Meta Tags: Your Questions Answered
Meta Tags: Your Questions Answered
If there's one topic that comes up almost as often as how to
submit, it's questions about meta tags. Meta tags have been
mentioned so many times by the press, many people perceive
them as the Holy Grail of search engine marketing. "Don't
even think about building a Web site without knowing the in's
and out's of these mystical meta tags," right? Well, the
truth is that meta tags are far from being a silver bullet
solution to your search engine woes. However, educating yourself
is the first step toward "search engine enlightenment," and
thus achieving those elusive top 10 rankings.
What are meta tags and how are they best used?
When the HTML language was first created, it was recognized
that new tags would later be needed for specialized purposes.
Since there wasn't any way to anticipate every possible need,
the META tag was created as a sort of "catch-all." These
tags allow Webmasters to issue an unlimited variety of commands,
or to provide information to a browser, search engine, or
automated program (i.e., robot). The tags are ignored by
default unless the browser or search engine specifically recognizes
Meta tags are contained in the HEAD section near the top of
the page. They're not displayed to the end user unless you
view the source code of the page. The two most common meta
tags, and the ones we are most concerned about in this article
are keyword and description tags.
The meta keyword tag is designed to tell the search engine
what keywords are important to your page, and thereby how
people should be able to find you when they search. It should
look something like the following:
<META name="keywords" content="my keywords should be listed
Although you can list as many keywords as you like, most search
engines will not read more than about 1000 characters. Include
your most important keywords at the start of the tag.
The meta description tag is primarily used for telling the
search engine what description you want associated to the
page in the search engine's results. It should look something
<META name="description" content="A short description of my
Web site goes here.">
It's essential that you create a compelling description for
your page to entice people to click through from the search
Each engine that supports the meta description tag will truncate
it down to 150 to 400 characters depending on the engine.
Therefore, include the best portion of your description in
the first 150 characters, but go ahead and add additional
sentences to fill it out to about 400 characters.
It doesn't matter what order you place the tags in the HEAD
area, although it's recommended that you include the TITLE
tag first on the page, before listing any other tags.
Will meta tags improve my rankings?
Unfortunately, the majority of the major search engines do
not recognize the meta keyword tag at all. A larger number
do recognize the meta description tag for the purpose of creating
a summary for the page. The prevailing philosophy is that
search engines prefer to index text that is clearly VISIBLE
to the user, although exceptions are certainly made. The
engines in general consider invisible text, such as that found
in meta tags, as "untrustworthy" since they can be easily
abused by an unethical Webmaster. For example, someone could
list out many keywords that do not apply to their page's content,
or they could repeat a keyword many times in hopes of boosting
Of the engines that do support meta tags, none are thought
to give extra "relevance" to words appearing in meta tags
versus elsewhere on the page. In fact, most engines give
words in these tags less weight than if they had appeared
elsewhere on the page such as in the body area or the page
You might then conclude that meta tags are useless? Well,
not quite. You definitely want to include a meta description
tag on every page to avoid the search engine making up its
own description from random excerpts on the page.
In regard to the meta keyword tag, many experts believe that
including a keyword in BOTH your meta tags and in other areas
of your page CAN help improve your rankings. For example,
let's say your keyword was "Star Wars collectibles" and it
appeared in the body text that is visible to the user. If
the keyword were also included in your meta keyword tag, then
that would reinforce to the search engine that "Star Wars
collectibles" was an important theme on this page. Although
no extra relevancy boost is given for including the keyword
solely in the meta tag, some engines may look to the meta
tag as a way to reinforce their belief that a page is relevant
if all the other more important factors "check out" too.
In any case, including the tags are unlikely to hurt your rankings
if you follow a few simple rules. Be careful not to repeat
the same keyword more than two or three times in the tag.
Never repeat the same word twice in a row or you may trigger
a search engine's "spam filter." Lastly, never include keywords
that do not apply to the content of that page.
Can I get into legal trouble by including trademarks
or company names in my meta tags?
There have been a number of lawsuits where companies have sued
and won after someone used their trademark or company name
inappropriately in their meta tags. In fact, we nearly had
to take competitors to court a couple years ago for blatantly
using our better-known WebPosition brand name as a means to
drive more traffic to their own site. It wasn't until we
were on the verge of filing suit that they conceded.
Basically, there are laws regarding "fair use" of trademarks.
If you are including competitor's brand names for the purpose
of bringing in more traffic to your own site, then you're
asking for trouble. However, if you are doing a "fair use"
comparison between your product and a competitor's in the
body text of your page, then your legal liability may not
be so clear-cut. For a detailed listing of legal cases regarding
trademarks and meta tags, see:
In general, your odds of getting into legal trouble go up much
faster if you mention a trademarked name in an invisible area
of your page like a meta tag. It's difficult to prove that
inclusion of the keyword in the meta tag area was for any
other purpose than to profit from another's brand name (i.e.,
to gain Web site traffic).
What about Dublin Core and other meta tags?
Most other meta tags you'll run across are ignored by the major
search engines, including the "Dublin Core" set of tags.
(If you're among the majority who has never heard of the Dublin
Core specification, don't worry about it). The general rule
is that if you see some unusual meta tag on somebody's page
that you've never seen before, you can almost bet that it's
unlikely to be anything that a major search engine will index
or care about.
There are a few meta tag commands that can be useful for other
things besides improving your rankings, but I'll save those
for another discussion.
Should I separate words and phrases in my
keyword meta tag by commas?
There's a continuing debate about whether to separate each
keyword in the meta keyword tag by a comma, or to group related
words (i.e., phrases) by commas, or to list all the words
in one long string separating each word only by a spaces.
Which method is better? The most common method is separating
each word or phrase by a comma. However, many experts contend
that the search engines ignore the commas. So by eliminating
them, you can include more words in the tag. Frankly, it
won't likely affect your rankings either way. Use whichever
method you're comfortable with since there are more important
things to worry about.
Meta Tag Resources:
The above article, or portions of it, have been reprinted
with permission from the MarketPosition Newsletter and FirstPlace
Software, Inc. and is copyright 1997-2001. FirstPlace produces
WebPosition Gold, the award-winning software product to increase
traffic to your Web site by tracking and improving your search
engine rankings. You may download a FREE trial copy of WebPosition
Gold from http://www.webposition.com
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