What Are Meta Tags?
Meta Tags are used by Google and other search engines in some not-so-obvious ways.
QUOTE: “Meta tags are a great way for Webmasters to provide search engines with information about their sites. (They) can be used to provide information to all sorts of clients, and each system processes only the meta tags they understand and ignores the rest. (They) are added to the
<head>section of your HTML page.” (GOOGLE)
How Can I Check The Meta Tags On A Site?
If you are not technically minded, we can analyse and fix your meta tags for you, if necessary, as part of our fixed price SEO service.
Do Meta Tags Help SEO in 2018?
Ranking high in Google in 2018 has far more to do with relevance and reputation of high-quality content, user satisfaction and online popularity than simple meta tag optimisation.
In my experience, most Meta tags do not noticeably influence where a page ranks in Google, in a positive way.
Meta tags, when used properly can still be useful in a number of areas outside just ranking pages e.g. to improve click-through rates from the SERP. Abuse them, and you might fall foul of Google’s punitive quality algorithms.
What Are The Most Important Meta Tags For SEO in 2018?
For the purposes of this ‘beginners guide to meta tags’, I focus on the three meta tags I am asked about the most:
- description (optional, potentially import and used by Google sometimes)
- keywords (optional, ignored by Google)
- robots (optional, used by Google)
Below I share my observations over the years.
Google’s advice about most on-page elements and meta tags is a lot clearer in 2018 than what it was when I first wrote about this topic (back in 2007!).
Does Google Use What Is In Meta Tags For Ranking Pages?
Some search engines once looked for hidden HTML tags like these to help order pages in search engine results pages, but most search engines (in 2018) have evolved past this, and Google certainly has.
Google is on record as saying it does not use some data in meta when ranking a page (in a positive way) and tests throughout the years have certainly seemed to confirm this.
In short, Google does not use information in the keywords meta tag or the description meta tag to actually rank pages, but it does use the meta description text to create search snippets. Sometimes.
QUOTE: “it’s not the case that changing your descriptions or making them longer or shorter or tweaking them or putting keywords in there will affect your site’s ranking.” John Mueller 2017
What Do Meta Tags Do in SEO?
Meta Data can help describe any page in a more convenient machine-readable format, more suited to search engines, but they are very likely to get spammed, and so ultimately limited on their own when it comes to ranking documents on the web.
It is more likely, I think, Google would look for abuse in such tags and penalise it in some way, rather than reward it.
Google may use metadata, amongst many other signals, to CLASSIFY pages, or DISPLAY information about a page in SERPs, although, in natural results in the UK, I see its impact, where it can be detected, when used at all, being used mainly for DISPLAY purposes.
I look for duplicate boilerplate text in meta descriptions, as they are often a sign of lower quality pages. I do this because Google says they don’t like that practice – and it is in their guidelines NOT to do it.
Perhaps Google looks at how unique your meta description IS relative to other pages on your site.
Pages are supposed to ‘stand on their own‘ – perhaps algorithms check that they do, and you are not using low-quality techniques to generate them. I have built tools that can identify doorway pages, for instance, by analysing meta tags – so Google will certainly be able to do even more.
QUOTE: “[Meta Tags] can affect the way that users see your site in the search results and whether or not they actually click through to your site. John Mueller 2017
Do Meta Tags control my search snippet listing on Google?
Sometimes, yes, at least in the case of the Meta Description, but not always, and this is dependent on many factors.
Google will pick its own preferred search snippet for SERPs for display purposes, based on elements that can still be influenced by whoever made the page (and site) – and what Google knows about the page.
NOTE: SERP Snippets Are ‘based on the user’s query‘
Keep in mind that there is no guarantee that Google will use the page meta description as the search snippet. The text featured in a Google search snippet is QUERY DEPENDANT and can change depending on the query.
“QUOTE: Keep in mind that we adjust the description based on the user’s query. So if you’re doing a site query and seeing this in your search results for your site that’s not necessarily what a normal user would see when they see a search as well.” John Mueller 2017
Meta Description SEO Best Practices
“QUOTE: We’ve been experimenting with showing longer descriptions in the search results and I believe that’s something that more and more people are seeing. For the descriptions that we show we try to focus on the meta description that you provide on your pages but if we need more information or more context based on the user’s query perhaps then we can take some parts of the page as well. Essentially from a purely technical point of view these descriptions aren’t a ranking for anything. So it’s not the case that changing your descriptions or making them longer or shorter or tweaking them or putting keywords in there will affect your site’s ranking.” John Meuller 2017
The meta description tag is still important from both from a human and search engine perspective, if used intelligently and properly.
QUOTE: “However it can affect the way that users see your site in the search results and whether or not they actually click through to your site. So that’s kind of one one aspect there to keep in mind.” John Meuller 2017
<meta name="Description" content="I wouldn't waste 2 minutes optimising my keyword meta tags for Google, but Google tells us to pay attention to meta descriptions." />
If your page is INFORMATIONAL in nature, you can make it relevant to a valuable query you are focused on, but write it for humans, not just search engines. If the keyword phrase you are optimising the page for is found in the meta description, you can usually depend on the meta description showing in Google listings. If the keyword in the search query is NOT present on the page, chances are your meta description WON”T show up.
Although meta descriptions should be UNIQUE – be sensible when manually writing unique meta description text that DOES NOT APPEAR ON THE PAGE – or you are just giving scrapers free text you are not getting any actual rankings benefit from.
Google looks at the description but there is debate whether it actually uses the description tag to rank pages (see tests and observations below). I think they might at some level, or for specific tests, or specific types of pages. From my testing, it is a very weak signal (if any) in INFORMATIONAL SERPs – and this is very reliant on the query. Google certainly indexes meta description for snippet display, not so much for ranking pages, in my observations.
It’s also very important in my opinion to have unique title tags and unique meta descriptions on every page on your site.
I don’t autogenerate descriptions with my cms ON A SMALL SITE – normally I’ll choose to either write a meta description using natural language or omit the tag altogether.
How Many Characters Will Google Display As Part of a Meta Description in a SERP Snippet?
As of December 2017, Google started displaying SERP (search engine result page) snippets with more than 300 characters. A good rule of thumb since then was that you can (if you want) create meta descriptions up to around 300 characters in length if you want the entire message to appear in the Google search page.
Google can change this in future. The old limit was about 160 characters.
Should I Choose A Long Meta Description or a Short Meta Description For My Pages?
If you have very short meta descriptions, Google will flag this in Search Console. With a very short meta description, you risk losing valuable real estate on some SERPs. With very long meta descriptions, you risk Google truncating carefully crafted messages you place in this meta tag.