Meta Tags in Search Engine Optimization: Who Needs ‘Em?

Oh, I know this one! The answer is, “you do”. You need Meta tags. Do I get a prize? Is it chocolate? Do I get it now?

Yesterday afternoon, while reading Jill Whalen’s High Rankings Advisor newsletter, I came across a question we hear a lot. Questioner Jasmine asked Jill about Meta Keywords and Meta Description tags and whether they should be written to reflect the content on the page. If so, Jasmine was concerned because she runs an ecommerce site that is mostly images with very little content. I suppose her question was: If I’ve got no content, what do I put there?

You should go over to Jill’s site to read her full answer, but I’ll give you my opinion here for good measure. And because this is our blog and I’m sort of expected to do that.

To Jasmine’s first question, Jill says:

First off, don’t worry about the Meta keywords and descriptions; they don’t need to use the same words you have on your page. Generally your description would be similar, but if it’s not, it’s not a problem.

I’m not altogether sure what Jill meant by that in regards to “words” (keywords or words words?). Obviously you’re not going to put ALL of the words you used on your page; that would be ridiculous. However, the terms that the page is being optimized for should be included in your Meta Keywords, and in your Meta Description tag where appropriate.

I’m confused as to why that would even be a question. If you’re constructing your Meta Keywords and Meta Description tags without taking into account the actual page content and the focus of that page, what are you putting in there? Your wish list of words you want to rank for even though you don’t have the content to back it up? That not search engine optimization, that’s search engine spam. Spam’s bad.

It makes sense to us that if the Meta Description and Meta Keywords tags are used by search engines to get a better idea of what the page is about, then they should be written to be unique for each page and should absolutely include the keywords that page is focusing on. It’s the heart of optimization.

In case the warm weather has fried your brain, here’s a brief refresher on Meta Description and Meta Keywords tags:

  • Your Meta Description tag should be unique for every page on your site and include the keywords and phrases that are relevant to the page. The Meta Description tag often acts as the text snippet that users will see in the search results. Along with the Title tag, this tag is going to be what convinces a searcher that your site is going to answer their search query. If your Meta Description doesn’t match the page content, why would they consider your site relevant? Your Meta Description tag will be about twice the size of your Title tag, so it’s a good opportunity to expand on your focus. Twice the amount of space gives you twice the amount of room to explain the subject of your page. Take advantage of it.
  • There’s always talk that the Meta Keyword tag is useless and can therefore be ignored. We don’t agree with that. Yahoo says they still use it the tag, so for that reason we think it’s worth paying attention to. The Meta Keywords tag gives you a chance to strengthen the focus of your page, while giving you room to insert any common misspelling of keywords that you would never put in the actual text. You may want to include these terms in your optimization effort, but you don’t want to look like a moron to visitors when you can’t spell your own keywords. Every keyword phrases used on your page should be included in your Meta Keywords tag. Think of it as a summary of all the major elements on the page, helping to further focus the page’s message and purpose.

Given all that, yes, questioners everywhere, you should include page-specific keywords in your Meta Description and Meta Keyword tags. Doing so helps focus the content of your page for the engines, which is important for any search engine optimization campaign.

So what do you do if you’re an ecommerce site with little or no content? Well, if you’re at all concerned with search engine optimization, I suggest you start creating some.

It doesn’t matter what kind of site you’re running, if you want to show up in the search engines, you need content. The engines aren’t going to recognize a picture of a puppy and know that you are a site about puppies. They’re going to go to your Web site, see nothing, and assume that you are about nothing. And they’d be correct.

If you’re a site that’s graphic heavy there are tons of ways you can increase the amount of content on your site. You can replace images and Flash with text, you can increase the text on existing pages, you can write detailed product pages that explain the images, while using keywords, etc. The possibilities are endless; you just have to put effort into making your site theme as strong as it can be for your keywords.

Considering that excellent content is what sparks authoritative links, it’s not hard to argue that the engines are judging your site based on its content. If you want to distinguish yourself as an authority on puppies, you need lots of expert content that utilizes your site’s main keywords. You have to earn your authority and your rankings.

Editor’s NOTE: Check out our more recent, related blog on social meta tags to see how you can gain more control over how your content looks in social media shares!

Lisa Barone is a writer, content marketer & VP of strategy at Overit Media. She's also a very active Twitterer, much to the dismay of the rest of the world.

See Lisa's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (9)
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9 Replies to “Meta Tags in Search Engine Optimization: Who Needs ‘Em?”

I want to say that I am a big fan of both Bruce and Jill. I agree with both of you title, description and keyword tags are all important because they points to the content on the page. I view it as which is more important the right or the left wing of an airplane.


“Andy Hagans”
This title tag has consistently been the most important on-page SEO factor for the past few years.

Susan, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree then!

I think you are right and that meta tags are important. But I believe content is one of the most important aspects.

@ Janna: Welcome to the wide world of SEO! Our SEO methodology page is a good place to get grounded in the basics. Get a cup of coffee first though, it’s long.

@ Jill: We tend to focus more on theming these days. Tossing in unrelated keywords in the code just seems like a bad idea, particularly before the spider can even reach your main content. SEO’s evolved quite a lot since the Meta Keywords tag was introduced and we’ve seen good results from making sure that every piece of a page is focused on the same theme without any distractions.

Not arguing that you should include technical synonyms and misspellings–Yahoo definitely likes that. But I’d never recommend doing it to the exclusion of the keywords in your content. In fact that would go entirely against our methodology. Your Meta information is supposed to be about the content on your page, that’s the definition of Meta.

The main thing, of course, is always to be sure that you’re using, but not abusing, all the avenues open to you in order to optimize a page and Web site in an entirely ethical way. :)

Actually, Lisa, the Meta keyword tag was originally designed as a place to put keyword phrases that DON’T naturally appear in the content. And in my opinion, that’s really its only worthwhile use today as well.
There’s no need to rewrite in the Meta keyword tag what is already on your page. It’s for the extra stuff like technical synonyms and misspellings that you don’t already have there.
I’m sure Bruce remembers this from the old days…

“Questioner Jasmine”

Something about that just struck me as funny…

Janna your right in thinking titles hold more importance, at least in terms of rankings but they should still both be present and unique on your pages, reflecting what the page is about. Of course its more important to have unique titles than meta keywords but they shouldnt take too long to do if you start with good practice
Great post lisa, i was going to blog about agreeing with you but ill just put it here ;)

I agree with what you are saying…meta tags are important to have…but from what I am read…page titles hold more importance? Is that correct?

Forgive my question if it is an obvious answer, I am new to SEO & trying to learn as I go.


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