BACK TO BASICS: The Ins and Outs of Meta Data

by Jessica Lee, May 17, 2010

Meta data. The name doesn’t conjure up any particularly exciting images … more like crickets chirping. Turning the concept of Meta data into a compelling “must read” could put even the best writer at a loss for words. But, it does serve a very important role in search engine optimization — which is why you must read this article if you’re unclear on the role of Meta data in your SEO efforts.

Meta data is, essentially, data about data. The search engine (SE) uses it to “read” the page it’s on to better “understand” what that page is about. That’s why having well-written and optimized Meta data is so important; if you’re targeting keywords and phrases on any given page, you want to tell the search engines about it.

Meta data also serves as a mini marketing tool. The results online users see when a search engine results page (SERP) is returned to them for a query they made about something related to your product, contains the Meta data you create. Meta data can give you additional online real estate to effectively grab the readers’ attention and pull them into your website.

An easy way to think of Meta data is as the advertisement and the page content as your product. Essentially, what you say in your Meta data should give a clear and compelling picture of what to expect on that Web page. Great Meta data can increase click-throughs and be used as a conversion tool.

What’s a Head?

If you’re using HTML code to make updates to your site, the Meta data will live in the Head section of the Web page. If you have a content management system (CMS) for your website, there may be a Meta data tool that allows you to plug in your Meta information and it will generate tags for you. Spend time properly configuring this as it could be a make or break element. An improperly configured CMS could result in a duplicate content mess.

Meta data as it relates to SEO contains components like the Title tag, the Meta Description and the Meta Keywords tag. The Meta Robots tag is also a key element, but for the purposes of this piece, we’ll focus on the first three.

Before we dive into the workings of a Head section, it’s essential to understand that you should apply the same enthusiasm when writing your Meta data as you would to writing your body content. Grammar, spelling and a little advertising savvy can go a long way. Since parts of the Meta data may be visible to the online user in a SERP, it’s your first chance to make an impression. A bunch of gobbledygook and easily avoided misspellings could negatively impact your click-through rate.

Let’s create a hypothetical website for the purpose of using examples throughout this article. Say you have a new company with a website that sells environmentally friendly, organic soap. The name of that company is Gertie’s Green Clean and your targeted keywords for a Web page in list of importance are:

  • Green cleansers
  • Organic soap
  • Cruelty-free soap

Let’s quickly go over the guidelines for the order of tags within the Head section. If you’re strictly using HTML code, then you will need to be sure you’re organizing it properly. If you’re using a CMS with a Meta data tool, it should place it in the right order – but you should always double check. The proper order of the Head section is:

  • Title tag
  • Meta Description tag
  • Meta Keywords tag

Title Tags

Title tags should help the search engine and online user understand what the main theme of the page is about. Title tags are a critical SEO element for a couple reasons. Page titles are visible in a SERP and also at the top of any given Web page, in the title bar. They offer an opportunity to feature your most relevant keywords front and center.

Page titles are displayed as the title and link above the short descriptions on a SERP. Because of this, your Title tags should be appealing to the reader and written in headline format. They also need to be unique for every page on your website.

Best practices for page title length is from 6 to 12 words (this doesn’t include “stop words” such as “a,” “and,” “but,” “for,” and so on). Depending on what your top online competitors are doing, your direction may change (for example, you may choose to make it longer or shorter — either way, it still may be best to stick to the general guidelines). If you have access the Bruce Clay SEOToolSet®, you can use the Multi-Page Analyzer tool to get and idea of what your top competition is up to. Otherwise, you can always view the page source of any given Web page by right-clicking on the page in question to discover the page’s Title tag.

Because search engines usually display only so many characters of a page title on a SERP (Google cuts off at approximately 70 characters including spaces), your Web page’s targeted keywords should appear in close proximity to one another and at the beginning of the title. So, put the most significant keywords first (if you can fit them all in naturally, do that), followed by the other keywords in order of importance if there’s space. Do not repeat any keyword more than once.

The benefit of placing important keywords in your Title tag is that when someone uses that keyword in a search query, and one of your Web pages is displayed for that keyword, the keyword will be in bold on the SERP. The more your page title matches what online users are looking for, the more likely they are to click through. And, seeing the word in bold on a SERP that matches their online query entices them to do just that.

If you’re trying to build your brand or your brand is an important element of everything you do, you may want to include the name in your Title tag. There are mixed feelings on whether to include the brand name towards the front or at the end of a Title tag.

