META tags are rarely used well, but can be a boost to your search engine placement. This guide explains which tags to use and how to use them effectively.
Last Updated: June 2008.
META tags are a way to describe a page in HTML, invisibly to the user. Many search engines either do not use them at all, or give them little weight. However, they still have their uses and can provide a boost to your search engine placement.
The trick to using them well is to understand what they do, and providing the best possible information within them. It is important to realise as well that changing or adding META tags will not turn your website into a gold mine overnight, but as part of a well formed SEO strategy, they can certainly help.
There are many people who say you should only ever add two or three META tags to your site. There are those who say you should add hundreds. The simple fact is that there are many that could be appropriate to your site, and you should judge each of them on its individual merit.
META tags all go within the HEAD section of your site. That is to say, within the <head> and </head> tags.
<html> <head> META Tags and Title go here </head> <body> Main page content goes here </body> </html>
<title>Search Engine Optimization > Meta Tags - AddedBytes.com</title>
The TITLE tag is NOT a META tag. But it does contain metadata, and it is the most important tag on a page and is closely related to them, so I am including it here.
Title tags are displayed in the top of a browser window, and are often used as a link from search engine results listings, so form them well. They should be descriptive and short (ideally under 70 characters), and they are also often used as bookmark titles, so it is important that you ensure your primary keyword phrase for a page is here, and that the title makes sense all by itself.
<meta name="description" content="An article about META tags and how to use them effectively to boost your search engine placement.">
This is one of the few META tags that can be considered important. The text within this is displayed by some search engines as the description to your site. A description tag should usually be kept to under around 150 - 200 characters and it is important to ensure that this tag reads well, and that it describes the page accurately.
There is no point in telling the user that your page contains thousands of pictures of Alicia Silverstone in lacy underwear if when they arrive on the page they see nothing but a sales pitch for tinned goulash. An extreme example, perhaps, but does demonstrate the point that it is better to have visitors who are interested in your product or content than those who aren't. Numbers are unimportant if they don't convert to sales, and this will help to qualify your visitors before they arrive.
<meta name="keywords" content="meta tags search engine optimization description keywords title">
Fairly self explanatory, this tag is used to list keywords for your page. These are words you think are relevant to your page - words that if entered into a search engine should return your site. Search engines do not pay much attention to this, if any, as it has been abused for many years, but some do still use it to some small extent, so you may consider it worth adding.
Try to limit yourself to as few keywords as possible (the less keywords you list, the more weight each will likely have), certainly no more than 25, and list them with nothing more than spaces between (some people use commas, however this is no longer necessary). There is also no need to repeat the words listed.
As has been widely reported on the web, this tag is not used by many engines, if at all, and you would be wise to spend your time optimising and improving your site in other ways rather than waste time on this particular tag, in my humble opinion.
<meta name="robots" content="index, follow"> <meta name="robots" content="noindex, follow"> <meta name="robots" content="index, nofollow"> <meta name="robots" content="noindex, nofollow">
The ROBOTS META tag is one that is very often used when it should not be. The four variations listed above are four of the more common variations in use, and each accomplishes a different task. Never use this tag unless you wish to prevent a search engine spider from doing something. That's what it's there for.
The first of the examples listed above is completely worthless. If you have it on your site, go and delete it. That tag does nothing more than tell a search engine spider to behave exactly as it normally does. It does not benefit a site, does not get you crawled faster or more often, and will not suddenly make your site more popular than Google.
The second of these can be useful, for example on printer-friendly pages (where the content on the page is a duplicate of the original). This tag tells a search engine spider not to list the page it is viewing, but to follow the links away from the page anyway. The third of these is the reverse of the above, and tells a spider to list a page in it's results but not to follow the links on the page. Both of these have their uses, but these are very rare, so think carefully before adding these before you do.
The last tag tells a spider not to index a page or follow the links on it. It is extremely rare that you would want to use this (why would anyone want a page on the web that people cannot find?) but is included for the sake of completeness (some people use this for login pages or other similar pages they do not want listed).
