Back to the basics: Meta Tags

With so much forward momentum in the world of search, it’s not long before what was an essential practice yesterday becomes a penalty today. To further complicate things, search engine companies are notoriously elusive when discussing the particulars of their ranking mechanisms, so even the most savvy developers still ask questions about the basic principles of on-page SEO.

To answer a lot of questions out on the Internet, Rand at SEO Moz has posted a pretty definitive guide on the use of Meta Tags, era 2007. Meta tags are an element that was once the pride and joy of many SEO upstarts, as appropriate stuffing of the “keywords” attribute could rocket sites with minimal value to the top of the search ranking results. The era of Google shut down this tactic pretty definitively, and people to this day wonder whether it’s still important to use these tags or not.

The simple answer is, of course, yes and no. There is relatively no direct SEO benefit for including descriptive meta tags (that is, you can’t type in “home mortgage” a lot and expect any return), however, the text used in this area is generally what the search engines will use to represent the page it appears on. Without the meta tag, Google or your search engine of choice will display an excerpt from the page of its own discretion; while this is fine for a variety of pages, in more competitive searches, Rand argues, you’ll want to use your 160 characters to pack in the most powerful marketing message you can come up with.

Since the words that appear below your ad may be your only opportunity to capture someone’s imagination and steer them to click or not, it seems like good practice to always write a pretty sharp meta description. If nothing else, writing in such a short form will teach brevity and distill your marketing message to its simplest form, which is a healthy exercise for any business.

It may be next week that these tips are completely obsolete, but for this week, there’s still a place in your source code for our old friend “meta.”