Meta Tags Definition

What are meta tags?

Meta tags, or more appropriately, Metadata elements, are small lines of code in the HTML of web pages that provide information about the contents of the page. They are not displayed within the visible content of the page but are instead machine-parsable and can be used by browsers, search engines, and other web services.

Meta tags can help or potentially hurt your SEO, depending on how they are filled out and if they are optimized or not.

How Meta Tags Help SEO

Meta tags hold a significant role in enhancing the visibility and performance of a web page in search engines. Here's how they can be beneficial:

  1. Relevance and CTR. By offering a concise summary of a page's content, meta tags, particularly the title and description, can captivate users' attention in search results.
  2. Directives for Crawlers. They guide search engine crawlers on how to treat web content, ensuring only relevant pages are indexed.
  3. Mobile Optimization. The meta viewport tag aids in refining how a site appears on mobile devices, ensuring a more responsive user experience.

However, while these meta-elements can be advantageous, they need to be utilized appropriately. Missteps in their implementation can potentially hinder a site's SEO efforts.

How Meta Tags Could Hurt SEO

Even though meta tags are instrumental in SEO, misuse or misinterpretation can lead to unfavorable outcomes. Here are some pitfalls to watch out for:

  1. Over-optimization: Overloading meta tags with excessive keywords can appear spammy to search engines, risking penalties.
  2. Misleading Information: Inaccurate meta descriptions can confuse users, leading to a high bounce rate, which negatively impacts SEO.
  3. Incorrect Directives: Mistakes in the meta robots or meta canonical tags can result in significant indexing issues.

Meta tags come in various forms, each serving a specific function, and being aware of their differences can help webmasters optimize their pages more effectively.

Different Types of Meta Tags

Every kind of meta tag has its own job. Some tell about what the page is mainly about, while others make sure the page displays correctly on cell phones. Let's look at some very important meta tags and what they do:

  • Meta Title: The face of a web page. Displayed in search engine results and the browser's title bar, it's a central factor in gauging a page's relevance to user queries.
  • Meta Description: A concise overview of the page, impacting user click-through rates more than search rankings directly.
  • Meta Author (unused): Google claims that the meta author tag is not used by their search engine. They ran a test back in 2014 with Google+ and authorship rich snippets, but it was discontinued.
  • Meta Keywords (unused): Previously used to highlight targeted keywords, it's now largely overlooked by most search engines. Still, most SEO plugins still list the keywords field, and many marketers will still fill this out, even though it is not being looked at by Google.
  • Meta Robots: An essential guide for search engine crawlers, dictating actions like indexing and link-following.
  • Meta Canonical: A remedy for duplicate content, signaling the authoritative version of a page to search engines.
  • Meta Viewport: Ensuring sites are mobile-ready by controlling page display on various devices.

While meta tags can seem like minor components of a web page, their influence on SEO is undeniable. Using them effectively can make a positive difference in how a website performs in search rankings.

How to Add Meta Tags to Your Site

There are two primary methods: the easy way and the manual (hard) way.

The Easy Way

While manual implementation offers the most control, many prefer a simpler, more streamlined approach, especially if they aren't familiar with HTML. Thankfully, there are several tools and plugins designed to make this process straightforward:

  • WordPress Plugins: Platforms like WordPress offer plugins such as Yoast SEO and Rank Math. These tools provide user-friendly interfaces where you can easily input your desired meta tag information, and the plugin takes care of embedding it into your site's code.
  • Content Management Systems (CMS): Modern CMS platforms like Shopify, Squarespace, Wix, and Webflow often come with built-in SEO settings. In these sections, users can simply fill out fields for meta titles, descriptions, and other metadata. The platform then automatically integrates this data into the site's HTML.

While the easy method may seem tempting, it's essential to ensure that whatever tool or platform you're using is kept up-to-date. SEO best practices and meta tag standards can evolve, and utilizing outdated methods or tags can impact your site's performance in search engine rankings. Even if plugins are kept up to date, it's still common for SEO plugins to make outdated recommendations, so you should do your homework to find out what is required and what you can skip.

In general, if you use a CMS or a plugin listed above, the most important meta tags to fill out are:

  • Title
  • Description

The ones that are usually filled out automatically are:

  • Canonical
  • Viewport
  • Robots
  • Author

The ones you can generally skip are things like:

  • SEO recommendations (e.g. "You must include your target keyword in the first paragraph! )
  • Flesh reading ease (This has no bearing on SEO, you can read more here )
  • Target keyword (Generally not helpful for web content and has no bearing on SEO)
  • Meta Keywords (again, this is deprecated).

WordPress usually fills out your title automatically with the Yoast or Rank Math plugin, so your meta description is all that is needed. You can test to see if your meta description will fit within Google's limits with our SERP Visualizer Tool.

The Manual (Hard) Way

For those who have a deep understanding of website code or who want to build their website from scratch, manually adding meta tags is necessary. It's all about embedding specific meta tags directly within the HTML of your webpage. Here's a basic understanding:

Within an HTML document, meta tags typically reside in the <head> section. This is a non-visual section that provides metadata about the content of the page. An example of what this might look like is:

<meta charset="UTF-8"> <!-- Specifies character encoding -->
<meta name="description" content="Free Web tutorials"> <!-- Describes page content -->
<meta name="keywords" content="HTML, CSS, JavaScript"> <!-- (Deprecated) Indicates targeted keywords -->
<meta name="author" content="John Doe"> <!-- States the author of the content -->
<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0"> <!-- Ensures mobile responsiveness -->
<link rel="canonical" href="" />

Note: The canonical tag listed above technically does not have "meta" in the name, but it's often referred to as a meta tag. It's one of the most essential tags for your SEO, and it's the one I've seen hurt websites the most if it's added incorrectly. Please take care here.

Related Glossary Entries