Meta tags are the key elements of a website’s HTML code that describe the content of a page. For search engines this is part of what they index when they crawl a website.
They are not normally seen by users as they do not appear in the actual content of the webpage. However, they are seen by search engines when they make their analysis of a website.
So if these elements are part of how search engines read a website then they must be important for the purposes of SERP optimisation, right? This is true, but the way they have been important has changed over time.
In the past, they have been abused by marketers who stuffed them with keywords as part of their strategy to get a boost in page rankings. As search engine indexers got smarter these strategies become obsolete.
Meta tags remain important because they help search engines compare the descriptions and keywords with the actual content of a website. Search engines will essentially be asking if the these descriptive elements of the website are matching up with what the website is about.
For this reason optimising meta tags is one of the best ways to make a website search engine friendly. They inform search engines about the internal consistency of the website so it can help them serve it to users.
It’s important for someone wanting to optimise their website to understand meta tags and their proper usage. The following will describe the most common examples and how they can be best used as part of your search engine optimisation strategy.
In a websites HTML the <title> tag denotes the title of the webpage. The title suggests the subject matter of what’s present on the page and thus is an important on-page optimisation factor.
As a meta element, the title tag provides useful information about a webpage while not being visible on the page itself. However, it is not invisible to users because it appears on the search results page and is what users first read when considering clicking on a link.
This makes the title tag extremely important because search engines like Google use it on the results page. This means optimising the title tag is part of attracting users to a website.
Many practitioners of SEO believe that the title tag is one of the most crucial on-page optimisation factors behind the quality of the page content.
The title tag gives potential visitors to the website the information they need to know what the webpage is all about. This, combined with the meta description serve to entice the user to click on the link in the hope it will provide an answer to their search query.
Tips for optimising title tags
- Ideally, they should remain under 70 characters in order to make sure the entire title is displayed on the search results page
- Every title for every page should have unique and descriptive language so that it is not confused with another page
- Use important keywords but don’t overstuff them. Use them in a natural way that appears towards the front of the title. A search engine will highlight those keywords when they match the user’s search query
- Use the brand name in the title but either at the beginning or the end and make sure it is separated from the rest with a colon, pipe or hyphen
The meta description is useful much in the same way as the title. It gives a summary of what the webpage is about but goes into more detail.
It’s particularly useful on the SERP because search engines can often use it as the snippet displayed under the website’s URL. This is not always the case, but a well written description is more likely to be used than a poorly written one.
When used as the snippet under the URL, the description is the advertising copy that user’s will read when considering clicking on the website.
Tips for optimising description tags
- They should be between 150 to 160 characters in length, so like the title; they can fit on the SERP page in their entirety.
- Each page on the website should have a unique description. Use general descriptions on home pages and more specific ones everywhere else.
- Target unique keywords in the description but be careful not to overstuff them. Like the title, use them in a natural way that is written for users.
- It does not need to be a complete sentence but can include data that is important for the target audience such a dates, names of authors and other information.
As you may have guessed, this is where the keywords you want your page to rank for are placed. It is important to make sure that they are unique to the content of the page and have keyword research supporting their usage.
The importance of meta tags: Improving CTR
We know that meta tags are important for helping a site index and display a website for users but this does not indicate that they explicitly assist with page rankings. Indeed, search engines have openly declared that they are no longer critical ranking factors.
So how are they useful in an SEO context? They might not directly influence page rankings, but they help generate traffic to the site.
This is because, as previously stated, the title and descriptions appear on the SERP page. This means that they are first things users see when they encounter a website and are perfect places to implement advertising techniques.
When you generate a higher CTR (click-through rate) then search engines recognise this as users opting to choose your website over other options. This user engagement data is a ranking factor that will boost the placement of a website.
This is why meta tags are important for SEO; because they indirectly affect page rank by helping to generate a higher CTR.
Tips for optimising CTR through writing meta tags
When writing titles and descriptions, the end user should always be kept in mind. Keywords will be important in denoting the subject matter of a page for users but they should be used in a way that is more akin to advertising copy.
This is quite similar to a PPC (pay-per-click) ad in the way advertising language is used to entice a user to click through to the website.
- Use CTA’s (calls to action) that prompt the user to do something. Examples of this are “sign up”, “find out” and “order now”.
- Demonstrate the value proposition of the website by describing unique benefits such as “fast sign-up”, “voted best” or “free delivery”.
- Use tactics like the clever capitalisation of words and unique punctuation that will draw people’s attention.
The importance of the value proposition
When trying to get users to click on a search result it needs to speak to them directly and answer the questions that their minds are asking. These questions are “what is this page offering me?” and “why should I click on it?”
If these questions can’t be answered in the description then it should be re-worked so that they can. If you’re going to optimise these parts of the website then they have to be as fine-tuned as possible in order to encourage a click.
In order to make sure that the value proposition if effective as possible it needs to differentiate itself from the competition. Do some research into the page descriptions offered by competitors to determine the kind of language they are using to attract clicks.
When this research is done you can begin writing a better description than the ones used by competitors. When a person is browsing a SERP they will be evaluating these descriptions very quickly and subconsciously make a choice between them based on their relevancy to them.
This is where your target audience research combines with SEO. You’ll be trying to optimise meta tags so that they connect with your target and prompt them to click.
Anyone who has studied advertising will recognise these elements as the basics in advertising language. While not very advanced in terms of advertising copy they don’t need to be.
Remember that these elements have strict character limits in order to be displayed in full. This means that you can afford to use snappy marketing language because you only have a small amount of room to work with.
The goal here is to simply attract the attention of the user so that they click through to the site where the more detailed copy can convert them. In terms of an SEO strategy you only need to be eye-catchy enough to promote the CTR and thus the page ranking.
It’s clear that the relationship between meta tags and SEO is more complicated than it used to be. They shouldn’t just be seen as a formality in web development but as an opportunity to improve page rank by increasing the click-through rate.
While certainly not the biggest optimisation strategy that can be implemented it is worth pursuing, especially for those who want to squeeze out the last bit of SEO potential. As search engine optimisation gets more widely used and competitive then every last piece of strategy needs to be taken advantage of.
HTML elements will remain an important part of SEO but not for the reasons they originally were. Helping search engines index and display website content is far more indirect in helping with optimisation than boosting CTR with cleverly written titles and descriptions.
Therefore you should not discount the importance of meta tags because they are not a primary ranking factor. Instead, take advantage of their ability to influence the ranking factor of user engagement by implementing effective advertising techniques to boost CTR.
Kieran is the Social Media Manager and SEO Expert at SEO Shark. He is an expert in Social Media, link building, PPC and of course SEO. In his time off work Kieran enjoys reading and playing rugby, as well as following all kinds of sports! You can read some more of his articles here.