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HTML meta tags and SEO - Introduction to meta tags

Meta tags are HTML tags which are inserted within the header of your HTML page in order to provide search engines such as Google with basic information about its content. In this way, the information brought by meta tags includes the document type, a short description of the page content, the main keywords related to the webpage, the name of its author, the kind of public it is intended for, the way search engine spiders should treat it, and other kinds of (more or less) useful information.

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HTML meta tags and SEO - Syntax and example

We won't present all the types of meta tags here for the simple reason that most meta tags aren't considered at all by search engines (or just very little so that their role has close to no impact). However, we shall introduce those which will consistently impact the indexing of your website's pages, that is to say the keywords and the description meta tags (we will add the author meta tag but its role is negligible).

Learn the HTML code:

HTML meta tags


  • The meta tags have no impact on the display of your webpage in a web browser; it is only affecting its display on search engines (both its ranking and description field).
  • You can choose compounded nouns or phrases as keywords (e.g. "work from home") but in that case each word of the phrase must count towards the 20-keyword limit discussed below.

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HTML meta tags and SEO - Defining the content-type meta tag

The content-type meta tag indicates to the visitor's browser which type of characters encoding is used by your HTML page.
Indeed, several types of characters encoding coexist: global ones such as Unicode (UTF-8) and regional ones (ISO-8859-5 for the Cyrillic alphabet for instance). Your visitor's browser can try to guess which type of encoding it is dealing with but it is easier if you specify it directly within your meta tags.
Also, make sure that your HTML file was saved using the same encoding as that indicated by the content-type meta tag (otherwise some non-ASCII characters might not be recognized).

Learn the HTML code:

Content-type meta tag

In the above example, you have to replace iso-8859-1 with the code of the character encoding you used in order to save your HTML file.

For instance, using Unicode encoding such as UTF-8 will guarantee that all the characters (from all the languages in the world) can be accessed. However, this has the drawback of producing files which are much larger (since a character in UTF-8 is coded over a lot of space).

At the other end of the spectrum, using ASCII will give you very small files, since each character is coded over 7 bits only. The drawback, of course, is that you will be able to use only 128 characters (the English letters, the numbers, and some very common symbols).

Practically, we often fall somewhere in between these two extreme solutions and very often one uses character encoding over 8 bits (1 byte) which allows to first encode the ASCII characters (128 of them) and then add a layer of another 128 characters (which is enough to store all the letters for many alphabets, but not all).

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HTML meta tags and SEO - SEO: Search Engine Optimization

Now that you know about how the important meta tags work, you might want to learn how to use them in the most efficient way; indeed, a proper use of meta tags can gain you a lot of traffic, while an improper use (or abuse ...) of meta tags can penalize your website (in order to guarantee the quality of their service, most search engines would give a penalty to those websites which appear to be spammy).

Using the keywords meta tag:

When inserting keywords in the keywords meta tag, you must pay attention that you respect the 20-keyword limit adopted by most search engines (this rule is empirical). Additionally, you must ascertain that the nature of these keywords is not too far from that of your content (for instance, you won't use the keyword "cars" in order to promote a website about cooking).
The more your keywords are related to your content, the better the impact on your search engines indexing. However, do keep in mind that search engines aren't THAT clever, and in particular you might beware that maybe they aren't so good at recognizing synonyms. In this way, if the word "cooking" appears repeatedly on your webpage, you might prefer to use "cooking" as a meta tag keyword instead of "preparing food".

Using the description meta tag:

The description meta tag is even more important than the keywords meta tag. Indeed, some search engines won't rank your webpage if the description meta tags are absent from the header. This doesn't mean that your pages won't be indexed, but they just won't show up as results to web searches, or they will show up with automatic descriptions attached to them, usually the first few sentences of text that the search engine spider will find at the beginning of the pages.
When writing a decription meta tag, please keep in mind that search engines display only a limited number of characters for the descriptions in their search results (typically, Google would display 150). It is therefore useless to fill in the description field with more than 150 characters, and this is generally not recommended since this could be interpreted as spam and owe you a penalty.

Which keywords to use within your pages

The previous meta tags are useful provided that their correlation to the content of your webpages is strong enough. Whence the question: how should you decide which words you should use in order to build the content of your website ? Should you prefer using the word "automobile" or the word "car" ? Or maybe both ? How to decide ?

Typically, a number of criteria must play a role in this decision:

  • The keywords you use must be descriptive of the page content: don't try to stuff your pages with keywords which are uncorrelated with your page content; first, you won't bring any value added to your visitors and this is what your website is supposed to do. Second, you will get penalized by search engines.
  • The keywords that you choose must receive a sufficient number of searches; obviously, a search for the combination of your first name and family name could easily return your website in any major search engine, but (unless you are a TV star) how many people will be interested in conducting such a search ? The volume of searches in search engines for a given keyword determines the size of your market and therefore what you can be expecting in terms of maximum traffic (and revenue, if your website is commercial).
    In this way, some internet companies specialize in the assessment of the number of monthly searches by keyword and purchasing such a service might greatly help you in your quest for the right keywords (additionally, some search engines provide rough approximations for free: Google Lab, for instance, provides some comparative data about the volume of searches by keyword over a certain period of time. Exact numbers, though, are not provided).
  • Just how many competitors are already present among the results returned by searches for given keywords ? The market size for your sector might indeed be huge, but this doesn't mean that your chances to get a lot of traffic for this keyword will be higher because there are countless competitors vying for this keyword. A more clever way would then be to first target less competitive keywords, build your traffic around them, and then move up the ladder with the most coveted ones.
  • If your goal is primarily lucrative, ask yourself about the money-making potential of the keywords that you are using.
  • Use your keywords in reasonable proportions; as a rule of thumb, try to keep the percentage occurences for your chief keyword(s) between 1% and 2% (if you go higher, you risk being penalized by search engines; if you go lower, the impact of your keyword might be lesser).

A strong advantage would be to have your chief keyword(s) appear in your website's domain name.

The issue of duplicated content

It is a well-known fact that search engines will strongly penalize any webpage featuring duplicate content. Similarly, if your pages contain duplicate description meta tags, it is likely that many search engines will treat such pages as merely duplicate of each other and most of these pages won't appear in search results. In order to avoid this, make sure that each page of your website contains a unique description.
The same is not true for keywords: your website won't be penalized if many pages contain the same keywords; however, it is of course better if you can manage to create an optimal string of keywords for each page of your website.

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HTML meta tags - Dynamic meta tags

One of the issues that you will meet is that it can be extremely tedious to create different meta tags for every page of your website: imagine if your website contains hundreds of pages ! Even worse, imagine if some of the content on your website is dynamically created by visitors (dynamic content). In this case, you won't be able to create all the meta tags for each page independently; instead, you will be able to develop dynamic meta tags (using php for instance), that is to say a script which will automatically generate the meta tags for each page.

We have seen that HTML meta tags can play an important role in the indexing of your website - it is especially true for the keywords and description meta tags -. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tries to understand the ways to optimize the indexing of your webpage in search engines and can bring you increased traffic and visibility.

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