A Meta Tag Adventure

A note to readers and meta tag lovers. I wrote this article in early 2000 when search engines made a greater use of meta tags. Soon, Google was in the process of changing the search landscape with their links based algorithm, PageRank. HTML 4.1 was the markup language of the day. Those days are over. Search engine technology has become more sophisticated and no longer puts the weight on meta data that they once did. That is good news for searchers. There is still something to be gained by understanding how meta tags were and are used. –Emory Rowland
 

If You Optimize It, They Will Come

Suppose your name is Woody and you want to promote your chainsaw dealership via the Internet. You build a website that announces the products and services of Chainsaw Solutions to the world. You design the site with the latest software tools and host it with the most powerful servers available. You work very hard and put a lot of time into this project. During the process, you learn a lot about how websites work. Your employees notice that the job title on your business card now reads “Chief Web Developer” instead of “President.” You fancy yourself a technology artist. So proud are you of the new site that you offer the first ten visitors a free chainsaw valued at $1000. Such a site would receive thousands of hits from the timber cutting community, right?

You check the statistics a week after publishing the site and learn, to your disappointment, that it received a mere one hit! Only your mother-in-law who cut and pasted the link into her AOL browser managed to traverse your work of art. She now demands that you not only deliver her free chainsaw, but that you use it to clear a nasty grove of redwoods from her back yard. Family politics aside, you shouldn’t take it personally that no one came to the Internet grand opening of Chainsaw Solutions, should you? Nah. Successful web artists only pity the competition. Besides, those missing visitors were probably just not aware that the greatest chainsaw dealership in the world made its web debut. But, how are people going to find your website without you actually giving them the address? Doesn’t the Internet do that automatically?

You brew some coffee and perform a Yahoo search using the words “web“ and “promote” and “increase traffic.” After a bit of reading you learn that you can promote your site to various search engines and that you can optimize the ranking by using something called “meta tags.” You read further. As best you can determine, meta tags announce the topic of your pages, describe their content, and provide other information useful for search engines in cataloguing pages. So, if your pages contain meta tags that accurately describe the site to your targeted audience, you’re going to get hits from potential customers. In other words, visitors who search Looksmart.com for Chainsaw Solutions should return results that yield a link to the page and an accurate description of what they will find there. Click!

I’m an Artist, not a Programmer

As you research meta tags a bit further, you learn that they are actually part of the html code inside an html page. That’s a negative because the newly discovered right side of your brain shuns mathematics. Besides, you have been warned by your programmer friends of the mysterious missing time phenomenon that prevents coders from accounting for hours, even days of time. But you’ve come too far to let html stand in the way of your technology renaissance. Knowing html will help you create meta tags, but it’s not necessary.

After reviewing meta tags on other websites, you surmise that they tend to occur in two forms: the META NAME and the HTTP-EQUIV varieties. The first tag below tells search engine spiders to come back after two weeks. The second tag tells spiders when the page’s content expires so it knows when to revisit. Spiders are agents that gather content for search engine databases. Besides the words META NAME and HTTP-EQUIV, both tags are exactly alike in syntax. The only other difference is what’s inside the quotation marks. The first item in quotes describes what the tag does, the second item in quotes is the variable or the part that you change to affect search engine placement.

<META NAME=”revisit-after” CONTENT=”2 Weeks”>
<META HTTP-EQUIV=”expires” CONTENT=”Fri, 04 Dec 2001 21:29:02 GMT”>

All meta tags should be placed between the <HEAD> and </HEAD> tags in your html source. The opening <HEAD> tag usually comes at the beginning of the source code after the opening <HTML> tag (normally the very first tag that appears).

The Big Three

The more you research meta tags, the more tag types you discover, each with its own good intentions. After sifting through over a hundred or so, choosing the right tags for your website becomes a confusing task. Even the tag names themselves can be daunting to the non-programmer. There are actually tags called “Abstract” and “Pragma.” However, three particular tags seem more common than the others: Title, Keywords, and Description.

Although not technically a meta tag, the Title tag states the name of your page and perhaps a brief description. The title of your page should be enclosed between the opening and closing tags, <TITLE> and </TITLE> respectively. You can simply insert the name of your homepage or company as in:

<TITLE>Chainsaw Solutions</TITLE>

Or include the title with a short description as in:

<TITLE>Chainsaw Solutions – a cut above saw dealer</TITLE>

The title text is not viewable by your visitors in the page itself, but shows up in the Windows taskbar and in a browser’s favorites or bookmarks. If you include a description in your title, it should not be longer than about five words or else the browser’s favorites will truncate the title when bookmarked. Notice that the Title tag is a standard html tag and does not include META NAME and HTTP-EQUIV nor quotation marks.

