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Meta-Tag Optimization Tips: A Search Usability Perspective

Meta tags are often dismissed as critical part of search engine optimization (SEO). Meta-tag content impacts how searchers interact with your search listings.

Meta-tag tips for SEO

Seasoned search engine optimization (SEO) professionals might yawn and roll their eyes when the subject of meta-tag optimization comes up, as they might think, "Meta-tag optimization is SO 1990s."

In business, meta-tag optimization has a bad reputation because, in the past, many SEO professionals and website owners exploited meta-tags to achieve undeserved search engine visibility. As a result, the tags' content was devalued in favor of other criteria.

Nevertheless, meta-tag optimization should be a regular part of the SEO process. Here are some reasons why metadata should be optimized and 10 easy tips to implement.

Why optimize metadata?

Meta-tag content should be optimized for multiple reasons:

Rankings and relevancy

Some commercial web search engines use meta-tag content to determine page relevancy. Some do not.

Most of the time on a text-based document, meta-tag descriptions and keywords are not used to determine whether or not a page ranks. Search engines have long evolved to use other on-the-page and off-the-page criteria, as many SEO professionals know.

Due to blended search results, many SEO professionals need to re-think their meta-tag optimization viewpoints. What file types are appearing in search engine results pages (SERPs) for targeted keyword phrases? Images? Videos? Local listings?

Optimization strategies for text files differ slightly from optimization from non-text files.

Meta-tag keywords and descriptions become more important when the search engines are not able to determine (or have a difficult time determining) the "aboutness" of a file, such as a video file. In this situation, a keyword-focused meta-tag description can make or break search engine visibility.

If I am able to help implement SEO best practices at a company, I try to make metadata optimization for all file types part of a normal process.

Once copywriters, graphic designers, video and audio producers, and web developers make it a habit to produce high-quality metadata content, it does not seem like a daunting task.

Implementing Meta Data Optimization

Let's use video files as an example. Suppose a website contins 2,500 videos. Re-optimizing (or initially optimizing) 2,500 video files can seem like a daunting task.

People have to start somewhere, and 1 properly optimized video file is better than no optimized video files.

  1. Set a daily quantity. I might recommend that 10 people optimize 10 video files per day. Or 5 people optimize 5 video files per day. The idea is to make it a habit. A daily quantity is a good place to start.

  2. Prioritize content. Begin with the video files that have the greatest impact on achieving business goals.

  3. Test and measure: Set up web analytics to measure the effectiveness of meta-tag optimization. Do pilot tests before 100% implementation. All too often, management needs to see some relatively fast results before committing staff time to full implementation.

If everything goes as planned, within a few weeks, the meta-tag optimization for those files is complete. The optimization process has become a habit at the company.

Encouraging searcher behaviors

Many major search engines use meta-tag descriptions when displaying a listing in search results. Therefore, is important to write meta-tag descriptions that accomplish the following:

  • Provide a call to action: When displayed in search listings, the meta-tag description can encourage searchers to click on the link to your web page.

  • Reinforce aboutness and information scent: The meta-tag description should communicate what page content is about. Searchers should have a clear information scent from search results to web page.

  • Help obtain search visibility: If a search engine uses meta-tag content to determine rankings, then both descriptions and keywords should be unique and descriptive.

Long vs. short meta-tag descriptions

How listings are displayed in search results is very, very important. Will a searcher click on a listing...or not?

Which pages on your site are better pages to display in response to navigational queries? When searchers wish to go to a site's home page or a specific page on a site, smaller snippets are often more effective.

Which pages on your site are better pages to display in response to informational or transactional queries? When searchers desire information irrespective of where the information might be found, longer snippets are more effective.

Therefore, know your target audience's intent with various keyword phrases. Accommodating searcher goals can produce more effective search listings...and rankings.

But also remember...

Search engines do not take always take listing content from the meta-tag description.

They might take the listing description from other content that is clearly visible on the web page. Or search engines might combine parts of the meta-tag description and other visible page content for a search listing.

For these reasons, ensure that meta-tag descriptions reinforce the most important keyword phrases on the web page. Reinforcing content helps retain a consistent information scent from search results to that content.

Accurate site search engine optimization (sSEO)

The commercial web search engines are not the only search engines in existence. Many websites utilize their own site search engine.

