What Are Meta Tags? Why Are They Important to SEO? How Do You Create Them?
Creating unique and compelling meta tags is a standard practice in any good SEO program.
Let’s take a closer look at what meta tags are, why they are important, and how to create effective content for them. In this article:
What Are Meta Tags?
Meta tags are pieces of code on a webpage that describe what the webpage is about.
Meta tags, sometimes referred to as meta data, include the title tag, meta description tag and the keywords tag (although the meta keywords tag is now rarely used) and a few others.
Meta tags live in the “head” section of a webpage, positioned at the top of the webpage on the code side.
Meta tags serve as the basis for the listing in a Google search results page. (The search engines reserve the right to modify how your webpage listing looks in search results … but more on that in a bit.)
Here is an example of what meta tags look like in action, first in the HTML code, then in Google search results:
Screenshot of HTML code for BruceClay.com homepage
Why Are Meta Tags Important to SEO?
Meta tags serve a key role in search engine optimization, including:
- Helping the search engines determine the topic of your webpage
- Helping people understand the contents of your webpage
- Avoiding duplicate content issues
- Driving clicks and organic search traffic
Topic: Google itself describes meta tags as a good way to help search engines and users understand a webpage’s content. Meta tags tell search engines what a webpage is about. Search engines use that information to help determine the webpage’s relevance to a query.
According to a study by Backlinko, most organic result titles on Google’s first page contain keywords that are an exact or partial match of that search.
First impressions: The content in meta tags is the first impression that potential visitors have of your website in the search results. If they are crafted well, users should be compelled to click.
Duplicate content: Meta tags are often the first line of defense for duplicate content. If your title tags are the same across many webpages, for example, Google will choose the best webpage among them and filter others from the results. And that webpage may or may not be the one you want to show in the search results.
Clicks and traffic: As mentioned, the right meta data can increase clicks and traffic to your site. According to research by Backlinko, simple tweaks to meta tags can increase clicks. For example, using a question in the title tag increased click through rate by 14%. And, pages with meta descriptions received nearly 6% more clicks than those without.
How Do You Create Meta Tags
To create meta tags, you need to ensure the code is properly formatted on the webpage. Then you need to write a clear and compelling description of what the webpage is about. Finally, optimize meta tags with target keywords.
Head Section Configuration
The first thing you want to do is configure the head section properly on the webpage.
If you’re strictly using HTML code, then you will need to be sure you’re organizing it right. If you’re using a CMS, it should place the head section in the right order but you should always double check.
The proper setup of meta tags in the head section is:
- Title tag
- Meta description tag
- Meta keywords tag
Even though major search engines claim they do not factor the meta keywords tag into their algorithms, it is valid HTML. For example, it may be useful guidance for writers or others involved with the creation or editing of content.
And besides, just because search engines say it is not used does not mean it isn’t used. That means that it is OK to include as long as it is not spammed. But most do not use it.
The Title Tag
Title tags serve as the “headline” for your webpage in the search results. So it should help the search engine and user understand what the main theme of the page is about.
Page titles are visible in the search results. They also show at the top of any given webpage in the browser tab. They offer an opportunity to feature your most relevant keywords front and center.
Search engine snippet showing title tag for the BruceClay.com homepage
The title tag should:
- Appeal to the reader, and address their reason for searching
- Be written in headline format: short and matching what searchers are looking for
- Be unique for every page on your website to avoid duplicate content issues
- Have about 9 words but within the range of 6 to 12
Google will cut off (or truncate) a title displayed in search results after roughly 60 to 70 characters including spaces (a bit longer on mobile), so keep it within that length unless you have a specific optimization reason to do otherwise.
To see how your title may appear in search results, you can use Moz’s title tag preview tool:
Moz’s preview tool shows how Google search results may cut off a long title tag.
General recommendations aside, a more accurate way to get the right title tag length is to use our SEO plugin for WordPress. Our SEO plugin analyzes the top-ranked pages for your keywords. Then it recommends the exact range you should target for your meta data.
Summary tab in the Bruce Clay SEO WP plugin showing meta data targets
Meta titles should always include the most important keywords you are targeting on the page. This, of course, helps the search engine know you are a match for a particular search query.
… algorithms analyze the content of webpages to assess whether the page contains information that might be relevant to what you are looking for.
