The meta data is a part of the code of each page on your site. Although it isn’t visible to visitors, (unless they go looking for it), it is visible to search engines that crawl your web pages.
It’s already been fairly well established that Google doesn’t, (and hasn’t for a long time) used the content of your meta tags when determining your ranking in their search engine results. However, that isn’t to say that there aren’t other uses for meta data, that relate more to your visitors than they do to search engines.
The Uses Of Meta Tags
The most well known meta tags have always been your meta-keywords, and your meta-description. Both of these tags have fallen out of favour to some extent, particularly the meta-keywords tag.
Once upon a time, before search engine optimisation became the true discipline that it is today, the meta keywords tag was considered extremely important. The keywords that you put in this tag told search engines what your site was about.
Of course, it didn’t take too long for some website owners to start taking advantage of it, and keyword stuffing made its first appearance online. Simply put, people would fill the meta tag with all sorts of irrelevant keywords, in the hope that people searching for them would end up on their site.
(Why they thought that luring people to sites pointlessly was a good idea, I’m not sure. Maybe they were making advertising revenue based on their number of visitors or something.)
Regardless, it didn’t take long for Google to ignore the keywords tag completely, since they could be pretty sure that the keywords people were putting in their didn’t have much to do with the site.
Today, Google ignores the keyword tag completely. However, some directory sites still use it to categorise sites in their directory, and search engines index directory sites as well, so putting a very few, select and relevant keywords into the meta keywords tag isn’t going to do you any harm.
The meta description is an HTML attribute that should contain a brief, concise description of your website, or your business. Google may display this description of your site beneath the link to your site in the search engine results pages.
Once upon a time, search engines would examine your description for keywords, which could improve your ranking. However, unscrupulous SEO practitioners soon began stuffing the description with keywords, causing Google to eventually discount this as a ranking factor.
Despite this, it can be a useful snippet of information for potential visitors. It should be a compelling description, that encourages people who see it to visit your website. In addition, directory-type sites sometimes still use your meta description in their listings, and those listings sometimes appear in search engine results.
Google does use meta descriptions when people search for them with advanced search features, and also when pulling preview snippets from websites.
Meta descriptions can be any length, but Google typically cuts them off after 155 characters or so. We usually recommend that your meta description is a short, compelling description for your business, in 150 characters or less.
As with the title tags, each page should have a unique meta description, and bear in mind that inverted commas, (or “quote marks”) will trigger an automatic truncation of the description, so avoid them in the meta description.
If there is no meta description, Google will take a short description from the text of the page. Although this is usually not ideal, it is sometimes not only acceptable to do so, but even advised. This is particularly the case with things like products, articles, and similar resources.
What appears to happen on pages without meta-descriptions, is that Google will pull a snippet of text from the content that surrounds the keyword that was used in the search. This will highlight the relevance of your page in relation to the search, and as a result, can be quite useful.
Clickable Meta Descriptions
On the pages where you use your meta-descriptions, which should be your primary pages, like the home page, a clickable meta description can mean the difference between getting a visitor, and losing one.
When I say “clickable,” what I mean is a meta-description that encourages potential visitors to click on the link and visit your site. If your meta-description speaks to your potential clients, there’s a better chance that they’ll actually go to your site.
You might be ranking high on Google for a given keyword, but ranking high is only half the battle. The other half is to get people to actually click on that high ranking. And that’s where a meta-description can come into its own.
Make them short, make them informative, and base them on your primary keyword. But when I say “base” them, I don’t mean that you should make the description a list of keywords. Not only does that not help, it can actively harm your visitor prospects.
When you’re writing your meta-description, think in terms of a short advertisement for your site. It needs to be short, because Google will truncate your description after 150 characters, so make sure you don’t lose part of your message by having it too long. (Don’t put inverted comma’s or “quotation” marks into the meta description by the way. Google treats that as in instruction to truncate the description at the point they appear.)
Your meta-description is a sales pitch. Make the most of it, and use it to encourage people to visit your site. A description that “sells” your site can be just as valuable as having a high search engine ranking.