<meta> tags are a component of the invisible part of your HTML page — all that stuff between the
<head> </head> tags. So far, you probably haven’t seen much beyond the
<title> tag in there, but now I’ll show you a few more. None of these tags will actually change how your page looks, they are purely for search engine's use and to provide some additional information about your pages.
This page was last updated on 2012-08-21
Deprecated Meta Tags
Meta tags were the original way to tell search engines what your page was about. You’d add a description and a number of keywords into your meta tags, and a search engine would come along to “index” your page, read these words, and file your site under them.
This worked fine for a while, but couldn’t last. It wasn’t long before webmasters with no scruples saw an opportunity to gain favour with the search engines by adding in keywords that did not pertain to the content of their pages. Various tactics were thought up to get ranked higher for certain keywords, and an entire industry sprang up to optimise search engine positioning. This was, in effect, cheating, and “keyword spamming” became a serious problem for search engines, who vainly attempted to add filters that would notice when a webmaster was loading up on the wrong keywords.
I tested this back in those dark days, by aiming for the top spot on AltaVista — a
meta tag stalwart — for the phrase “html tutorials.” With some clever description and keyword writing I was perched atop those search results within only two weeks. It was a ridiculous system.
Then along came » Google. From the beginning Google put little or no stock in the easily-duped
meta tag system, instead basing their rankings heavily on the text that made up the page. This was much harder to fake, and meant that webmasters had to go back to actually writing clever content, instead of clever keywords.
Over the time since then, every major search engine has adopted this policy of ignoring the
description tags. Google has recently started reading the
description tag’s contents again, but still ignores
In summary, don’t bother using meta
keywords. The other
meta tags are fine.
Note: the text for these next two sections has been left as it was written in 2001, when
keywords alone were still viable ways of getting a good listing in the search engines. There’s still something to be learned from how it was done back then.
Keywords are the words people will type in to a search engine. If the keywords you have chosen are the same as the ones they have put in, you come up in the search engine's results pages. How high up you are depends on your ability to pick good words and use a few tricks. First, the code:
<meta name="keywords" content="france, europe, francais, french, la baguette">
You just add in your words, separated by commas (although these aren't necessary). You can put in as many as you want, but I would advise against more than 25-30. Many search engines regard pages with hundreds of keywords as spam pages, and delete them from their indexes, and you don't want that.
Picking your keywords is the trick. You should use the words you personally would use if you were looking for a page about your topic. A good idea is to use key phrases instead of just words on their own.
Say if I put 'html' as one of my keywords, I'd be competing against millions of sites for the top positions. If I focus on a phrase and use 'html tutorials', I'm only against a couple of million. Further still, if I specifically target 'free online html tutorials', I'd only have to fight with a few thousand sites, only a few of which will put up a 'fight'. Yes, the number of people searching for each of the more focused phrases is lower, but your chances of success are far greater.
If your site is relatively new, a good tactic is to focus on some key phrases that you know will be easy to get the top-spot for. This will give you 100% of that audience. You can pull in some very decent traffic by picking the best (and most underused by other sites) key phrases and getting to the top on those particular searches on the major search engines.
As your site and visitor-count grows, you can approach the search engine game a bit more broadly. It’s important to pick up a bit of momentum before you go for any hotly-contested searches.
You can repeat a specific search word a maximum of 3 times throughout a page's keywords
meta tag. That includes all your phrases, so you have to decide which words are going to go best with each other.
Don't spam the search engines. People are always trying to get their pages high-ranked by cheating and adding in hundreds of repeated keywords and words that don't pertain to the content of their page. This is bad. The people who come to your page expecting one thing only to get another are just going to be pissed off that you tricked them and will leave. That kind of visitor is worthless to you. Apart from that, search engines are getting much better at seeing this happening and banning the pages they find trying to trick them. Please, leave it out.
The description tag is used by about half of the major search engines (with the other half showing an excerpt from the page). It is a short summary of the content of the page.
<meta name="description" content="This page is about France, with particular emphasis on baguettes">
Your description needs to include some of your best keywords (as these are highlighted in the results), but it must also stay readable to a person. If your descriptions are just a list of keywords few people will click on to your link. You have to write with a balance between keywords and promotion.
Your page generator is search engine speak for the program you used to write your pages. This is not really necessary, but some editing software will add it in automatically. Anyway, the code is:
<meta name="generator" content="Dreamweaver CS4">
Author and Copyright
More quasi-useless stuff that people always seem to use anyway — author and copyright details.
<meta name="author" content="Ross Shannon">
<meta name="copyright" content="Ross Shannon 2023">
Using this tag you can have your page automatically refresh itself to the most current version, or change to another page entirely after a set number of seconds (a process known as ‘client pull’). This is useful if you've moved a page to a new url and want any visitors to the old address to be quietly sent to the new location.
<meta http-equiv="refresh" content="5; url=newurl.html">
The number is the number of seconds to wait before changing to the new page. Setting it to
0 results in an instant redirect, but this isn’t recommended as it disables your readers’ Back buttons. This method of redirecting is ok, but a better solution is to use URL rewriting.
sourcetip: if you're going to use this automatic redirect, you should also add a text-link to the new location on the page. Some old browsers won't refresh the page automatically, so you'll need a message for the people who aren't whisked away to the correct page.
Of course, to stop yourself from facing this problem, you should try not to move around your files once you’ve put them somewhere in the first place.
Even More Stuff
These are the last few now. The
meta expires command gives your readers' browsers a date, after which the page is deleted from the browser's cache, and must be downloaded again. This is useful if you want to make sure your visitors are reading the most current version of a page.
<meta name="expires" content="13 July 2004">
You can even tell the engines which ones are welcome and which can get lost. Usually you configure this to allow all the crawlers in. If you do want to exclude some, you will need the name of the search engine's 'bot'. You'll probably find this information somewhere on the search engine's FAQ pages.
<meta name="robots" content="all">
Set robots to
"follow" if you want all search engines to index your entire site by following all of your links. You can use
none to stop them from indexing the current page and following any of its links. If you want both attributes at once, just add them both, with a comma.