If your brand is established and trusted, you may want to consider putting it in front of your keywords, since you’ll still have an opportunity to have targeted keywords in bold on a SERP in your Meta Description. If you’re still trying to build your brand, consider putting it at the end of the Title tag. Use judgment calls on this.

Using our hypothetical list of targeted keywords above (green cleansers, organic soap, cruelty-free soap), your page title might look something like this (keywords in bold):

  • Gertie’s Green Clean: Cleansers and Organic, Cruelty-Free Soaps
  • The HTML code for this would look like:
    <title>Gertie's Green Clean: Cleansers and Organic, Cruelty-Free Soaps </title>

Title Tag Example, Dissected

Since the name of the fictional company, Gertie’s Green Clean, has one of the targeted keywords in it (“green”), placing it towards the front of the tag for brand-building purposes works in this case. Even though the key phrase (“green cleansers”) is separated by a few words, both “green” and “cleansers” would be in bold on a SERP. They are close enough together (that is, not separated by too many words) to still be connected.

The length of this tag by word count is nine words, but since SEs don’t count stop words, it’s actually eight words to the SE. If you were using a tool in Word for word count, it may have clocked eight words because it counts a hyphenate as one (“cruelty-free”), but SEs strip symbols such as hyphens when they read the data.

For this particular Title tag, the character count is 63, so the entire page title would likely show up in a Google SERP, and all the targeted keywords would have an opportunity to be in bold.

Another important thing to note is that “soaps” was written in plural form, even though the keyword phrases used in our example contain the singular form, “soap.” This is because we’re encouraged to use what’s called “stemming” in our writing. Stemming is using various forms of the root keyword throughout the Web content to ensure language is as natural as possible, and it can begin as early as the Meta data.

For example: If the keyword is “smile,” stems of that word may include “smiles,” “smiling,” “smiled,” and so on. The reason SEs reward the use of various forms of a word is because that infers the language is natural and not keyword “stuffed.” Keyword stuffing is the practice of overusing any given keyword or phrase on a Web page in hopes it will help that page rank better, and is frowned upon by the SEs.

Meta Description Tags

Meta Descriptions should be the next tag in the Head section in HTML; a CMS may place it properly in the HTML code but always check. The Meta Description section is displayed on a SERP under the page Title and should have a short, compelling narrative of what the online user and SE can expect to find on the page.

The Meta Description tag allows SEs to determine the topic of a given page and properly index that page. As with the Title tag, each page should have a unique Meta Description because essentially, each page should have a different focus. Since the Head section is the first thing an SE encounters on a Web page, if you have identical or very similar descriptions on more than one page, you run the risk of one of those pages being filtered out by the SE – even if they both have unique body content.

Not creating a Meta Description for any one of your pages may result in autosnippets of text on your page in a SERP. Or it can be a complete sentence based on what the SE thinks the page is about. While search engines do not always use the Meta Description tag for their SERP description, it is a good idea to give them a strong option as Google says it will sometimes use “high-quality” descriptions for its SERPs.

Meta Descriptions should be written in complete sentences, and like the Title tag, include the most important information at the beginning. This includes significant keywords. Between 12 and 24 words is a good guideline for length, not including stop words.

Google displays approximately 160 characters in a SERP; seize the opportunity to allow your important keywords to be seen in bold by a reader. Try to include all the high-priority keywords within the first 156 characters to be safe. The more bold keywords an online user sees in a nicely formatted page title and description combo, the more likely they are to assume that your website has what they’re looking for.

Keywords and keyword phrases should be repeated a maximum of two times in the Meta Description. But, repeating keywords or keyword phrases that include some of the same words in a Meta Description really doesn’t add any value to the tag. So, combining keywords and phrases is best, whenever possible.

For example, let’s take our fictional company, Gertie’s Green Clean and create a Meta Description to go along with the Title example we created prior (keywords in bold):

  • Gertie’s Green Clean: Cleansers and Organic, Cruelty-Free Soaps
    Buy organic, cruelty-free soaps and green cleansers with free shipping! Be good to your body, the environment and animals with Gertie’s Green Clean.
  • The HTML code for this would look like:
    <title>Gertie's Green Clean: Organic, Cruelty-Free Soaps and Cleansers</title>
    <meta name="description" content="Buy organic, cruelty-free soaps and green cleansers with free shipping! Be good to your body, the environment and animals with Gertie's Green Clean." >

Meta Description Example, Dissected

In this example, we combined two keywords phrases, “organic soap” and “cruelty-free soap” to make “organic, cruelty-free soaps.” Even though you could have used both of those keyword phrases once in the description, combining them allows you to get both important keywords towards the front, before the character cutoff, and to avoid keyword stuffing. You can apply this tip for combining keyword phrases to most keyword strains that share some of the same words.