There are more instructions you can add to this tag, the most notable of which is NOARCHIVE. This simply tells a search engine spider not to serve archived copies of the page to people viewing the search engine results (for example, Google offer a cached copy of sites in search results, and this will prevent Google from doing so). The tag to add to only prevent search engines making archived copies of your site publically available is:
<meta name="robots" content="noarchive">
<meta http-equiv="content-type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-8"> <meta http-equiv="content-style-type" content="text/css"> <meta http-equiv="content-language" content="en-GB">
These are again quite common on some sites, and again have their uses. It is a wise idea if you are using an unusual language or style to mention it here, but by no means essential, as with most META tags. The W3C provide a more comprehensive resource for [url=http://www.w3.org/International/O-charset.html]character set information[/url], so if you do wish to use this, I recommend that as a good place to start reading.
Meta tags that use the "http-equiv" attribute rather than the "name" attribute, like these, allow you define within a document something that would usually be defined in HTTP headers (sent by your server). If you have no control over the headers sent with your web pages, but still need to define a content type or content style type (and so on), these are the tags you are looking for.
<meta http-equiv="refresh" content="60"> <meta http-equiv="refresh" content="3; URL=http://www.addedbytes.com/">
Most useful on a chat page, or when a page has moved, this instructs a browser to refresh the page after a certain interval of seconds. If the second half of the content attribute is a URL, the refresh will take the user to the URL specified rather than simply refresh the current page. This can be, and sometimes is, used mischievously to prevent a user from clicking their back button to leave a page, something likely to annoy visitors enough that they may never return.
<meta http-equiv="pragma" content="no-cache">
Not very widely used, this tag asks a browser not to cache a page. Though this can be useful if a page on your site is frequently updated (for example a news site or a forum), it will often just increase your bandwidth bills and slow down your users' browsing experience. There is also no guarantee that a browser will pay attention to it.
Interestingly enough though, Microsoft recommend that if you do want to use this, you add the tag in a second HEAD at the end of the document, like so:
<html> <head> <title>Document</title> </head> <body> Content </body> <head> <meta http-equiv="pragma" content="no-cache"> </head> </html>
<meta name="Revisit-After" content="30 days"> <meta http-equiv="expires" content="Mon, 03 Nov 2003 01:23:45 GMT">
There are a huge number of sites that say you should add the first of these to your site, because it tells search engine spiders how often to index your page. Which is a common misconception. The tag was created by SearchBC, who have said they no longer use it. Originally, it was created as a tool to suggest to the spider how often a page should be indexed. Few have ever been able to agree on the format of the tag. At the end of the day, remember that the search engines do not care how often you want them to index your pages - they will index as and when they feel like it. Some are clever enough to have a rough idea of how often you update your site, and will make use of that. Some are not that bright, and will come around when the mood takes them.
Assuming you are happy for the spiders to index your site as often as possible, as most people are, you would do well to leave this out. The spiders will return to your site as often as they deem fit, and the only way to influence the frequency this occurs at is to just keep adding new content on a regular basis.
The "Expires" tag tells browsers and search engine spiders when the document should be considered expired. This is worth using, of course, if there is a date on which the relevant document will be no longer valid. However, at this time, the search engines will often drop the page from their index - you should use the "Expires" tag only if this is what you want.
<meta name="generator" content="EditPlus2"> <meta name="copyright" content="AddedBytes.com"> <meta name="author" content="Dave Child">
A select few engines sometimes make small use of a select few of these, but most of these (and the others to be found on this [url=http://www.bauser.com/websnob/meta/useless.html]list of useless META tags[/url]) are better placed on a page, or not used at all. Most of these are added automatically by HTML editors, and some are added by over-zealous META tag addicts. In my opinion, these are best avoided, as they do little more than clutter up your code.
<meta http-equiv="pics-label" content='(pics-1.1 "http://www.icra.org/ratingsv02.html" comment "ICRAonline EN v2.0" l gen true for "http://www.addedbytes.com" r (nz 1 vz 1 lc 1 oz 1 cz 1) "http://www.rsac.org/ratingsv01.html" l gen true for "http://www.addedbytes.com" r (n 0 s 0 v 0 l 1))'>
Last but not least, something a little more unusual. The ICRA (Internet Content Rating Association) is an ideal I am happy to support, as they provide a means for helping webmasters to identify their content as suitable (or not) for certain age groups.
Simply put, you can visit their [url=http://www.icra.org/_en/label/extended/]label generator[/url] and tell the generator what your site contains. That data can then be used to help keep any content not appropriate for young eyes away from them. The data is used by some search engines and some browsers can be set to avoid pages without labels.