As a custom web developer and SEO specialist, I hear this question all the time. Meta tags are little HTML labels that describe the content on your website. They are very important for search engine optimization.
Meta tags are included in the coding for a website, but aren’t displayed to visitors. You can view them by bringing up the source code for a webpage (CTRL + U in Firefox). The three of interest to us are the meta title, meta description and meta keyword.
While these HTML tags aren’t displayed to site visitors, they are read and used by search engines. It’s a case where “hidden” information can affect SEO and ranking.
Meta title tag
This gives the page a title to display as a link in the search engine results. Searching for “coffee” in Google brings up Starbucks as the second listing. The link to their site appears as “Starbucks Coffee Company” and is generated by the title tag on their page.
If they changed the HTML for their site’s title tag to “Starbucks rocks hard,” then that would appear in Google. Short and relevant titles work best. Think punchy and descriptive.
Meta description tag
This is the short description that you find under the link in search engine results. In our Starbucks example, there are two lines of text under the link provided. This is also provided by their website to the search engine. Google limits the amount of text that can be displayed here. The purpose is to provide a summary of what someone would find if they clicked the link and went to the website.
Meta keyword tag
This gives a list of keywords for search engines to read when they visit the site. Unfortunately, unethical coders started stuffing this tag with excessive keywords, some not even related to the site at all. They wanted to trick search engines into giving them a higher rank – some went so far as to put whole dictionaries in this tag, trying to give the appearance that everything could be found on this page.
Because of the abuse, the keyword meta tag is no longer of much use. It’s largely filtered out now. When it is used, it also offers your competition a peek at what keywords are important to you – and that’s probably not what you want.
This brings up the question: if the keyword meta tag isn’t weighted heavily by search engines, how do they know what’s on your page? After all, the purpose of a search engine is to find websites with content their users want.
The answer is that Google, Yahoo, Bing, and other search engines look at the content directly and extract out their own keywords, with a little help.
The H1, H2, and image tags
These aren’t meta tags per se, because they do alter the display for users. H1, H2, and others create larger, heading-style fonts. Because they are used for things like headlines and section titles, the search engine figures they have important information – this is a good place to find out what the page is about. Image tags also give search engines information about the pictures that appear on the page.
The bottom line, however, is to have content that all points in the same direction. It is no longer practical (or even possible) to fool search engines into ranking a page based on non-existent or “fake” content.
Other meta tags
Because meta tags provide information for search engines when they visit, there are a few others that are commonly used. Most are self-explanatory. There’s one to indicate language, one for geographical location (the zip code meta tag), and another to express the type of content (text and coding). But they all help to filter the search results in some way.