Guide To SEO Meta Tags
July 28, 2021
If you’re interested in SEO, one of the first things you’ll have to master are meta tags. It’s easier than it sounds, but your site won’t rank very well without knowing how to optimize them.
Simply put, SEO meta tags are the behind-the-scenes descriptor of your website. They tell web crawlers (and humans) what your site is all about, as well as which parts of your site you want to show in search results. Most sites do this for you, but you can tweak them yourself to optimize it further.
By the end of this article, you’ll not only know what an SEO meta tag is, but also which ones are the most important for you to focus on. Too many SEO’s waste their time trying to dial in their site perfectly, when the truth is, most of the rewards can be achieved by tweaking a few key meta tags.
SEO is best played over the long game, which means that in order to gain the experience necessary to know what matters and what doesn’t, you have to be in the business for a long time. This list is culled from exactly that: Years of experience running hundreds of different websites and trying out every combination under the sun. In this guide, you’ll benefit from our labor and shortcut your own results.
What is a Meta Tag?
First things first, what is an SEO meta tag? Though it may sound technical, a meta tag is just a roadmap that tells web crawlers what exactly your site is all about. This information is usually hidden inside the code of a website, but certain accessibility options for hearing and visually impaired consumers may reveal it to them as well.
Every search engine has what's called a "crawl limit," or the maximum amount of pages that a crawler can index. Usually this number is pretty high (usually over 100, at least), but if your website has hundreds of pages and blog posts, then there's a good chance that your crawler is unable to reach all of them. Having meta tags in place to tell your website which are the most important pages to crawl can make the difference between page 1 and page 10.
They also help the crawler determine the page structure itself. While it may seem simple to us to look at a page and see various subheadings and images, to a robot, it just looks like a jumble of code. Navigating that is as difficult as you may think, so meta tags enable a crawler to navigate through would otherwise be a very difficult journey. The more difficult it is for robot to crawl your page, the less visible your ranking will be.
Additionally, meta tags can also serve as a sort of advertising. When you hover over a search result, you'll notice descriptions underneath the individual results that describe the page that you're about to visit. This is one specific type of meta tag that we’ll discuss later, but in essence, it's doing the same for you that the other SEO meta tags do for web crawlers: describe the page in as few words as possible.
And lest you become intimidated by the idea of changing the code of a website (an especially scary concept for those of us who are less technically inclined), most content management systems (CMS) like Wordpress, allow you to change these directly in the admin section. Since some of the SEO meta tags are inserted into the header of a page, you can even install a plugin that allows you to check a few boxes and make the changes you desire.
Why are SEO Meta Tags So Important?
If meta tags are the roadmap of your site, then the reasons that meta tags are so important should be self explanatory: Without them, a web crawler has no idea where to go and what to emphasize in certain parts your site. Specifically on sites that may have duplicate content, an SEO meta tag can point out which one of the pages is the main one, establishing a site hierarchy that will flow throughout the rest of the pages.
Since search engines only have a certain amount of time that they can crawl the page before they have to move on, making sure that the most important parts of the pager up front and center is vital. For instance, if you have a page that has certain keywords that you want to rank for more than others, then it's a good idea to put those in the primary ranking positions. In the case of header tags, for example, you would want to put your primary keywords in the most dominant locations, and then your secondary keywords after that.
One of the mistakes that new SEO's make is in keyword stuffing. They believe (wrongly) that the more keywords they put inside of their meta tags, the higher the ranking will be. In reality, the reverse is true. Keyword stuffing is seen as a red flag by search engines, and will actually rank the site lower. When you're trying to optimize your SEO meta tags, remember quality is more important than quantity.
Which SEO Meta Tags are Most Important?
Google has somewhere more than 200 different ranking signals in their algorithm, and SEO meta tags are near the top, but that doesn't mean that all of them are created equal. If you ask 100 different digital marketers which meta tags are the most important, you'll probably get 101 different answers, but based on our experience, the following six give you the most bang for your buck. You can dive into the other ones later, but focus on these first.
A title tag is the unique descriptor of your specific page, and should be adjusted depending on which goal you're trying to achieve. Your main keywords for that page will be inserted here, such as industry-specific keywords or geographic modifiers. In the case of local SEO, you usually want the name of the city and state somewhere inside of your title tag.
