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The importance of meta tags - tips and guidelines 

(first published 2001, most recent update November 2009)

If you aren't utilizing meta tags in your web site's pages, you may be missing out on valuable traffic and therefore paying customers!

Meta tags are the sections of your HTML that provide direction and information for search engine robots. To get the best rankings possible in some search engines, be sure to use meta tags in every web page. Meta tags are not viewable to your visitors unless they examine the source code of your pages.

Meta tag myths

Unfortunately, many site owners abused meta tags and search engines stopped using them as means of ranking sites for quite a while, but this situation has now changed. If anyone tells you that the major engines don't consider meta tags in their ranking calculation these days, this is definitely incorrect.

Of the tags mentioned below, the most important is the "description" tag.

The process of meta tag development is part science and part magic, and this tutorial is only a primer.

Copyright issues 

Remember that Meta tags, like all other material on the Internet is bound by copyright (whether a copyright notice is utilized or not). Be careful not to copy and paste another persons tags directly into your code without some heavy revising. People have been prosecuted for doing so.

Meta Tag statement example

Here's how a meta tag is structured

<META NAME="value" CONTENT="comments"> 

Be sure that your syntax is correct, otherwise your hours of work may be totally wasted (I speak from experience).

Meta tags reside between the <HEAD> and </HEAD> tags of your document.

The most important tags:-

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Keywords Meta Tag: 

Example:

<META NAME="keywords" CONTENT="metatags,keywords,description,definition">

Note: Google doesn't use the keywords tag when ranking pages. This was officially announced in September 2009. 

The contents of a keyword meta tag should be a comma separated list of relevant words for the search engines to index your page. These words should reflect your site's most important theme. Be careful not to repeat the same keyword too often - 3 occurrences is a safe benchmark and this includes word variations. Some engines perceive heavy repetition to be "spamming the index". 

Do not use words that are not relevant to your site, it will be of no benefit and may work against you. Phrases such as "meta tag definition," are considered one keyword; i.e a keyphrase. 

When surfers enter queries into search engines, they will utilize phrases to help narrow down results. So think about the phrases that you would use if you were looking for subject material such as your site has to offer. 

Keep your most important keywords and phrases within the first 100 characters of this statement.

Capitalization is not so much an issue as most Internet users tend to use lowercase text when submitting queries, but it may be a consideration when it comes to locality names. This is a difficult aspect to judge as some search engines do not distinguish between uppercase and lowercase and it is easy to go over the 3 word repetition guideline by using such variations.

Some search engine optimization professionals use spaces after commas between keywords and keyphrases, but others recommend against this practice as it takes up valuable space. As with a number of search engine optimization topics, this is hotly debated so you may wish to experiment.

Wherever possible, try and use a different keyword statement on each page.

Recommended length of 500-750 characters. 
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Description Meta Tag: 

Example:

<META NAME="description" CONTENT="A human readable description of your site. This will appear in the search engine results query">

Make no mistake, the description meta tag is very important. It won't get you number one rankings on its own, but it will certainly help you get there.

As with the keywords meta tag, be careful not to repeat terms too often to avoid rankings being penalized. This tag is not only used for search engine spiders, but also may be the text that appears as a result of an Internet user's search engine query. Here is the challenge - to create a description meta tag that not only is attractive to robots, but also to humans.

Keep your most important terms at the beginning of each description meta tag statement and try to have a different relevant statement for each page of your web site. Using the same description meta tag statement on every page is worse than having none at all. Also very important is to not have empty meta description statements on your pages, like so:

<META NAME="description" CONTENT="">

A blank description meta tag may cause you some ranking problems.

Recommended length of 170-250 characters
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Content-Type Meta Tag: 

Example:

<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=charset=iso-8859-5">

Older browsers such as Netscape (and who uses that now?) used a META tag to automatically switch fonts, but most other browsers will ignore it. The default HTML charset is ISO-8859-1 (Western European 8-bit). 

This Meta tag is usually automatically generated by your web development software package.

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Robots Meta Tag

Example:

<META NAME="ROBOTS" CONTENT="NONE,NOINDEX,NOFOLLOW"> 

default = "ALL" 
"NONE" = "NOINDEX, NOFOLLOW" 

This tag is meant to help webmasters who cannot control the robots.txt file at their sites, or as an additional tool for those that do. Note: as mentioned in a previous article, if you are using a robots.txt file, please ensure that it is not empty. Some search engine spiders interpret this to mean not to index any of the site!

The robots meta tag provides a final attempt to keep their certain pages out of search engines and other web utilities to protect sensitive content, or prevent "under construction" pages and other content you don't wish to appear in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). 

INDEX means that robots are able to include this page in search engines. 

FOLLOW means that robots are able to follow links (spidering). 

A value of "NOINDEX" allows links from the page to be spidered, even though the page itself is not indexed. A value of "NOFOLLOW" allows the page to be indexed, but no links from the page are spidered. A value of "NONE" tells the robot to ignore the page. 

There is an additional value that can be used in the "content" part of the robots meta tag; "ALL". This just means the page is available for indexing and as such, is rarely used as there is no benefit in having it in your page code

There are a number of other meta tags that can be also implemented, but it is probably wiser to invest your time in optimizing your description and keywords tags, with a focus on the description tag. 

There is one exception - the page title tag. While not really classified as a meta tag, it's one of the most important tags in your source code; so pay special attention to that.

Further learning resources:

Search engine marketing tutorials 

Title Tag Guidelines

The importance of anchor text

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
Tutorials, web content, tools and software.
Web Marketing, Internet Development & Ecommerce Resources
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