A Novice’s Guide to Meta TagsGuides SEO/SEM
Meta tags are data that helps search engines crawl web pages and rank content while facilitating the search. Hence, meta tags are known to be conducive to SEO.
Nowadays, when 93% of all online experiences start with a search engine, the importance of SEO is hard to overestimate. Neither social media outreach nor paid online ads can grant you as much exposure and high-quality organic traffic as ranking high in search engine results pages (SERPs).
Did you know that 75% of users never get to see the results shown on page 2? This is because most of them settle for the results they find on page 1. So if your blog or website couldn’t make it to the very top, you would literally remain invisible for the vast majority of users.
But how do you ensure that your online presence stays on the surface? Needless to say, the quality and relevancy of your content play a crucial role. But your SEO determines how your content ranks among all the other results. This is where meta tags come in, helping search engines crawl and categorize your content better in order to offer more accurate results to users. According to the search engine’s logic, the better results users get from your website, the higher rank it deserves.
What are meta tags?
Meta tags are text labels introduced in a page’s HTML code to provide search engines with detailed information about the page and its content. Meta tags help search engine spiders to crawl web pages, locate specific content, and rank it in SERPs by corresponding keywords. In other words, what meta tags do is tell a search engine what your page is about and how to read it correctly.
Meta tags are written in the <head> section of a page’s HTML code. That is why most of them, except for title tags and meta descriptions, cannot be seen by users. However, meta tags can be read by search engines. And this is what makes them essential for SEO.
Why are meta tags important?
Search engines like Google value user experience above all. That is why they keep improving their search algorithms and putting forth higher requirements to content, formatting, structure, etc. The ultimate goal is to provide users with the most accurate and relevant search results.
Meta tags make this goal easier to achieve by providing search engines with information about the web page structure, navigation, and content. They can also instruct search engines to focus on specific parts of the page while ignoring others, to follow or not to follow links, etc. Depending on their application, meta tags are divided into multiple types.
Types of meta tags
A title tag is basically the title of your web page. It is one of those meta tags that users can actually see. Title tags appear in SERP snippets (at the top of a search result) and social shares. They are also shown as tab titles on the web browser. But not only users can read your title tags. Search engines do it as well in order to understand what your page is about.
That is why your title tags must not only be clear and readable but also include relevant keywords. Therefore, when it comes to writing title tags, you should aim at catering to both users and search bots.
First and foremost, avoid stuffing your titles with keywords (although it might sometimes be tempting to do) or else you might affect their readability, confuse readers, and even incur a Google penalty. Introduce your search terms organically and make sure they don’t make your title sound unnatural, awkward or clunky.
Although your title tag must be descriptive enough to give users an idea about the on-page content, remember to keep it concise; otherwise, the search engine will curtail it. The optimal title tag length is about 55-60 characters.
Just like all the other types of meta tags, title tags are placed in the HTML code, so you can edit them using your CMS. For example, NING allows you to write title tags and meta descriptions easily with the help of the inbuilt interface.
A title tag inserted in the HTML code of a page looks like this:
<title>The title of your page</title>
While a title tag makes the upper part of a SERP snippet, a meta description is shown underneath. It is a short chunk of text that provides users with more details about the content they will find on the page.
A meta description must not only be informative and concise. It should also capture the attention of your target audience and convince them to click through to your page.
Here are a few essential tips on how to write meta descriptions correctly:
- Make them actionable and write in an assertive tone;
- Embed a call-to-action to encourage users to click on your result;
- Include relevant keywords to get noticed by Google and users (search terms within the description are highlighted);
- Make sure your description matches the content on the page: Trying to trick search engines and users with misleading descriptions will increase your bounce rate and cause Google to issue a penalty;
- Never duplicate meta descriptions even if your pages are very similar;
- Try not to exceed 160 characters and provide the essential info closer to the beginning of your description.
An HTML code for a meta description is as follows:
<meta name=”description” content=”The example of your meta description.”>
Robots meta tags
A robots meta tag is invisible except for search engines. With its help, you can either allow or disallow Google to carry out specific actions with your page and its content. The tag can include different attributes depending on the command you want the search engine to follow. For example:
- noindex: Prevent the search engine from indexing the page. This can be useful when you don’t want the page to appear in search results, temporarily or permanently. For example, when you have a new page prototype hosted on the same website which you don’t want to be shown in Google before you test it or make improvements.
- nofollow: Prevent the search engine bots from following the links available on the page. You may find it useful, for instance, if you have pages where visitors can add their own links (e.g., in the comments section) you have little control over.
- noarchive: Prevent Google from showing the page’s cached link.
- nosnippet: Prevent the search engine from displaying a text description in a SERP snippet.
A robots meta tag has the following HTML representation:
<meta name=”robots” content=”noindex, nofollow, noarchive”>
Header tags help you structure on-page content in a way that makes it easier to understand for both readers and search engines. They perform two essential tasks:
- Separate different logical parts of content from each other, improving their readability and “skimmability”;
- Give search engines more cues about the content presented on the page.
The hierarchy of header tags (h1, h2, h3, etc.) allows you to organize your on-page content in a clear and orderly fashion. Thus, the h1 tag usually serves as a page title or an article headline, h2 is used for subheadings that break up the main body of content, h3 is for subsections, etc.
Structuring your content properly using header tags will make it easier to consume. At the same time, a keyword organically introduced in a heading/subheading can increase the chances for your content to rank higher on search engines.
Here’s how the structure of your content may look in HTML:
<p>Paragraph of content</p>
<p>Paragraph of content</p>
A canonical tag is used to instruct search engines to prioritize specific pages over others with similar content. It allows webmasters to use copied or syndicated content while avoiding penalties related to content duplication.
If your website has two or more similar pages, a canonical tag will let you specify the URL of the “primary” page, which Google should consider a source. An HTML code that stands for a canonical tag looks like this:
<link rel=”canonical” href=”http://example.com/” /> (where http://example.com/ is the source page URL)
Find out more about a canonical tag in one of our previous posts.
Technically, alt text is not a meta tag. It is an attribute. But it fulfills functions very similar to those of meta tags. Simply put, alt text is a textual description of an image found on a web page.
Since search engines cannot actually see, it allows them to “read” images. Based on alt text, among other signals, Google identifies what your page is about. Therefore, it makes sense to include a keyword in the alt text to increase the chances for your page to get a higher position in SERPs. Besides, alt text will appear instead of your image if the page cannot load normally.
Along with keyword usage and link building, meta tags are an integral part of modern SEO. They allow webmasters to increase the quality of content and make the web search much more convenient for the end user. This guide covers the essential types of meta tags you should know to make your online presence stand out. Now it’s time to put this knowledge to practice!