What are “meta tags”?
Meta tags are the words and phrases you see in a list of search engine results that provide a preview of what’s on a web page. They are not visible to readers of your website page itself, but they are displayed in the lines of text that show up in search results:-
Example of a search result showing meta tags
Metas are an important part of your SEO strategy because they are the reason why someone will choose to visit your website - or not. So you should treat them as a powerful advertisement to show your potential visitors the quality and relevance of your website.
Metas are NOT a direct ranking factor but they do work as an indirect factor because they drive click throughs and traffic to your website.
Google calls meta tags “snippets” (this is also what they’re called in Wordpress Yoast), but they are still called "metas" in Wix, Go Daddy, Squarespace, etc. The terms “metas” and “snippets” are interchangeable.
There are two types of meta tag:-
- Meta Title: The text in blue in a search result
- Meta Description: The text in grey in a search result
With any website design or set up you should have the ability to compose your own meta tags for every page of your website. Make this activity as big a part of your page content design as writing the copy or adding pictures. Do not neglect it. You can technically publish a web page without adding metas, but that means leaving it up to Google to decide what to preview, which may not be what you want to say about your business. Plus it’s a negative SEO point against you if your metas are left empty.
If you have already published your website without adding metas then don’t panic; you should be able to add them (or revise them) at a any point via the CMS (Content Management System) or page editing menu of your site.
How to structure a well-written meta tag
Google sets a character limit for both meta titles and meta descriptions based on pixels (i.e. the physical space used to render something on a screen). In Plain English this means you have approximately up to 60 characters for a meta title and up to 155 to 160 characters for a meta description. NB: the character count includes spaces.
If you go over the character limit then your title or description will get cut off in search results, potentially losing part of your message and almost certainly creating a poor user experience:-
Aside from making sure your metas are not too long, neither should they be too short. A too-short meta is an indicator of poor quality to search engines. Make use of all the available space to create metas that are descriptive and persuasive.
Anatomy of a Meta Title
Your meta title should include at least one of your keywords, your brand name and your location. Use hyphens rather than pipes (“|”) to separate the various meta title elements as this makes them easier to read:-
Anatomy of a Meta Description
Your meta description needs to be in complete, natural sentences and be a good concise description of what’s on the page and – most importantly - why someone should click through to that page. Again it should contain at least one of your keywords, or preferably one of your long-tail key phrases. Do not just stuff it with keywords that don’t make sense – search engines don’t appreciate that and won’t even show it in results. Don’t forget to include a call to action (CTA):-
Because of the restrictions on length make sure all the important information is at the front: within the first 40-50 characters of your title and the first 110-130 characters of your description.
Think of your meta description as the “sound bite” for your business. You should be able to sell your proposition in one or two short, concise sentences.
Does Google always use my version of metas?
In a word – No. In fact they will only use original metas about a third of the time. The rest of the time they will use an extract from the page content itself.
It’s annoying but don’t forget the Google-Monster is on a mission to be the global search engine of choice. They do this very effectively by making the search experience effortless. So what they show in search results are the right results.
This means that they will show only those snippets that are the closest match to the search term. This might be your self-penned meta description, or it might be one of their own making.
This is something over which you have no choice or control. Google will select what text to show in snippets, which may be the one you wrote, or it may not.
So why bother?
Because you have to be in it to win it.
It’s a big tick in the SEO karma box.
And it shows Google that you’re playing by their SEO rules – and you still have a 1 in 3 chance that your version will be shown. Those are good odds.
As previously stated, it’s better to have them written and ready to use than leave them looking empty.