For the uninitiated, meta-tags are pieces of code within your website that contain information about each page. These tags are supposed to tell search engines and users what the page is about.
If you’re a little rusty on your Internet jargon, here’s a primer. There are essentially three types of meta-tags that concern most marketers:
* Title – This is the text that appears in the title-bar of your web browser
* Description – This is a quick summary of the information on the page
* Keywords – These are words that are important in the article
Up until about 4 years ago, there was a tremendous focus on meta-tags as a method of improving search engine rankings. Webmasters could stuff all sorts of words into the meta-tags to improve their search engine rankings for the words they wanted to rank well for.
It wasn’t long before the search engines caught on to this little trick, and as a result the efficacy of “keyword-stuffed” meta-tags dwindled over time. Posts on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) boards heralded the demise of the meta-tag with posters claiming that Google all but ignored the meta-tags. It seemed that there was no use for meta-tags anymore – at least from the perspective of the online marketer.
But then a funny thing happened. The search market started to fracture. Yahoo and MSN both spun up their own search engines and dropped Google’s results from their engines. Both Yahoo and MSN’s new engines seemed to use content from the Title and Description meta-tags to display in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages).
These observations appear to be the case even today. By running a query for the term, “Online Advertising” on MSN, I got some interesting results.
Now, if you look at the screenshots in the link above, you’ll notice that the clickable link on the search engine matches the page’s title tag verbatim, and the site’s description in MSN starts off with the first sentence of the description tag. Yahoo operates in a very similar fashion. Many of the results on the SERPs of both search engines will use the content from the meta-tags heavily (as long as the pages have meta-tags at all).
Google is less predictable with regard to the use of meta-tags. Google often uses the title tag to determine the clickable link on it’s results pages, but only occasionally uses the description tag content in the page summary that it displays.
Remember the Human Beings
Ok, now that I’ve put you to sleep with technical details and observations it’s time to wake up, because there is a very important marketing point that I’m working towards here.
The point that I’m driving at is that although the search engines probably have devalued the SEO value of the meta-tag to a great extent, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important.
When people search for keywords in your industry it isn’t enough to be #1 on the list of results. You still need to convince those humans to click on your link. The way to do that is to design the most effective page description that can possibly appear in the SERPs.
Steps to Take To Improve Your Meta-Tags
As a general rule, Yahoo uses the first 25-30 words of your Meta Description tag in the site description it displays on your SERPs; MSN uses the first 15 or so.
Write out a 30-word description of each page of your website that is broken up into two parts. The first 15 words need to get across what the page is about – this is all the MSN searchers will see. The second 15 words should support the first – this will be visible to Yahoo searchers.
Google searchers will sometimes see the first 7 – 15 words as well (although you can’t count on it). With meta-tags you have to just focus on the things you can control, and right now Google is an unknown quantity so it’s probably best not to worry about optimizing for Google.
Don’t Drop the Meta-Tags
Several years ago the search engines devalued the use of meta-tags in determining rankings. But because they use the meta-tags as page descriptions in their SERP pages, you must make special efforts to ensure that the content presented to searchers inspires them to click on your links rather than your competitors’.
If you don’t put meta-tags on your website’s pages, then Yahoo and MSN (with a combined market share of around 45%) will just guess at what to put in the description of your website. They will pull phrases out of context (much the way Google does) from your site and slap them in there. The result is not nearly as inviting as it could have been otherwise. That’s why it is always beneficial to learn to write effective meta-tags.
By John Hester