Your Questions About Meta Tags
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 them.
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="your keywords should be listed here">
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 like this:
<META name="description" content="A short description of your 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 results.
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 their rankings.
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 title.
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?
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.
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.
Do 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.