META Tags are Dead, Right? So Why Do I Need Them?

By Karon Thackston © 2010, All Rights Reserved

One of the first, and most basic, elements of search engine optimization (SEO) is META tags.  Almost everyone quickly discovers the title, description and keyword tag located in the HTML coding of each web page.  However, there are many misconceptions and myths floating around online. Let’s take a minute to go through the latest information about these tags so you’ll know what you need to create and why.

Title Tag

The title tag is actually not a META tag. It is simply the title given to a particular page of your site.  If you’ll look in the source code of most any web page, you’ll see something that looks like this. (I’ve added bolding to make it easier to read.)

<html>
<head>
<title>Web & SEO copywriting course that increases sales 
& search engine positioning.</title>
<meta name="description" content="The original Step-by-Step Copywriting 
Course teaches SEO & web copywriting. 209-page self-scoring copywriting 
course complete with assignments and answers.">
<meta name="keywords" content="copywriting course, learn copywriting,
SEO copywriting course">

The title holds a lot of weight with Google and other engines.  It also is the first exposure searchers have to your website so it must play a dual role.  First, it should contain at least your primary keyphrase.  If there is room, insert others as well.  Second, it should entice the searcher to click to your site as opposed to choosing any other option such as the other nine organic listings, 10-11 paid AdWords ads and possibly an eight-pack of local listings.

Just filling your title tag with keyphrases is usually not the best route to take, in my opinion.  While it is important to the rankings equation, it also must fulfill its status as a copywriting platform.  You have to get across why your site is different or better than the others the searcher will encounter. You have to attract people who are interested in what you sell and discourage those who really don’t match your target market.

For instance, using the same example above, let’s see what types of listings would appear when we do a search for “copywriting course” in Google.  We’ll look at the top four organic (free) results.

The first one includes keyphrases and also specifically outlines what type of copywriting course this is: Web and SEO.  That would tell anyone looking to learn direct mail or other forms of copywriting to look elsewhere.  The title is very specific and clear.

The second listing’s title is just stuffed with keyphrases.  In fact, it doesn’t look like it has anything to do with copywriting courses based on the description. (Take note of how the two work together. We’ll look at the description tag next.)

The third offers copywriting course reviews. Simple and clear enough.

The forth title is lacking.  It states the company’s name.  No keyphrase at all.  If people are familiar with this organization, that tag would be fine.  But for those who don’t know who American Writers is, the tag would do little to persuade them.  No keyphrase + no persuasion = poor results.

How long should the title tag be?  In reality, it can be as long as you want.  However, only around 65-70 characters (including spaces) will be displayed.  The rest will be truncated.

Description Tag

While Google no longer uses the description tag for ranking purposes, it is still an important element to include on every page.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking that, just because this tag no longer holds ranking value, it shouldn’t contain keyphrases.  By all means, it should.

When you begin a search for something on Google, you type in whichever terms come to mind that describe what you’re looking for.  You have those phrases on your mind because they represent what you’re trying to find.  You’re sensitive to seeing those words on the screen.  You’re attuned to search listings that use those phrases.  Add all this to the fact that keyphrases are bolded in the description tag and it gives a powerful one-two punch that attracts searchers to your listing.

“But Google doesn’t always display the description tag. Why bother?”  Because eight times out of 10, Google will use the tag you provide *if* it is relevant to the search query.  In other words, if it matches what the searcher is looking for (i.e., includes keyphrases) it is very likely to be used.  It’s the times that the description doesn’t effectively describe the search or when no description is provided that Google opts to select its own description from the content on your page.

The length?  Again, you can put an entire paragraph if you want, but only about 175 characters will show in the listing.

Keyword Tag

The keyword META tag hasn’t been used since the mid-1990s.  It doesn’t hurt to put a few phrases in this tag, including perhaps some common misspellings, but it won’t help your rankings one bit.

Now that you understand the dual purpose of tags and what’s at stake rankings-wise, you can go about crafting a tag set that encourages clicks and contributes to solid search engine positioning.

Want more information about SEO copywriting from Karon Thackston? Subscribe to her Marketing Words Copywriting Blog today at http://www.MarketingWords.com/blog and receive your free target customer discovery questionnaire and ebook Copywriting Makeovers.

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About Karon Thackston

For over 25 years, web & SEO copywriter Karon Thackston has created optimized copy and content that has increased conversions & search rankings. Find out more about Karon on Google+.

Comments

  1. Hi Karon, this is a good summary of the current requirements for tags. I agree that the title tag requires a good balance between keywords and enticing content to make the search link work hard. The description tag remains an interesting one and really requires testing to see how this impacts the search snippets!

  2. William Waites says:

    Karon:

    I scanned this helpful article and thank you for keep up with the changing world of meta (and other) tags.

    I find a number of sites I am asked to work on don’t realize that the title and description are two tools for establishing that each page is a separate page. Many of them pick a title and repeat it on all pages.

    My understanding is they are missing the opportunity to make every page on a site a separate, search-responsive portal to the site.

    Is that true in your experience?

  3. Yes, your understanding is correct, William. Each page of your site is a separate opportunity to get rankings. While rankings are more than just tags, I do strongly recommend that each page have a unique tag set.

  4. Meta Tag is not dead yet.
    Google shows description from meta Tag also.
    So many times it happened that we got some information in search result but that is not written in the page if you open source then you will see its in the meta tag

    • Hello,

      I didn’t say Google didn’t “show” the description tag info… just that they no longer use it for ranking purposes as this paragraph of the article explains:

      “But Google doesn’t always display the description tag. Why bother?” Because eight times out of 10, Google will use the tag you provide *if* it is relevant to the search query. In other words, if it matches what the searcher is looking for (i.e., includes keyphrases) it is very likely to be used. It’s the times that the description doesn’t effectively describe the search or when no description is provided that Google opts to select its own description from the content on your page.

  5. Hi Karon, what about the description & content tags, how important are they?

    Great article by the way.

    • Hi Steve… thanks for stopping by. Well, as I stated in the article, the description tag is not used for ranking purposes by Google. As you can read in this blog post, they do sometimes use the description tag to display in their search engine rankings pages (SERP). From what I’ve seen, the content tags hold no magic power SEO-wise.

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