SEO Basics: What is a Meta Tag?

SEO Basics is the eCreative IM blog column written for SEO beginners just learning the basics of search engine optimization. You can find all our SEO Basics articles by browsing the SEO Basics Archive or find the specific tips you’re looking for in our SEO Tips & Guides page.

When we’re talking about search engine optimization, we’ll often refer to meta tags, or a specific kind of meta tag. These things used to be a Really Big Deal back in the day — today they’re still valuable SEO tools, but far, far less important than they once were.

A Meta Tag is website code that is invisible to users that describes for search engines what the website is about.

Meta tags can actually have a myriad of additional uses in describing to the browser how to display certain aspects of your website. But when most people are talking about meta tags, they’re talking about the SEO meta tags. From an SEO perspective, there are two main meta tags that we pay attention to: the keywords meta tag, and the description meta tag.

Keywords Meta Tag

The keywords meta tag provides for search engines a list of keywords that relate to the website. This meta tag appears in the head of the HTML code something like this:

<meta name=”keywords” content=”meta tags, HTML, meta data”>

This is telling search engines that the keywords for this page are: meta tags, HTML, and meta data. While they were once important, use of the keywords meta tag was greatly abused and subsequently became less important. A site selling stamps, for example, could stuff their keywords meta tag with words related to gardening, in hopes of luring gardeners to their stamp site. Of course, you and I both know that it’s not “stamp” sites we’re referring to here.

The result is that the keywords meta tag has been greatly, greatly reduced in importance. Some search engines still pay some attention to the meta keywords tag, but do not use it for ranking. Others, however, completely ignore the keywords meta tag. This includes Google — do what you want with your keywords, it wont’ make any difference to Google, and it won’t impact your ranking for any major search engine.

Description Meta Tag

The description meta tag provides a suggested text description of your site, and the intent is that when someone searches for your site, the text in the description meta tag is the description that the search engine will use when listing your site. This meta tag appears in the head of the HTML code something like this:

<meta name=”description” content=”What is a meta tag? This SEO Basics guide will give you the simple answer, with explanation of the Description meta tag, and Keywords meta tag.” />

In this example the description meta tag is telling search engines what they should tell people about the site. Search engines also use this text to weight how well a site ranks for certain keywords — if those keywords are in the description, then it’s more likely that site is about those keywords, after all.

Like the Keywords meta tag, the description tag was also abused in the past and the SEO importance of the tag decreased. Unlike the keywords meta tag, however, the description meta tag still carries weight, even with Google. But just because Google cares about what you say in your description meta tag doesn’t mean that Google is going to use your description in its search results.

Google often generates its own descriptions for site content, usually pulling what it thinks is a useful excerpt from the page of the site itself.

That said, your description meta tag is often used as the description that is shown in search engines, so you want to write it with the end user in mind. You might think it’s helpful to stuff it full of keywords, but if it reads like gibberish to the person doing the searching, they’re less likely to click through to your page.

Also, you’ll want to keep it brief, because most search engines only display the first 160 characters of the description meta tag.