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SEO Tip – META tags

card catalogThis article is the first of several in series of SEO Tips. My goal is to provide you with short, easy to understand, nuggets of SEO that you can implement on your own sites. Over time you should see improvement in your rankings as we cover more material.

The first three topics I’ll cover are the Title, Description and Keywords META tags.

Before I can discuss META tags though, I feel I should educate you a little about what they are and where they came from. Since the early days of the internet, people have believed META tags have mysterious super powers when it comes to being found online. While the Title does tag retain some of its super powers, the others have been severely reduced in strength. Even though weakened, the other tags should not be ignored as they are not quite dead – yet.

To help de-mystify META tags, it helps to think back to the “olden days”, before the web, when to do research you went to a large building called a “library.” It was a place where you could browse through collections of thousands upon thousands of books. To locate one of interest, you would use a “card catalog”, a large bank of small drawers filled with 5×7 index cards (things us old people used to make notes on). These cards were sorted by subject and topics. If you wanted to read a book about horses, you would go to the non-fiction area, then to animals, then to horses. These “keywords” helped us locate a broad category of books we might be interested in. Once you located a collection of books (your search results) you would flip through the cards and view brief bits of information about each book; Its title, author, publish date, a brief description and where the book was located. As you skimmed through the cards, you hoped for a title that sounded like a book you’d be interested in. If you see a title that looks good, you would then read the short description. If the description was intriguing, you might go pull the book from the shelf and give it a look. You could now either keep the book, or return to the card catalog and search some more until you found a book you liked.  Sounds a bit like Google, don’t you think?

The founding fathers of internet search, mostly educators, were familiar with this system and thought it might be a useful way to catalog the few pages of text that existed online at that time. They adopted the use of META, or hidden, tags to help locate, describe and catalog the internet.

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While this system worked well enough most of the time, it had a fundamental flaw – the keywords and descriptions were subjectively provided by the librarian – who may or may not have actually read the book. What if (on a bad day) the librarian looked at the cover of a book and saw a picture of a girl riding a horse on the beach. She might conclude the book is about horses, or riding them on the beach. When the book is actually about a boy’s summer vacation, during which he happened to developed a crush on a girl that liked to ride her horse at the beach. You’d be disappointed if you took that book home, wouldn’t you?

It gets worse. Imagine, if you can, that a few librarians figure out that the publishers of certain books will pay them a few cents each time they can get someone to pull one of their books from the shelf. These black-hat librarians would be putting keywords and descriptions in the card catalog that make no sense at all – just so somebody would go pull the book from the shelf.

Of course no librarian would do that, but sadly, that’s what happened to the web. Greed caused webmasters and even some SEOs to fill their pages with clues for the search engines that had nothing to do with the actual content – just to get viewers. They didn’t care if the viewers left as quickly as they came – just that they got paid for each visit.

Eventually the search engines figured this out and decreased their reliance on the META tags in favor of good page titles and great content. It’s important to note that I did not say they stopped reading them. While the importance of keywords and description tags is somewhat debated in the SEO community, many of us believe they do continue to play at least a small role in the indexing and cataloging performed by the search engines.

When creating your pages, you should always include a well-formed title, descriptive keywords and an accurate description. How do you do that? It’s easy….but it’s also a topic for next time.

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Written By

Jack Leblond is a SEO/SEM professional working for a large corporation full time in Austin, TX. He is not a Realtor, he is our in-house SEO expert. Jack is the Director of Internet Strategy and Operations for TG (www.tgslc.org). In addition to managing the team that develops and maintains the company's multiple Web sites, he focuses on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), e-marketing and Social Media. Jack's background ranges from Submarine Sonar Technician/Instructor for the United States Navy, technical writer, pioneer in internet/intranet creation for McGraw-Hill and Times Mirror Higher Education, former Adjunct Professor for two Universities teaching web-related courses, has served as a city council member and co-founded Net-Smart, a web design and hosting company, where he managed networks and oversaw the development of hundreds of Web sites. As a free-lance SEO consultant, Jack performs SEO Site Audits for small/medium businesses that want their web sites to perform better in the search engine listings.