The Keywords meta tag makes words that describe the content of your page available to search engines. Commas should separate the keywords. The most important words should appear first. You want to think very carefully about which words to use. Flaunting your vocabulary or using redundancy is usually not the best practice. Although search engines now place less emphasis on this tag than in previous years, Inktomi still uses the it. With some careful thought, you place these keywords in your Keywords meta tag:

<META NAME=”keywords” CONTENT=”Chainsaws, Tools, Trees, Cut, Saws, Blades, Axes, Hatchets, Wood Chippers, Repair, Rental, Timber Services, Logging, Logs, Lumber, Pulp, Timber, Pulpwood, Sawdust, Defoliation”>

With the Description meta tag, you want to take a minimalist approach, squeezing as much important information about your page as possible in the smallest amount of space. Include keywords and use this 155 character space for a call to action to users who see this appear in the SERPs. A reflection on the mission statement and business model of Chainsaw Solutions yields the following Description meta tag:

<META NAME=”description” CONTENT=”Whether trees or prices, we love cutting for our customers. We have the lowest priced chainsaws and timber cutting tools. Click for a free demonstration.”>

You are confident that most site rankings can be greatly improved by simply using the big three meta tags. You insert these tags into the source of your main page and publish it to the web. The tags appear together like this:

<TITLE>Chainsaw Solutions – a cut above saw dealer</TITLE>

<META NAME=”keywords” CONTENT=”Chainsaws, Tools, Trees, Cut, Saws, Blades, Axes, Hatchets, Wood Chippers, Repair, Rental, Timber Services, Logging, Logs, Lumber, Pulp, Timber, Pulpwood, Sawdust, Defoliation, Deforestation, Ardennes”>

<META NAME=”description” CONTENT=”Whether trees or prices, we love cutting for our customers. We have the lowest priced chainsaws and timber cutting tools. Click for a free demonstration.”>

The Long Crooked Arm of Spammers

A few months go by after your meta tag coup. The ten chainsaws from the free giveaway have been shipped. Your traffic has increased greatly. Your mother-in-law’s redwoods have been cleared. You have received numerous orders via the Internet. However, you notice that you are suddenly getting a hefty amount of spam in your inbox. Not that you don’t already shovel your share of spam, but something seems different. This spam is not from the usual spammers, but from some unfamiliar sources, including some invitations of a particularly deviant sort.

After some investigating, you discover the culprit was the E-mail meta tag that you inserted into your web pages. You thought that the tag would be used by someone who needed to contact you for a business reason. However, it turns out that spammers (proliferators of unsolicited e-mail) have actually sent out their own spiders and gathered your e-mail address for unscrupulous marketing purposes! The solution is to remove your good e-mail address and replace it with an address that you filter or check once a month, your spam target address. Beware of the E-mail tag! An example is:

<LINK REV=”made” href=”myaddress@domain.com”>

Conclusion

There is much more to meta tag lore than discussed here. In the above adventure, Woody looks at the trees, not the forest. Each search engine employs different methods of gathering data for indexing. Meta tags are not a guarantee of high placement, but may help rankings with some search engines, especially when using the big three.

Many programs and free online meta tag generator tools make it easy to create meta tags without even looking at the html source. One such program is Clickfire’s own freeware meta tag maker, Metty. After publishing your web pages, keep your eye on the way search engines are displaying and ranking them. Experiment with meta tags. You may learn something and you may discover yourself to be an artist.

Emory Rowland

Emory Rowland is editor and keeper of the flame at Clickfire. He's a fanatical blogger, entrepreneur and builder of Internet things from way back. Emory's love for social media and success with organic search led him to start a SEO consulting venture. Apart from the Internet, he could be considered by many as pretty worthless. More...

6 comments

  1. BC

    Do I have to put Meta Tags on each Page?

    • Emory Rowland

      @ BC – Search engines have come a long way since the days of meta tags. It’s not necessary to put meta tags on all (or any) of your pages to improve search engine rankings. Meta tags were used a great deal in the early days of search engines, but now, search engine algorithms are more sophisticated in determining which sites should rank high. Now, Google, Yahoo and other search engines place more weight on criteria like on page text and inbound links. Search engines no longer have to rely on hidden tags inserted in HTML pages to determine what pages are about and what their importance should to searchers. Many SEO’s like myself still habitually include meta tags on each page (it’s hard to stop once you’ve started). It’s a good habit but don’t expect a great rankings boost.

  2. BC

    How often do I have to submit search engines?

  3. Emory Rowland

    @ BC – These days, you only want to submit your site to the search engines once. Actually, you don’t even have to do that because search engines like Google, Yahoo, and MSN Live will find your site if other sites link to it. Their crawlers will meander around the Internet following links until they eventually discover your site. Once they do, your site doesn’t disappear from the indexes, but stays at least as long as links from elsewhere are pointing to your site. I’m always amazed to see search engine marketing firms that charge customers a fee for monthly submissions, as if Google would forget they indexed a site.

  4. Aftab

    During web search i found this site and this valuable article about meta tagging. this is such a nice piece of writing. thank you.

  5. Nick Seabury

    I found this today and it has helped me raise my ranking amongst other bed and breakfasts in the area. Luckily I m only competing against 4 others locally. thank you. very funny article. loved the sarcasm.

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