Meta tags for SEO: a quick reference guide

Meta tags for SEO: a quick reference guide

In the search engine optimisation (SEO) field, plenty of column inches have been dedicated to debating meta tags. Used appropriately, certain meta tags can boost your click-through-rate and drive up conversions.

On the other hand, there is a lot of misunderstanding about what meta tags can and can't do and how exactly they provide a benefit to website owners.

This article will help you to understand which meta tags to focus on, how to make the most of them and which meta tags can be safely dropped.

What exactly is a meta tag?

A meta tag is a piece of specially formatted HTML code which provides 'meta data' to a browser. Meta data is extra information that is not visible on the webpage itself yet which provides information about the page. It is written as a set of name/value pairs.

Meta tags are head elements which means they need to be placed between the and tags on an HTML document.

Your HTML code can be thought of as a set of step-by-step instructions for your browser on how to display and interact with your webpages. The cleaner that code is, the quicker and easier it will be for your browser to execute it and for search engines to crawl and index it.

Since some meta tags are more useful than others, it is worth removing any that are not performing a useful function.

Which meta tags are important for your website - and how should you use them?

Out of the many meta tags created there are just five that are either compulsory or highly advisable to include in your code:

The first is the content type meta tag. This should be the first meta tag you add since it specifies the type of encoding used for the characters in your document. An example of a content type meta tag is:

<meta http-equiv="content-type" content= "text/html; charset=utf-8" />

Another critical piece of code is the viewport meta tag. This is where you instruct browsers to match the webpage to the dimensions of the viewing device and to zoom it at 100 per cent. This is formatted as follows:

<meta name=viewport content="width=device-width, initial scale=1" />

The next two meta tags are important or SEO purposes - although not for the reason some people think.

The title tag

The title 'tag' is formatted differently to other meta elements as it follows the conventional HTML open and close tag format:

<title>page title goes here</title>

The title element determines the link text on search engine results pages (SERPs) and is therefore instrumental in getting people to visit your website. See the shaded yellow area on the image below for an example of how the title tag displays in SERPs. The ideal length at the time of writing is 50-60 characters.

Meta title example

Read 'The meta title element: info, uses and best practice' for more guidance on this meta tag and how it benefits SEO.

The meta description tag tag

The content added to the meta description tag appears on SERPs as the snippet below the clickable link. It is your chance to promote what is on the associated webpage. See the shaded yellow area on the image below for an example of how the description tag displays in SERPs.

Meta description example

Read 'The meta description tag: a top tool for driving traffic your way' for more guidance on this meta tag and its SEO benefits.

Open Graph tags

The fifth of the important meta tags are Open Graph tags, created by Facebook in 2010.

These turn your webpages into rich objects optimised for sharing on a range of social media platforms (Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and G+ now also make use of Open Graph tags). Ensuring your OG tags have relevant content will make it easier for your brand advocates to share your content and to make the shared content look great.

Although other OG tags exist, the following basic template can be regarded as the minimum you should be adding to your shareable webpages:

<meta property="og:title" content="Title Here" /< <meta property="og:type" content="article" /< <meta property="og:url" content="" /< <meta property="og:image" content="" < <meta property="og:description" content="Description Here" /<

Editing the title, image and description attributes will give you granular control over how your content appears on social media, helping you to boost SEO. Once again, these may be editable through your CMS, though you may have to dig a little deeper to edit them.

Borderline meta tags: use sparingly

Some meta tags should be left out unless your particular webpage is really likely to benefit from them. Here are some examples:

The debate about whether the meta keywords tag should be used refuses to go away and web designers and business owners continue to add lists of keywords to this tag.

Google stated almost a decade ago that they do not use this meta tag at all in their ranking algorithms. However, it is possible that some other search engines pay it some attention (and others might do in the future). If you are happy to spare the time, feel free to add keywords to this meta tag but they are unlikely to bring you much, if any, SEO benefit.

A robots meta tag is only ever needed if you want to stop search engine robots from following or indexing your site. Since robots will automatically follow links and index your site, there is no need to tell them to do so.

Social media meta tags (e.g. twitter:card) will display a prominent snapshot of your social media profile on your webpage. Consider whether generic OG tags would suffice.

The language meta tag can be used if you move internationally and need to specify that your page is in a different language. The different country codes can be found in this list:

In all other cases, you can and should leave this tag out.

The abstract meta tag is similar to the description meta tag but is only relevant for internal indexing purposes. If your business or institution is in the medical or academic field there may be a use case but it is all but useless in the wider internet environment.

The refresh meta tag, which reloads your webpage after a defined number of seconds, can specify a different url as a content attribute. It therefore acts as a client-side redirect. This should only really be used if you are somehow unable to set up a 301 redirect on the server.

Similarly, the site verification meta tag should only really be used as a plan B. Verification via file submission is always the recommended path.

Obsolete and unnecessary meta tags

The following meta tags use up code space without performing any necessary function.

They either duplicate information already provided elsewhere or are simply ignored by all major search engines. They can - and should - be taken out of your HTML:

Author/web author; cache control (use the HTTP header instead); copyright; distribution; expiration/date (substitute for good housekeeping!); generator; rating; resource type (specified in the DTD declaration) and revisit after (included in your site map).

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Topics: Copywriting, Search engine optimisation (SEO)

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