A Guide to Meta Tags and What You Need to Know to Improve Your Site's SEO

By Ryan Gould,
business.com writer
|
Aug 12, 2020
Image Credit: BongkarnThanyakij / Getty Images
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A comprehensive list of best practices, strategies, and expert tips to properly optimize the most important meta-tags to increase your search engine rankings.

Search engine optimization (SEO) has been a cornerstone of digital marketing for over 20 years. It predates even Google, going back to the mid-'90s when owners of the first websites were trying to figure out how to get prominent page placement on the first search engines. Even today there remains one overarching goal to SEO: Get your site on page 1 of Google.

You only need look at the statistics to see why good SEO remains an invaluable aspect of digital marketing:

  • 93% of all online experiences begin with a search.
  • 75% of online users never click past page 1 of Google.
  • 70to 80% of users ignore paid ads and focus on organic results only.

One crucial aspect all marketers must focus on to ensure their SEO efforts reach their full potential are metatags. These are bits of HTML code that tell search engines how to display your page in results. There are a variety of metatags that tell search engines how to classify everything from titles to site descriptions and more.

Below we offer a comprehensive list of best practices, strategies and expert tips to properly optimize the most important metatags.

Title tags

Title tags are first on this list because they're the first element that describes your website to search engines. You don't need to worry about specific browsers here because HTML title tags support all browsers.

You do, however, need to concern yourself with proper positioning of the title tag. In HTML lingo it should be at the <head> section of your website. An example would look like this: 

<title>This is the title of the page.</title>. 

You can achieve this by manually coding yourself or using an SEO coding plugin. Other best practices and pro tips for optimizing title tags include:

  • Keep it under 60 characters (often Google displays between 55-64 characters).
  • Include long-tail keywords.
  • Add modifiers to your title tags like "find," "tips," "review," "buy," and even the current year
  • Only use relevant keywords, and begin your tag with your main target keyword
  • Use unique title tags for each of your pages

Remember, where it concerns on-page optimization, title tags are the second-most important factor. You can have great content with perfectly positioned keywords, but it's all for naught if your audience can't find it. If you aren't particularly tech-savvy, there are several tools like Ryte's website checker, which easily allow you to evaluate and fix pages that have title tag errors. 

Meta description

Next is the meta description. This is a brief summary of the site itself. It's located right below the title tag in any given search result listing. An example would be:

<head> <meta name="description" content="Description of my website."> </head>

Google does not use meta descriptions as a ranking signal. Therefore, you want to write it for the audience you're trying to attract. To increase your calls to action (CTA), adhere to some meta description best practices, which include:

  • Add proven CTAs in your meta tags like "act now," "apply today," "contact us," etc.
  • Only include vital info in your description. (Google pulls relevant meta description text from specific user queries.)
  • Add targeted keywords in your descriptions.
  • Describe content relevant to your target audience.
  • Include discounts and offers.
  • Never add duplicate meta descriptions.

As for description length, while the max number of characters for meta descriptions have changed over the years, today the limit is around 160 characters for desktop searches and 130 for mobile.

Robots metatag

Now we're diving deeper into the machinations of how Google indexes websites. Google sends out spider crawlers to inspect web pages and thus make those pages available for web search. To rank higher in search engines, only allow vital pages on your site to get indexed. Use the robots metatag HTML to tell the crawler to index a page or not to index a page. 

Not indexing a page would look like this:

<meta name="robots" content="noindex, nofollow" />

And indexing a page looks like this:

<meta name="robots" content="index, follow" />

As another example, using a no-index tag is a good idea when you have a page integral to your website but is thin on content useful to your target audience. 

This also comes in handy for blogging, as Google often penalizes pages that include non-organic links (such as those used in product reviews). To avoid being dinged by Google, clarify the link is nofollow just like the page is a noindex. To do this, add Rel=Nofollow to the code. 

Canonical tags

There's going to be instances where you have pages on a site that have similar content. Or perhaps some of your content has been syndicated on other sites. You can prevent being penalized by Google for duplicate content with canonical tags. 

This is simply a way of telling the crawlers which page of similar content is the main one on which they should focus. A canonical tag in HTML form would look like this:

<link rel="canonical" href="http://blogpost.com/" />

An example of properly optimizing your canonical tags is to use them to differentiate the desktop version of your website from the mobile version, which will, of course, both have similar if not entirely duplicate content.

Header tags

If you've ever published a blog you're likely aware of header tags. These are headings used to structure the content on a web page. They come in various forms, from H1 up to H6, with H1 headers being the most important and H6 being the least.

For example, an H1 tag might be the title of your site content or blog post, like:

<h1> 6 Tips for Improving Your E-Commerce Website </h1>

While a below subhead might look like:

<h2>Use Video Demonstrations</h2>

And so on and so forth.

To properly optimize your header tags is a matter of quality over quantity (i.e., don't saturate the page with subheads). Instead, use as few header tags as possible while ensuring they give search engines a clear understanding of your page topics.

Alt text tag

The alternative text tag is used for image optimization. It's vital in today's SEO as it makes your visual content more accessible to both your audience and search engines. It does this by offering a text alternative to any images that fail to load on your site for some reason.

An example might look like:

<img src="http://website.com/balloon.jpg" alt="xyz" />

There are some pro tips to follow when adding your alt tags, such as:

  • Be descriptive in your image file names.
  • Keep alt text concise.
  • Create an image sitemap.
  • Use no more than 55 characters in the alt text.

Alt tags are relatively easy to do, and they should be included in all images on your website.

Nonimportant metatags 

Just like there are vital tags to focus on, there are also tags you can overlook, such as keyword tags, revisit tags, site verification, copyright, and distribution. 

  • Keyword tags: These tags aren't used by search algorithms to determine rankings. SEOs will tell you to ignore these tags since they won't help determine your search rankings. 

  • Revisit tags: This command tells spiders to come back to your site after a specific amount of time. These tags are not followed by any major search engine. 

  • Site verification tags: Your site should be verified by Google, Bing and other major search engines. These tags should be used as a last resort to verify your site, but always opt to verify your site another way. For example, Google allows you to submit a DNS, external file, or by linking to your Google Analytics account for site verification. 

  • Copyright: Copyright tags can be used to record information about who built the site, copyright ownership, etc. Since your copyright info is probably somewhere else on your site, this is completely optional and unnecessary. 

  • Distribution: This tag supposedly controls who can access a document. All of your pages will typically be set to "global," meaning the page is open and anyone can access it. If you want a page to be private, it will most likely be password protected or not viewable to the public so there would be no reason to use this tag. 

Conclusion

When it comes to optimizing meta tags, focus on important ones like title tags, meta description, robots metatag, canonical tags, header tags and alt text tags. By optimizing these tags using the tips mentioned above, you can better help search engines understand what your page is about and drastically improve your onsite SEO. 

 

Ryan is known for taking complex marketing and business challenges and developing solutions that simplify processes while driving customer outcomes and business value. He also thrives on guiding Elevation teams toward execution of strategies that help companies succeed in new verticals, while staying true to core values and brand integrity.
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