SEO: Optimizing your meta tags for search engines

December 5, 2006 •

Within the HTML code behind your page, there are things called ‘meta tags’. These are short notes within the header of the code which describe some aspects of your page to the search engines. Although there is some debate over how important meta tags are when it comes to SEO, it’s generally agreed that they shouldn’t be ignored.

Whether you’re building your website yourself, or you’re getting a web designer to do it, it’s a good idea to understand the basics. There are four main meta tags you need to consider:

  1. Title
  2. Keywords
  3. Description
  4. Alt

Following is a bit of discussion of how these meta tags should look and a few tips for writing them.

Title – e.g.

The title is the most important of the meta tags. Try to use your keyword at least once in the title, preferably towards the beginning. Also, it’s not just important for your ranking; it also has the biggest impact on your Click Thru Rate (CTR). The text you put in the title will appear as the link text in your Google listing – the bit that people will read first and click on. Think of it as an ad headline – the better it is, the more people will click on it.

TIP: Google only displays 66 characters in the clickable part of your listing. So try to keep your Title text to a max of 66 characters.

Keywords – e.g.

Search engines used to look only at this tag to identify a site’s subject material. This isn’t really the case any more, but some search engines still give it quite a bit of weight (such as Yahoo). There are various ‘rules’ about how many characters you should include in this tag. The most recent I’ve been working to is 300 characters (including spaces). I’ve never been too strict about enforcing it though.

IMPORTANT: The most important detail about the Keywords tags is that Yahoo pays quite a bit of attention to it. If you do it wrong, you’ll be penalized. I learned this the hard way. You need to ensure that your Keywords tag is aligned with your web copy. By that, I mean that you shouldn’t include keywords that don’t appear in your copywriting. And I’m not talking about arbitrary stuffing or spamming here. I’m talking about legit keywords. For instance, I used to use my suburb, Bateau Bay, as a keyword for every page of my site. However, “Bateau Bay” hardly appeared at all in my web copy. There were quite a few other examples like this, too, like my state (NSW), and some of my neighboring suburbs. After ranking really highly in Google for about a year, I couldn’t understand why I was ranking so poorly in Yahoo. Turns out, this was the reason. I made the change, and my ranking shot up about 60 positions!!! And I don’t mean from position 1000 to position 940 (that wouldn’t be noteworthy at all). I mean I shot up from about 80 to about 20 (then gradually moved onto the first page).

Description – e.g.

The search engines pay some attention to this text when identifying your site’s subject material, so make sure you include your keyword at least once in the Description. Also, most search engines use this text as their description of your site (i.e. it’s the site snapshot that follows your link in the search results). Make sure it’s informative and compelling. Think of it as the copy for an ad.

TIP: Google only displays about 160 characters including spaces. So keep your Description text to a max of 160 characters.

Alt – e.g. Cheap second hand computer in use

The Alt tag is designed to help visually impaired people use the World Wide Web (WWW). They use software to read out loud the content of your website. When the software encounters a picture, it looks for the Alt text to learn what the picture is, then reads that text out loud. The Alt tag is relatively important to search engines because they assume that your pictures have something to do with the subject material of your site. But like the visual aid software, they can’t actually see the picture, so they look at the Alt text as well. Try to include your keyword at least once in your Alt text.

Summary

You can use the same meta tags on each page, or you can make them unique. It all depends on how many keywords you’re targeting. If you’re targeting a different keyword in the copy of each page, your meta tags for each page will be unique (i.e. you’ll target that page’s keyword within these meta tags).

TIP: If you have any high ranking competitors, take a look at the way they’ve done their meta tags, and follow their lead. You already know they rank highly, so chances are they’ve done a good job.

Feel free to comment...
comment avatar
Linda Suttie wrote on February 27th, 2010

Hi Glenn I was interested in your comment on the keyword tag and how you should actually use the keywords in this tag in your actual copy. When I started learning about SEO I read a book which said that this is NOT the case. But your example obviously shows that it is. Is that something that's changed recently with Yahoo! or has it always been like that? Linda

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comment avatar
Glenn (Owner) wrote on February 27th, 2010

Hi Linda. This post is pretty old. I know Google no longer pays any attention to the Keywords tag. I'm not sure about Yahoo, though. I'll look into it. Cheers.

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