Site search engines often use the meta-tag description and keywords content to determine rankings within a specific website.

In other words, content in the meta-tag keyword attribute might not help with WEB search engine rankings. But they often are used by SITE search engines to make search results more accurate.

Therefore, if your site uses a site search engine, make sure your content and meta tags help the most appropriate content rank.

10 easy meta-tag optimization tips

Here are some meta-tag optimization guidelines to remember:

  1. One unique meta-tag description per page. The presence of a meta-tag description is important. Make sure the content is unique. Do not duplicate it across multiple pages (few exceptions).

  2. Begin your meta-tag description with your most important keywords. This concept is called front-loading, because in the US and other countries, users read from left-to-right. It's okay to use pronouns (it, he, she) and prepositions (of, by, and so forth) and articles (the, a, an) to make the meta-tag description grammatically correct and understandable. Just keep important keywords prominent.

  3. Minimize keyword repetition. The presence of a keyword (or keyword phrase) is more important than keyword density in the meta-tag description. If a little repetition makes sense and communicates 'aboutness' of content, then go ahead and repeat a word. Don't overdo it.

  4. Regularly monitor web search listings. Google and other search engines might not use your page's meta-tag content as the snippet in a search listing. They might use a snippet of actual page content or generate their own. If you see the latter occurrence happening, then you might want to improve your description (more accurate, comprehensive, etc.)

  5. Include a call to action. What do you want users/searchers to do when they see your link in a search listing? Do you want them to read, sign up, compare? Including a call to action in a meta-tag description can encourage searchers to click on the link. Make your descriptions compelling and engaging.

  6. If your website has a site search engine, use meta-keywords. Having a list of unique keywords for a page can increase the accuracy of your site search engine. Don't duplicate the keyword list across multipe pages (with few exceptions).

  7. Limit the length of the meta-tag description to 155-200 characters. Google, for example, limits the number of characters displayed in a search listing to 155 characters. Your site search engine might allow for a longer description. If you front load your meta-tag description, search listings in Google should display the most important words.

  8. Use Webmaster Tools and other search analytics tools to check for duplication and length. These tools can be quite helpful for troubleshooting too-long meta tags or too-short meta tags. However, remember that users are more important than software. If the meta-tag description is sufficient, accurate, and compelling at only 100 characters, there is no need to modify it even if the software communicates an error or recommendation.

  9. Use robots exclusion meta tags wisely. If you want search engines to crawl and index your site's content, then there is no need to use the robots exclusion meta tag in the page code. The default is to crawl and index. In other words, don't waste your time adding this tag to all of your web pages.

    However, if you do want to use robots exclusion meta tags, use them for the right reasons. Don't use them to sculpt PageRank (it doesn't work). For example, if a website uses a site search engine, I will robots exclude site search results pages (sSERP) from being crawled and indexed.

  10. Remember that the title tag and meta-tag title are not the same item. A web page's title tag is coded like this:

    <TITLE>Page title here</TITLE>

    The meta-title tag is coded like this:

    <META NAME="title" CONTENT="Page title here. /">

    For web SEO purposes, the title-tag content is more important than the meta-tag title.

However, for some websites, the meta-tag title might be used in site search results. For site search engines, most of the time, the content of the page title and meta-tag title will be identical.

But website owners might find that different titles (1 for web search engines, 1 for site search engines) can be better for the searcher experience.

Some meta-tag myths & misconceptions

Site owners still cling to the mistaken belief that meta-tag content alone can make or break a ranking in the web search results.

For text-based documents, meta-tag descriptions are usually not a ranking factor. For non-text based documents, however, meta-tag content becomes more important.

Heck, once, my When Search Meets Web Usability co-author had to persistently correct a university lecturer about this common misconception during a graduate-level class. I understand my co-author's frustration about the narrow view of meta-tag usage. SEO is always evolving.

Meta-tag optimization should be a regular part of the SEO process. Check how your website's search listings appear. If the listings are not converting, modify meta-tag content. Or create better content.

Web analytics data provides helpful information. But also observe searchers during search usability tests. Understand the how and the why of SEO. Understand the role of meta-tags in the big picture.

Related articles

If you liked this optimization tip, here are more links to related optimization tips and search articles from Omni Marketing Interactive:

You can also read our articles from other online publications.


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