Meta Elements: Small but Essential, or just Small?

July 18, 2013 Bria Jordan

When it comes to understanding data and search results, the needs of human users and computers obviously differ. While users rely on copy to indicate the contents of a site, Search Engines use specific elements of code to determine language, content and geographic location. Meta elements (also technically known as Meta Tags) are one method to inform the Search Engines and Spiders about the contents of a site. They can include keywords, descriptions, author, robots and copyright information, as well as other things that are beyond the scope of this discussion.

Regardless of your preferred browser, if you search online for something today, you’ve seen some Meta descriptions:

Although human users only see one Meta element on a regular basis, paying attention can make your site index better and improve your click through rates (CTR).They are often what helps users determine which site will meet their needs.

Meta Descriptions carry little or no weight in search engine rankings, but they are important for the end user, and can impact CTR, bounce rates and possibly conversions. They help users determine which site in the result pages is the best fit for their needs, and this is especially important with general search terms: by giving users context, it helps them find the site that has the information they need, even if it wasn’t included in the original search parameters.

What Matters, What Doesn’t

From an SEO perspective, few Meta elements carry weight by search engines, but they can be useful and relevant to increasing metrics. The only valuable Meta element that is seen by human users is the description, which we’ll discuss shortly. Meta Keyword tags were useful at one point in time, but were quickly devalued when internet spammers discovered the values of the algorithms – many adult sites were inundated with keywords that weren’t relevant to the site’s content, but were placed in order to drive traffic by any means necessary. However, the robot and author elements are particularly useful and should not be discounted. The ‘robot’ element tells the search engines how to treat your site: whether or not to index your site can be the determining factor in the success or failure of your site. Robot Meta elements are similar to robots.txt, but can be less reliable, as some search engines do not value them.

Where do I find it?

As previously mentioned, most Meta elements are unseen by human users: They are there to provide browsers and search engines with technical information about the page. This is done by placing meta tags within the site’s Header section: for those who are unfamiliar with coding format, the Header is the first part of your site’s html code. The Meta tags are usually one of the first tags in the Header section, placed directly after the site’s title. It often looks like this, if you want to look for it:

<head>
<meta name=”description” content=”This is your meta description, don’t ignore it!”>
</head>

User Friendly — how to make them work for you

For users, the contents of Meta description tags are seen in the search results under each site’s title. It gives an overview of the site’s contents, and whether or not it’s contextually relevant to their needs. Writing a Meta Description can be tricky – it’s hard to summarize a site’s content and relevance in something not much bigger than a Tweet. But look at it another way: its 160 characters of free ad text. When written correctly, a Meta description is interesting, succinct and compelling, and more likely to engage your audience.

How to write better Meta Descriptions

A decent Meta Description has several components:

  • Succinct, compelling copy
  • Call to action
  • Targeted keywords

Similar to other parts of your integrated media plan, you’ll need your keyword list before you start. Determine your organization’s needs before beginning the copy writing. Does your company sell popular brands? You may want to include some in the description, if they’re proven to drive traffic. If you’re not used to working with a limited amount of characters, try taking a few passes at the description until you get the hang of it. If you Tweet, this will probably be easier for you, since you’re used to truncating copy: It’s a good exercise in learning not to equivocate. You can have longer descriptions, but after 160 characters the copy is cut off, so I recommend against it. And why a Call to Action? Simply, because people need to know what you want them to do!

Meta description tags can present a site in a more professional manner: understanding their usefulness to users and search engines can often set you apart from the competition. Creating a clear, compelling description for your site’s pages will not only inform search engines of their contents, but will help users in determining relevance to their own needs. Utilizing Meta elements appropriately can increase CTR and diminish bounce rates, while giving users a positive experience with your site. Meta tags are something small but simple to implement, they are a small thing that could make a big difference.

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