30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. Gadget Sleuth

    September 12, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    It depends on the SE I think; Google I think its still somewhat important to include Meta Tags, others maybe not so much.

  2. Seo Boca

    September 14, 2009 at 1:29 am

    A lot of webmasters new to the industry still think that using meta keywords would work best for their websites. Some professors, if not from US, aren’t updating their students about the development on the strategies of getting indexed on search engines. So when they are in the real world, they get confused.

  3. Bob

    September 14, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    “Eventually the search engines figured this out and decreased their reliance on the META tags in favor of good page titles and great content.”

    This is true with the keyword meta, but not title and description meta data.

  4. Jack Leblond

    September 14, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    @Bob – the key word in that sentence is “decreased.” I believe that both keyword and description METAs are used by the search engines – although neither has a large affect on rankings.

  5. @steveplunkett

    September 14, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    non spammy meta tags used along with page segmentation and database function calls on google, work.. like it or not.

  6. Portland Real Estate

    September 14, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    They should go away. I would be much happier if the search engine indexed based upon content, rather than advertised content through the META tags. It seems more honest and less work for me.

    -Tyler

  7. Lima Ohio Realtor

    September 14, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    I’m pretty sure many of the SEs no longer use the keyword META, but the title and description tags are still very much alive. Most SEs put a lot of weight on the title tag more so than the description, but the description can have a dramatic impact on your CTR on search results pages. So, make them very compelling to searchers.

  8. Linsey Planeta

    September 14, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Card Catalog?! Wow – I DID have to dust that one off. Sounds as about as archaic as it gets now – but I do remember those. Love the SEO tips and will be watching for the next stuff in your series.

  9. Bob

    September 16, 2009 at 12:10 am

    “although neither has a large affect on rankings.”

    That is just too easy to test. Lets delete the descriptions on the pages of your sites and see what happens.

  10. Atlanta Real Estate

    September 16, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    I still use ’em just in case some non Google search engines still rely on them. Remember, there are some other engines besides The Google out there.

    Also, your tag is what most search engines will pick up as your SERP snippet, or what appears just below your URL in the search results.

    This can have a big Adword type effect on CT rate, for organic results.

    So go rewrite all those very carefully. 🙂

    RM

  11. Atlanta Real Estate

    September 16, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    Sorry guys:

    “Also, your tag is what most search engines will pick up as your SERP snippet, or what appears just below your URL in the search results. ”

    Should of read:

    “Also, your meta name description tag is what most search engines will pick up as your SERP snippet, or what appears just below your URL in the search results. ”

    RM

  12. Jack Leblond

    September 16, 2009 at 10:55 pm

    @RM. Stayed tuned for future topics, you may be surprised.

  13. Atlanta Real Estate

    September 16, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    Locked in.

  14. Fred Romano

    September 21, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    Hello Jack, Google does not use the meta “keywords” tag. Here’s a new vid from Matt Cutts to confirm this.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jK7IPbnmvVU&feature=player_embedded

  15. Fred Romano

    September 29, 2009 at 11:07 am

    @Jack – what do you think about WP plugins that “auto generate” keywords for the post? I was thinking of using one on my blog.

  16. Jack Leblond

    September 30, 2009 at 9:36 am

    @Fred – You made me smile. First you tell me they have no use, now you ask if it’s OK to have them auto-generated. 😉

    They are of a VERY low value, so auto-generated would probably be OK. However, if you are using a plugin like the All in One SEO Pack it only takes a minute for you to add them manually – and you KNOW they are accurate.

  17. Fred Romano

    September 30, 2009 at 9:40 am

    Well it’s possible that other search sites might pick up on them. To be honest I have never used tags before, just started on a new blog I have. I am manually added them in, but wasn’t sure if I should even bother. I do use the all-in-one… so I see that it’s taking the WP tags and making metatag keywords.

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