all to most Meta Tags. However, what if some day they come back? What if, at a future date many of the major search engines decide that the "penalty" has served its purpose and that its now time to remove it? Not putting any meta tags in a website may not be a good idea, since it only takes a few minutes to write them in the first place!

Meta Tag definition
Making a true definition of Meta Tags is a lot simpler than explaining their functioning and by exactly which search engines. The only reason to this is simply because very few engines clearly explain with any amount of precision what they do look or don't look at and just how much importance they will actually give to any such and such parameters. Let's begin with the easy part: Meta Tags are snippets of HTML code concealed into the pages of a website that are used by the major search engines in an attempt to store certain data about that website.

Such meta tags contain descriptions, keywords and key phrases, important site title information, etc. Such meta data is part of the many things search engines are seeking when trying to properly index a website.

To be sure, meta tags are not truly necessary when a webmaster writes or creates new web pages, or makes any kind of modifications to them. There are a few observers in the search engine optimization industry who claim that meta tags are completely useless. Such strong statements can be a bit misleading. Of course, you are still free to believe them if you like, but that may not be such a good idea. While not technically mandatory, Meta Tags can, in certain cases, help the rankings of a given website, provided certain other essential rules of SEO are maintained.

Once a new website is created and put online, search engine crawlers (spiders) will visit that site and try to index it in their database. Most major search engines operate differently and, by the same token, they each weigh different parameters of a web site according to their own (proprietary) algorithms. As a few examples, Google places a lot of emphasis on its Page Rank algorithm, Alta-Vista will place a lot of importance on the description tag and Inktomi tell you in their terms of use that it indexes both the complete text of the particular web page submitted, as well as all the meta-tags of all pages.

At the other end of the scale, there are other search engines like Exact Seek that are "pure-vanilla" Meta Tag search engines which will spell out that: "Your site will not be added if it does not have Title and Meta Description tags." Inktomi also makes an extensive use of the keywords tag. Naturally, as can be expected, not all search engines work the same way nor do they have to. Certain search engines will place their importance on the actual overall content of the site.

Most major search engines have in excess of 125 individual elements and parameters they actually analyze when trying to rank and index any given website. Some of these important elements deal specifically with the way the pages were structured and also depend on other important factors such as keyword density, etc.

They will also take a note of websites that have omitted basic steps such as non-existent Meta Tags. For such search engines that have significantly decreased if not eliminated the importance of Meta Tags, there could be specific situations where the mere presence of Meta Tags could gain much more in importance. A good example to this could be websites making heavy use of rich graphics, or Flash content, but very poor or non-existent textual content anywhere on the site.

In the world of search engines, it is unfortunate to think that a picture is worth about 1,000 words to most people, but mean absolutely nothing to search engines. Search engines are totally blind when it comes to reading a picture or graphic of any kind.

When a website offers poor or non-existent textual content, the engines have to be more dependent on meta tags, in an effort to index it and add it to their database. With the most carefully written and designed websites, even if all the proper steps were taken to make certain the right Meta Tags are carefully edited and put in all the right places, unfortunately, some search engines will still completely ignore them. As helpful as some Meta Tags can be in certain search engines, good content in the site is still imperative.

Nothing can beat good, targeted & relevant content, filled with keyword-rich text spread evenly and categorized in all the carefully-defined sections of the site. As stated above, in such cases where the engine visiting your site depends on that content, it may be the only thing that will effectively work for your website.

The very best way to successfully use Meta Tags
To be really effective, Meta Tags should always be located in the HEAD area of an HTML document. That area is completely at the top of all pages. It starts just after the HTML tag and ends immediately before the BODY tag.

Additionally, you should always make certain that your meta tags don't have any line breaks. Doing that would trip the search engines as they will probably see bad HTML code and could ignore them completely. Also, try not to use any capital letters in your code, as well as any repetition of words, phrases or terms within the keywords tag. Don't make the mistake many webmasters are still doing by "stuffing" meta tags, as it could seriously penalize or ban your website.

How to effectively edit Meta Tags
The Meta Description tag is important as many major search engines will display this summary, along with the title of your specific page in their search results. This is usually what you see on the pages of Google, Yahoo, Alta-Vista and most of the other engines after a query was initiated. It is recommended to keep this description reasonably short, concise and to the point. Also make certain that it's an appropriate reflection of that particular page's content.

Keywords represent the important search words and terms that people will enter into a search engine's query box. You must choose only relevant keywords. If these keywords and key phrases are going to be written in your keywords tag, they must appear in the actual body content of that specific page. With the exception of Google, most major search engines will actually compare your meta content with what is actually written on that page. If it doesn't match, your website could receive a penalty and thus suffer in the search results.

Almost everyday, we encounter commercial websites that have this tag written incorrectly. That Meta Tag is incorrect because some crawlers can't properly handle spaces between the words in the tag or the word "all". Most major search engines will assume by default that you want a website to be indexed and that all links are to be followed and indexed in its database.

Remember that using the wrong syntax can actually result in the crawler coming to a bad conclusion and wrongly penalizing that page completely. On the other hand, if you really do not want a certain page to be indexed or followed, then you must substitute "noindex" and or "nofollow" into the tag. It is also strongly recommended to properly use the Robots.txt file exclusion protocol.

The Internet is constantly growing at a rate of approximately 7 to 8 Million new Web pages everyday. Google currently indexes in its database over 4.3 Billion pages. With most of the search engines indexing only a small fraction of that great number, meta tags can be used as an additional way to reasonably ensure a proper categorization for any given website.

If you always use terms that are really relevant in all Meta Tags, you are significantly increasing your chances at a better ranking in the engines. Properly and effectively using the right meta tags could yield satisfactory results, both in the short-term and longer term periods.

Carefully implementing Meta Tags can only work for you, never against. In the future, if they become more widely accepted and most major search engines increase their importance in them again, you will be happy you used them properly. Additionally, you will be glad you won't have to re-write them all over again!

Serge Thibodeau is a professional search engine optimization (SEO) expert and search engine marketing (SEM) consultant at Rank for $ales. Besides serving as president for Rank for Sales, since 1997 Serge Thibodeau has been working with Fortune 500 companies, as well as small and medium size businesses in more than 60 industries. Serge has earned numerous first and second-place positions in most major search engines for most of his clients. Additionally, in 2003, Serge developed and successfully deployed Global Business Listing, a powerful paid-inclusion search engine for companies that need a strong presence on the Web. Besides writing two new SEO articles every week, Serge is editor of the free Rank for $ales Weekly Newsletter and of Search Engine News.


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