Deciphering Meta Tags

– Posted in: Web Design

So, you’ve hired someone to build your website. Good job! Probably a relief to see it in lights, right? Congratulations!

The other day I was reviewing a couple of websites for potential clients. I have a, sort-of, ritual that I run through when I review websites. First off, I go straight to the source code. I have to see if the website pages are manageable. I never assume that I know everything about web design… because I don’t. So, I like to make sure that I can understand where the previous web designer was going when they developed this website. In some cases, the client has the look of THIS web page in their head that the like or don’t like. If they want to keep certain elements, I need to make sure I know how that element was introduced and how it works.

I look at how the pages interact with each other and how the navigation works. I look in the of the documents for the style sheets and javascripts. Lastly, I look at the tags. There can be a lot of different tags. Some are useful and others just use up space, in my opinion. There is a handful of these tags that I believe every website owner needs to understand. So, I want to list a few here for you to look for in your web pages.

Title Tag

First, make sure that each of your pages has a title and that the page is properly titled. Each page should have a different title. Some SEO gurus say you should have your business name in there with the name of that page (i.e. About | XYZ Company). Other SEO gurus say that having your name in the title of each page is redundant and will cause problems with search engines.

When I use to grade a website, their gurus suggest the title have your business name in there as such, XYZ Company | About. I have done all of the above. I have my preference where I’ll include the business name because this title is what you see in your browser. When you have 5-different tabs open in your browser, you can read the tabs to see which page to go back to.

Google states,

“Page titles should be descriptive and concise. Avoid vague descriptors like "Home" for your home page, or "Profile" for a specific person’s profile. Also avoid unnecessarily long or verbose titles, which are likely to get truncated when they show up in the search results.”

So, in the source code look for the following tag.

<title>Your web page</title>

Technically the title tag is not a meta tag, but it is often used together with the “description”. Search engine use the title and description tags in their search results. You are limited to 70 characters, including spaces.


Next meta tag to look for is the “description” tag. It is a meta tag and looks similar to this:

<meta name="description" content="A description of the page" />

This meta tag needs to be a concise description of the page that it is on. Do NOT make this a description of your business. If you do, it will be removed from search engine indexes. Make sure the description and the content have something in common too.

The best way to look at this is as a summary of the page. For instance, if the page is about “Luna Lovegood ‘s description of the Crumple-Horned Snorkack and how they are good at finding places their riders are looking for.” (Yes, I just watched all 8-DVDs of Harry Potter.) Then create a summary that briefly describes that whole page. The trick with the “description” Meta is keeping it under 160 characters because after that, Google will truncate the rest.

What About Keywords

The meta keywords tag is what we call a deprecated tag. What that means is that it will be considered invalid or obsolete. None of the larger search engines use the keywords tag anymore. Web designers used to use the keywords tag to stuff a lot of keywords for better SEO. Some designers stuffed with keywords that weren’t necessarily pertinent to that specific page or client either.

Now, search engines look at the title and description tags as well as your content. So the “keywords” that you want search engines to find, need to be included in your title and description tags. Have your web designer try different descriptions periodically to see what brings you better traffic.

Calling all Robots

This next meta tag I find important to look for is the Robot tag. This tag is what gives all search engine robots their instructions.

<meta name="robots" content="..., ..." />

<meta name="googlebot" content="..., ..." />

The “robots” meta tag applies to all search engines, but the “googlebot” meta tag is specific to Google. What you put in as values is very important. The default values are “index, follow” (the same as “all”) and do not need to be specified. So, if you see nothing in the tag for “robots”, it’s as if the gate to your website is left open to all search engine bots, both good and bad bots. (To control individual robots, you need a robots.txt file on your server.) Below, I’ve listed all the different values that can be used in either of these meta tags.

  • “noindex” prevents the page from being indexed.

If you wish to prevent a page’s content from entering into any web indexes, even if other sites link to it, then use noindex in this meta tag. When a bot fetches the page, it will see the tag and then prevent your page from showing up in the web index.

  • “nofollow” prevents the Googlebot from following links from this page

This value provides a way to tell search engines “Don’t follow links on this page.” It can also be used on individual links using rel=”nofollow.” When the bots go over the page, they see the nofollow in that specific link and will then not follow it.

  • “nosnippet” prevents a snippet from being shown in the search results
  • “noodp” prevents the alternative description from the ODP/DMOZ from being used
  • “noarchive” prevents Google from showing the Cached link for a page.
  • “noimageindex” lets you specify that you do not want your page to appear as the referring page for an image that appears in Google search results.

The two values I want to focus on are “noindex” and “nofollow”. I would never consider using these two values on a web page unless that page was designed to be a part of a store, a membership area, or some other private place on your site. I would not use either of these values on pages that I wanted people to find. To me, that’s like NOT listing your business name in the phone book because you didn’t want people to find you.

However, if you do have a store or membership area on your site, you do not want those areas to be indexed at all! In that case, yes use “nofollow” and “noindex”.

Summing It Up

I have described to you what I, as a web designer look at when I take on a new website development. You as the client or owner of a website should do the same. Know what is placed in your <head> tags. If you don’t know what something is, don’t be afraid to ask. These tags are your calling card to the search engines. Make sure they have accurate information of your web pages to post in their search results.

Please post your comments below. I would love to hear your thoughts and answer any questions.

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