Meta tags are small bits of text that do not appear on a web page itself, but are seen by search engines. As search engines crawl through millions of pages in search of the user’s desired content, meta tags provide information to the search engine about the data contained on the page. In this way, meta tags help search engines understand what a page is about and, in theory, can be used to make content on a page more easily located, driving up the page’s ranking. However, historically, meta tags have been overused. And while there is no major downside to including frivolous meta tags, doing so will crowd the page’s code and unnecessarily add to its length. It is also a telltale sign of an amateur developer.
Before delving into the tags themselves, there are two important features of meta tags that are important to understand. First, the usefulness of meta tags changes over time based on search engines’ (typically Google’s) SEO algorithm. Thus, meta tags that were useful in 2015 to help drive a page to the top of the rankings, may no longer be necessary based on changes to Google’s algorithms. Second, most SEO-experts agree that while meta tags can help a page rank higher in a search, the effectiveness of meta tags will be limited unless the page contains high-quality content. Over time, Google’s algorithm has shifted from a mechanical approach that could be manipulated by effective use of keywords to one focusing more on content. The bottom line is that if the content on a page does little to address the user’s query, even efficient use of meta tags will not likely result in an effective SEO strategy.
Useful Meta Tags
Developers should include certain meta tags on every page, regardless of where the page is located or what it is about. These tags include:
• Meta content type: The meta content type tag sets the character set for a page, and effects how a page loads in a browser.
• Meta description: One of the most used tags, and for good reason, the meta description tag contains a brief summary of a page’s content. Meta description tags are usually shortened to just 155-160 characters, so these tags should be concise and written in a natural voice to encourage users to visit a specific page out of a list of other pages with similar content.
• Title: Perhaps the most obvious of tags, the title meta tag provides the page’s title to a search engine. A title should be an accurate and concise description on the page’s content. Title tags are as the clickable links in a SERP (search engine results page).
• Viewport: The viewport tag is critical to make a page accessible for mobile users. This tag allows developers to set the width and scaling of the viewport. Without this tag, a mobile user will load the page at a desktop screen width, and the page will then be scaled down to the size of the mobile screen.
These four tags represent the only tags that are truly necessary. However, depending on the use of a specific page, there may be other useful tags. For example, the list below includes tags that, while not necessary for every page, will come in handy in certain situations:
• Social meta tags
• Specific bot tags
• Site verification
The Meta Tags to Avoid in 2019
Now that we’ve covered the tags that developers should include, we will look at a few of the tags that have almost entirely outgrown their usefulness. It is important to note that nothing bad will happen to a page if it includes these tags, however, they are generally agreed to be unnecessary and a waste of time.
• Author/web author: A tag used to indicate the page’s author, the author/web author tag is not necessary.
• Revisit after: the revisit after tag attempts to get a search engine to revisit a page after a certain amount of time, however, it is not currently used by any major search engine.
• Rating: The best way to alert Google that a page has adult content is by placing these pages on a separate directory, rather than by using the rating tag.
• Expiration/date: Pages rarely expire, and if a page is designed to be temporary, it should just be removed.
• Copyright: The copyright tag indicates the year the page was last copyrighted. However, this information is contained elsewhere on the page and is redundant.
• Abstract: The abstract tag provides a brief abstract of the content. Typically, this is used by pages containing scholarly works in which abstracts are common.
• Distribution: The distribution tag controls who can access a page. However, if a page is not password protected, it is implied that anyone can access it.
• Generator: The generator tag used to indicate the program that was used to create the page.
• Cache-Control: The cache-control tag attempts to control how often a page is cached by a browser; however, HTTP header is a more effective way to implement cache control.
• Resource type: This tag names the page’s resource type. However, now DTD declaration does this.
The selective use of meta tags can help a page climb in the rankings. However, the art of developing a web page with effective SEO is not just about including meta tags, but also about providing the user with high-quality, relevant content that address their query.
Tony Chiaramonte is a content developer for law firms at Custom Legal Marketing.