Even though “green cleansers” is the most important keyword (assigned in the beginning of the article), it wasn’t placed first because we were still able to fit it in before the character cutoff so it would be displayed on a SERP. Sometimes Meta data creation takes judgment calls, and you’ll be more confident in your decisions with practice.

Notice that this Meta Description also clearly states what the user can expect to accomplish when he or she goes to that page (buy the soaps) and it also adds in an attention-grabbing element with the “free shipping” reference. And once again, it adds in the brand name, this time at the end of the description. When the Meta Description, Title tag, verbiage, advertising savvy and branding efforts all come together in one, you’ve got yourself a Meta data masterpiece.

Meta Keywords Tag

Even though the three major search engines claim they do not factor the Meta Keywords tag into its algorithms, some of the smaller niche SEs still do. Even if Google is the only SE you care about, it’s still a good practice to follow guidelines for Meta Keywords tags because it does play into the concept of linear distribution.

Linear distribution is the practice of strategically allocating your target keywords from the top to the bottom of a Web page. And, a well-constructed page begins with the Meta data. And if all the information is neatly wrapped up with a bow in the Head section, it simply can’t hurt your SEO efforts. The Meta Keywords tag is just another way of giving the SE an organized piece of information to help it better understand the intention of the page.

The Meta Keywords tag is the third tag in a Head section. It should contain all the targeted keywords of that page (the page’s assigned keywords) in order of length from longest keyword phrase to shortest (e.g., four-word phrases, three-word phrases, two-word phrases, one-word phrases).

The Meta Keywords tag should contain between 24 and 48 words, not including stop words. Your direction may vary depending on what your top online competition is up to. Even though the information in the Meta Keywords tag isn’t indexed, it is stored and can be called up in an exact match search.

Don’t repeat any keyword or keyword phrase more than four times in the Meta Keywords section. Let’s say you have five keyword phrases that you’re optimizing a page with and each of the keywords phrases shares one or more similar words. To keep with our Gertie’s Green Clean theme, let’s say the keyword phrases are:

  • Organic soap
  • Cruelty-free soap
  • Natural soap
  • Handmade soap
  • Green soaps

In this example, all of the keyword phrases contain the words “soaps,” so how would you handle this? This is where data and human knowledge must work together. One option would be to leave the last “soap” off in the least important keyword phrase in the Meta Keywords tag; another option would be to create additional Web pages based on one or more of those keywords to create unique content on each one of those topics.

Let’s look at an example of how we would organize the Meta Keywords tag using the same assigned page keywords we’ve used in previous examples to bring the entire concept together:

  • Meta Keywords organized: Cruelty-Free Soap, Gertie’s Green Clean, Organic Soap, Green Cleansers
  • The HTML code for this would look like:
    <meta name="keywords" content="Cruelty-Free Soap, Gertie's Green Clean, Organic Soap, Green Cleansers">

Get Your Head Straight

Using our Gertie’s Green Clean example, let’s put everything together so you can see what a nicely formatted Head section would look like in a non-HTML example and HTML code:


Title: Gertie’s Green Clean: Cleansers and Organic, Cruelty-Free Soaps

Description: Buy organic, cruelty-free soaps and Green cleansers with free shipping! Be good to your body, the environment and animals with Gertie’s Green Clean.

Keywords: Cruelty-Free Soap, Gertie’s Green Clean, Organic Soap, Green Cleansers


<title>Gertie's Green Clean: Cleansers and Organic, Cruelty-Free Soaps</title>
<meta name="description" content=" Buy organic, cruelty-free soaps and Green cleansers with free shipping! Be good to your body, the environment and animals with Gertie's Green Clean.">
<meta name="keywords" content="Cruelty-Free Soap, Gertie's Green Clean, Organic Soap, Green Cleansers">

TIP: Get step-by-step guidance on how to use keywords and more in our free SEO Guide!

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