One of the things often omitted from a website by web developers is metadata. You can hardly blame them. The are focused on getting the page to display correctly, checking links (hopefully!) to other pages and media content, and if we’re lucky, developing interesting and compelling original content. All of that work takes time and effort. Who cares about <head> tag junk and alt text? No one, right?
Well, I can name at least one group of web users who care deeply about metadata: search engine crawlers (aka spiders, robots, or just simply bots). So why would search bots give a coder’s patootie about detailed minutiae like metadata? Well, it all comes down to how they process information. They can’t “see” and “interpret” webpage content the way you and I can. As such, the metadata (or descriptive information) about a webpage helps the bot better comprehend what it sees. And because that information is specifically intended to describe the content of the webpage, it is accorded a high level of credence by search engines.
And if you think about it, that makes sense. A page title is supposed to be a one-line synopsis of the entire content on the page! Talk about your concise, digital executive summary! That kind of boiled down content is exactly what the search engine wants to see. Why? Because it is supposed to represent a descriptive essence of the page, the text used in metadata tags is usually considered by the search engines to be excellent fodder for associating keyword relevance. (Yes, there are caveats to this, and we’ll get to them momentarily.) Keywords are a critically important method used by search engines to associate your pages’ content to queries made by searchers. Search engine optimization – it’s starting to make some sense now (I hope!).
Now that you know this little revelation about metadata, do you still think that writing metadata is unimportant in the grand scheme of things? If your website has any illusions about earning search engine rank, you need to tell their bots about the content you have on your site. Metadata is a surefire way of filling in those digital blanks.
Which tags matter?
In my earlier post, Everything you need to know about SEO, I listed the top 13 things you need to know about SEO. That list, as concise as it was, specifically mentioned several metadata tags (and conspicuously omitted others) as very important elements to note, adhere to, and consider carefully. Let’s dig a little deeper here.
<title> tag text
The <title> tag is the most important metadata tag on the page. From the search bot’s perspective, it concisely describes the contents of the entire page. Well, it’s supposed to. While no loud alarms blare when you put two paragraphs of text in the title (or worse yet, leave it blank), for SEO purposes, they should. Search bots want to see between 5 and 65 characters used, including spaces. Titles that are too short are simply useless at describing the page content. On the other hand, titles that are too long will be truncated (and the overflow ignored) when they are displayed as the blue link text of the Google and Bing search engine results pages (SERPs). The hard maximum length is often closer to 70 these days, but not always, so 65 is a good compromise at a maximum length of <title> tag text.
Note that the words used at the start of the <title> tag text are given the most weight by search engines. That said, no person wants to read a keyword dump list, so write your <title> tag text strategically yet naturally. Also know that the best keywords you have for the page should be used in BOTH the <title> tag and somewhere in the body text of the page. That duplication reinforces them as being a high-value descriptor.
Lastly, unless your brand is your most searched-for keyword, always place your brand name (aka site name) at the end of the <title> tag text, so your other keywords can bask in the glory of that higher SEO value position.
<img> alt text
Search bots can’t “see” images. To help them understand what the image contains, always include the alt attribute in <img> tags used for content (skip it for color blocks, spacers, and the like). The length of your keyword-rich alt text should be between 25-150 characters, including spaces. Similar to <title> tags, the words used at the start of the tag have the most value to search bots. As such, it’s typically recommended that you put copyright attributions at the end of alt text.
When you write your alt text descriptions, always consider the context of the image to the page contents. For example, let’s say your image is a photo of a wine bottle. What would be the best alt text to use? The answer lies in the theme of the page. What if your page is about visiting a popular Pinot Noir winery in Oregon? What if your page is about collecting avant-garde wine bottle labels? What if your page is about recycling green glass? In any of these cases, would alt text reading “wine bottle” advance the theme of the page? I don’t think so.
<meta> description text
The <meta> tag using the description attribute is an important piece of metadata, but in a different way from the aforementioned tags. Its contents currently have little to no value in terms of ranking (due to past abuses of keyword stuffing). However, the text found there is most often used by search engines as the “snippet” description of the site placed under the blue link text in the SERPs. As such, this important text is your big chance to sell your page to searchers. Describe it well, use compelling language, and it’ll convert SERP impressions into clicks.
Limit <meta> description text to no more than 160 characters, including spaces, to keep it from being truncated in the SERP. Use natural language, but where possible, add a few keywords into its text. Not because the bots will use them for ranking relevance, but because keyword matches in queries are highlighted in the SERP page, and highlighted words in your snippet will draw attention to your listing.
<h1> tag text
The <h1> tag is not commonly considered a metadata tag, but I’m adding it here. Originally designed as a display formatting tag, it’s now considered to be more of a data description tag whose content serves as the visible, in-body headline of the page. Sadly, this key tag is often omitted from pages by designers, developers, and content authors alike. But imagine a newspaper with lots of articles but no headlines. It would be much harder to read and understand. Folks who omit the <h1> tag are building the same thing in the eyes of search bots.
Use descriptive keywords in your <h1> tag, limiting the length to between 10 & 200 characters, and for goodness sakes, don’t use more than one <h1> tag per page! Printed articles only get one headline – using more than one on your webpage only confuses the issue for bots on which one is the real headline, thereby diminishing the SEO value of both!
Lastly, don’t copy the contents of the <title> tag text for your <h1> text. You can add more text in the <h1> than you can in the <title>. Make the most of it. Besides, duplicating the text between these two tags means you’ve missed a great opportunity to build relevance for more keywords.
Don’t sweat the other stuff (as much)
Other <meta> tags with various attributes can be important to pages with international audiences. I refer you to an older blog article I wrote on optimizing <head> tag content for additional information on them.
A common question I get is what to do about the <meta> keyword tag? The answer is… not much. Here’s the scoop: web spammers so heavily abused this tag’s content in the past with keyword stuffing that the search engines long ago stopped using this tag for keyword ranking. Now that said, the ranking factors used in the search engine algorithms number in the hundreds, and the ranking factors (and their priorities) change constantly (the recent Google Panda update and its affect on some major websites is just one example). When the various search engine algorithm teams eventually decide that web spammers have given up stuffing this tag, it may start coming back into use as a ranking factor. Maybe.
As such, if you have lots of free time on your hands, you can feel free to add some secondary, lesser value keywords to this tag. But if you have anything else you could be doing to optimize the pages on your site, do that first. Consider the <meta> keyword tag to be your last priority effort for SEO.
I’ll continue to explore my SEO baker’s dozen list again soon. Later.