Meta-tag mythology -- and reality.
Years ago, meta-tag content was known as the secret weapon for top search engine positions. Though professional search engine markets know how useful (or not) they are, let’s face it. Plenty of CEOs, business owners, and other decision makers still cling to meta-tag misconceptions. Heck, even professional search engine marketers have some pretty bizarre ideas about meta-tag optimization.
Today, I’ll dispel some of the meta-tag mythology and maybe put a different spin on meta-tag optimization.
A meta tag is an HTML tag that provides information about Web page’s content, such as what HTML specifications a Web page follows or a description of its content. A meta tag doesn’t affect how a Web page is displayed in a browser window.
In search engine marketing (SEM), the most common uses for meta tags are the keyword, description, and robots-exclusion attributes.
Here’s an example of a meta-description tag:
A long time ago, stuffing the meta-tag description with keywords often resulted in a top ranking in Infoseek listings (remember that search engine?). Today, this strategy no longer works. Very few search engines use meta-tag content to determine relevancy.
So why are meta tags important for search engine visibility? Because meta-tag descriptions are often used in SERPs (define).
Meta Tags and SERPs
Because some major search engines use meta-tag descriptions when displaying a search query’s results, it’s important to write a meta-tag description that accomplishes two goals:
Many so-called SEO (define) specialists use a list of keywords in the meta-tag description. Not only does this strategy border on spam, it’s also a poor way to encourage visitors to click the link to your site.
Some search marketers like to repeat the HTML title-tag content in the meta-tag description. This is silly. If the title-tag content is automatically displayed as a hypertext link in a SERP, why would exact repetition (as a description) encourage people to click the link to your site? A bit of repetition is understandable, but wouldn’t it be more effective to add more qualifier words (such as local qualifiers) and a call to action?
Sometimes, I find it quite difficult to modify amateur search marketers’ and Web developers’ keyword-stuffing behavior. Yet I always see a complete change in perspective when meta-tag content is used for reasons other than a Yahoo ranking.
Meta Tags and Site Search Engines
One reason my meta-tag perspective differs from other search marketers’ is because our firm builds sites for a living. On large sites, we create and maintain search-related pages: a search form (or form element), help pages, results pages, and so forth.
We also user-test and analyze search pages on sites we didn’t design. So even though we may not function as a site’s search engine architect, we still analyze the effectiveness of the site’s search pages.
What does this have to do with meta tags? With many site search engines, information displayed on search results pages comes from two places: the HTML title tag and the meta-description tag. Meta- and title-tag content take on a whole new meaning to site owners when a site search engine comes into the picture.
Suddenly, site owners want their search results pages to be accurate and aesthetically pleasing. How many characters should be extracted from the meta-tag description? Site owners don’t want the description cut off in the middle of an important word, of course. So they often rewrite descriptions so they’re more accurate and (dare I say it?) clickable. No keyword stuffing. No unnecessary repetitions. Just concise, accurate, persuasive copy that encourages users to visit the best page.
Is this goal any different from the goals at Google, Yahoo, MSN Search, Teoma, or any other major search engine? Not at all. Search engines want the same thing your target audience wants. They want to users to perform a search, look at results, and go directly to the page with the information they’re searching for.
I can see the light bulb go on when people get it. When Google, Yahoo, and the others are suddenly not the main concern, meta-tag descriptions and keyword lists miraculously improve.
Meet Shari at Search Engine Strategies in Toronto, Canada, May 4-5, 2005.
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Shari Thurow is the founder and SEO director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine marketing, Web, and graphic design firm. Acknowledged as a leading expert on search engine friendly Web sites worldwide, she is the author of the top-selling marketing book, "Search Engine Visibility," published through Peachpit Press. Shari's areas of expertise include site design, search engine optimization, and usability.
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