You should be able to change this from the admin interface on your WordPress dashboard, and if you use any of the other user-friendly CMS’s out there, it's a relatively painless process. If you're unsure, contact your web developer to find out where it is.
Your meta description isn't as important to rankings as is previously thought (though some would dispute that), but it does make a big difference as to whether or not people will click through the result to your page. Think of your meta description as your ad copy; you're trying to convey in as few words as possible what's on the page and why it's important.
You see the meta description inside the SERPs, or the Search Engine Ranking Positions, every time you search for something. If left blank, your CMS will most likely fill in a generic piece of information derived from the text itself, or they’ll just leave it completely blank, which looks awful. Optimizing your meta description may not seem important, but since most people expect to see something underneath the search results, you might as well make the most of it.
The default position for any web crawler is to simply go through your entire site from start to finish and search and index everything they can. If they exhaust their limit, they’ll simply go to the next site and index that one, leaving the rest of your pages completely untouched.
The robots.txt file is like the master map for the web crawler to go through your site and tell the search engines which parts of your page should be indexed. You can put in "no index" or "no follow" tags inside your robots.txt file to keep certain pages, such as a staff directory or financial reports, from being shown to the general public.
Images rank inside of search engines too, but the way the web crawlers know what that image consists of is by looking at the alt text that is put inside the image itself. This is different than the caption or the meta description for the picture, since the alt text is usually only read by web crawlers and handicap accessible interfaces that read the page content to you.
Usually one of the most overlooked SEO meta tags, the alt text is nonetheless important part of your site to be optimized, since somebody can travel to your website via your image just as they can your content. It takes only a few seconds to do, and can provide a significant boost to rankings.
Canonical tags are probably the most technically difficult of the six to get right, but they're still far more simple than some others. These tags exist primarily to prioritize certain pages over others, so if you want your homepage to be front and center in the search results and be called first, then you should list that in your canonical tags. Most web crawlers do this automatically, but it's good to double check just in case.
Other websites may want certain pages over others to be ranked ahead in search results, leaving their homepage or their about page way back in the distance. It's up to you to determine how you want the crawler to index your site, but if you want to make changes, look to the canonical tags to do so.
If your site has any content on it whatsoever, then you most likely already have header tags installed on your individual pages. If you look into the code, these are classified as H1, H2, H3, all the way down to H6. These tags determine the hierarchy of the page itself, so H1 tags are the most important text on the page, while H6 is the least important.
Header tags only apply to headings and subheadings, not the content in the paragraphs that are underneath. For that reason, it's best to organize your page so that it is grouped accordingly, putting relevant content under the appropriate headings so that it's both easy to scan and easy-to-read. You'll also provide a quick reference guide for people who may be scanning your site for specific answer.
SEO Meta Tag Checklist
Since SEO meta tags can be confusing, we wanted to put a quick checklist here for you to work through as you determine your site’s hierarchy.
- Do I want certain pages indexed over others? As mentioned above, not every page is created equal, so if there certain pages that you would like crawled first to make sure that they rank the easiest, then it's worth it to adjust the canonical text for that page to make sure that the web crawler allots more crawl budget to that one page.
- Are there certain pages I don't want indexed? One of the biggest mistakes you can make is by revealing private information to the World Wide Web, so if you have any of that on your site, make sure that you tag those pages as no index or no follow inside your robots.txt file.
- Have I marked up the alt text for my images? If you have thousands of images on your side, this can be tough, but start with your homepage and work backwards, inserting the keywords into the images as you go. The number one image that you should have tagged is your logo and any other branding that you may have. From there, look at your cover images, the about page, and then your blogs.
- Are my header tags appropriate? In almost every circumstance, you should only have one H1 tag for every page, and then the appropriate amount of H2 through H6 tags underneath those. Multiple H1 tags can confuse the web crawler and cause that page to rank poorly, so make sure that each page is as clean as possible.
About THE AUTHOR
After working for multiple digital advertising agencies and managing hundreds of client accounts, spending millions of dollars via Google Ads, Facebook Ads, Native Ads and Direct Media Buying, I took things out on my own and started SparrowBoost. Now, my tight-knit team and I continue to get smarter and more efficient at running our own campaigns and we share our knowledge with you.Learn more about SparrowBoost