The most basic signal that information is relevant is when a webpage contains the same keywords as your search query. If those keywords appear on the page, or if they appear in the headings or body of the text, the information is more likely to be relevant.
–Google, How Search Works
Keyword optimization tips:
- Put your targeted keywords towards the beginning of the title. Place the most significant keywords first, followed by the other keywords in order of importance if there’s space. Do not repeat any keyword more than once.
- Make sure when you optimize to not compromise the actual content. You want it to sound natural and not forced.
- You may want to include the company name in your title tag. If your brand is established and trusted, consider putting it in front of your keywords. If you’re still trying to build your brand, consider putting it at the end of the title tag. One study showed that at least for shopping-related searches, 82% chose familiar brands from the search results regardless of where they ranked.
The Meta Description Tag
The meta description tag offers an opportunity to summarize what the page is about. It allows search engines to determine the topic of a given page and properly index that page. It also helps people figure out if the webpage has what they are looking for.
Search engine snippet showing meta description for the BruceClay.com homepage
Google has stated that it does not use meta description tags for ranking. Personally I have heard it spun a few ways and I find it difficult to believe them all.
The description may not be a significant or even influential ranking factor but that does not mean it is not used. If it shows in the Google SERP then I think it helps. Later I have highlighted a quote where Google says these tags are important.
But descriptions do impact click through rates, an important part of SEO. When a keyword in the description matches the query, it will be highlighted in bold in the search results. This signals to searchers that the webpage has what they’re looking for. And this can increase click-throughs.
The meta description tag should be:
- Written in complete sentences
- A clear and enticing description of what the person and search engine can expect to find on the page
- Unique for every page of your website (Again, this is for duplicate content issues. Large sites can still create unique descriptions programmatically; see Google’s recommendations here.)
- Approximately 24 words or 160 characters with spaces.
Once again, you can use our plugin to determine the length for the meta description based on what is normal among the top-ranked pages in the search results. Plus, another useful feature in our SEO plugin is the ability to detect duplicate content at the meta tags level. Read more about how to get rid of duplicate content in WordPress with our SEO plugin.
Keyword optimization tips:
- Include important keywords at the beginning.
- Try to include all the high-priority keywords within the first 156 characters to be safe.
- Repeat keywords and keyword phrases a maximum of two times in the meta description.
- Combine keywords and phrases whenever possible.
A Note about Autogenerated Snippets
Sometimes meta tags may not render in the search results exactly how you have them. That’s because Google sometimes pulls alternative content from the page to display in the results that it believes is more relevant.
With regards to title tags, Google explains:
If we’ve detected that a particular result has … issues with its title, we may try to generate an improved title from anchors, on-page text, or other sources. However, sometimes even pages with well-formulated, concise, descriptive titles will end up with different titles in our search results to better indicate their relevance to the query. There’s a simple reason for this: the title tag as specified by a webmaster is limited to being static, fixed regardless of the query.
When we know the user’s query, we can often find alternative text from a page that better explains why that result is relevant. Using this alternative text as a title helps the user, and it also can help your site. Users are scanning for their query terms or other signs of relevance in the results, and a title that is tailored for the query can increase the chances that they will click through.
And when it comes to descriptions, Google says:
Description meta tags are important because Google might use them as snippets for your pages. Note that we say “might” because Google may choose to use a relevant section of your page’s visible text if it does a good job of matching up with a user’s query. Adding description meta tags to each of your pages is always a good practice in case Google cannot find a good selection of text to use in the snippet.
If you’ve put a lot of thought into your meta tags, and you don’t want Google overriding them, there is something you can do. You can prevent Google from generating a snippet of its own in the search results or indicate the max length of the snippet.
There is something you can do to take control of your snippets. As per Google:
You can, alternatively, either prevent snippets from being created and shown for your site in Search results, or let Google know about the maximum lengths that you want your snippets to be. Use the nosnippet meta tag to prevent Google from displaying a snippet for your page in Search results, or use the max-snippet:[number] meta tag to specify the maximum length for your result snippets. You can also prevent certain parts of the page text content from being shown in a snippet by using data-nosnippet.
Meta tags aren’t all there is to ranking. But they are a simple way to help you decrease duplicate content, and increase clicks and traffic. Simply put: this is one area of a webpage that should get as much attention as the rest of the content on the page.