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Meta tags - what, where, when, why?

What are meta tags?

The Meta tag in html is not a required tag when you're creating your web pages; many pages don't use the tag at all, and I must confess that I've not used it on my home page, although I put it into this page by way of demonstration. To put it briefly, the meta tag is used by search engines to allow them to more accurately list your site in their indexes. Sometimes.

If you simply produce your home page and register the URL with a search engine, or a number of search engines, their spider programmes will (eventually) toddle along to your site to index it. Now, each of the search engines does this slightly differently. Altavista for example will grab everything in your document and index it, but will only show the first 250 characters in its description. Consequently, if your site included say, 'Thanks to:....' right at the beginning, this is what some search engines would show in its description, and it wouldn't give the viewer any idea of what your site actually covered. Of course, not all search engines work this way; I'd suggest you ferret around a little bit to see exactly how the popular engines work, and certainly the major two or three. It therefore makes sense to ensure that your opening paragraph is carefully written to ensure it accurately reflects what your site covers. However, you may be able to exert a certain amount of control over how your site is indexed by the use of the meta tag. (I should however point out that not all search engines will use this tag - some do, others don’t. Its not a total cure-all therefore, but you won't miss out by putting the tag in, and it may well work well in some cases.

What does a meta tag look like?

You should insert the meta tag element at the top of your document, just after the <TITLE> element. It follows the usual form of tags, ie

<META name="something" content="something else">

but note that you don't have to have a </META> at the end of the tag, the way that you do with something like <BOLD> bold </BOLD>. However, make sure that each tag does not include any line breaks, since some search engines get a little bit tetchy about this.

What can I include in a meta tag?

There are basically four major meta tags that you can use:

The only resource type that is currently in use is "document" This is the only tag that you need to put in for indexing purposes, but use of the others is a good idea.

Depending on the search engine, this will be displayed along with the title of your page in an index. "content" could be a word, sentence or even paragraph to describe your page. Keep this reasonably short, concise and to the point. However, don't be so mean with your description that its not an appropriate reflection of the contents!

Choose whatever keywords you think are appropriate, seperated by commas. Remember to include synoyms, americanisms and so on. So, if you had a page on cars, you might want to include keywords such as car, cars, vehicles, automobiles and so on.

Content should contain either global, local or iu (for Internal Use). To be perfectly honest, I can't quite get my head around this one; its supposed to list available resources designed to allow the use to find things easily, but I still don't quite get it. My advice is to stick to "global".

Are there optional tags?

Yup, theres a whole bunch of 'em. I've put in a couple of examples below:

Pretty obvious what this one's for.

This binds the varname to an HTTP header field. An http server might use this to process a document. This one's a tad more tricky.If you included the following example:

then, as part of a GET command the server would include the word car and cars in the HTTP response header.

This can be used in the HEAD section of the index.html file to redirect it to homepage.htm. The figure after content is the time in seconds that the browser waits before moving on.

There are a few others that you can include, such as "revisit-after" and "rating" if you want to be really comprehensive.

Other useful points.

There is no need to index every single file that you've got on your site - just choose a few representative samples.

The description tag should not simply restate the title of the page, it should describe the page.

Where can I get more information?

What - you mean all my hard work above isn't enough for you? OK. Some sites that I've identified that might be of further use are:

This is a (yuck!) frames site, but has lots of useful stuff. It gets technical quickly, so be warned.

Useful site which will create a set of meta tags based on information you provide. Useful if you're not sure of how to do it.

This provides information on the catalogue record element known as the 'Dublin Core' which looks as though its going to be a very useful advance in the use of the little beasties.

Questions about the meta tag

Can I put my competitors name(s) in my meta tags?

Sounds like a good idea when you first think of it doesn't it? I mean, if you put your competitors names in your meta tags, and someone searches for them, they may find you instead and buy a product from you, rather than them. Unfortunately, life isn't that simple. In the UK (where I'm based) there are laws against passing yourself off as another company - I wouldn't get very far if I tried to open a shop called Harrods, for example. You'll find that putting in meta tags is probably going to be regarded in exactly the same way by the British courts. (Please bear in mind here that I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not giving legal advice; this is just my opinion.)

I suspect that you'll find the same thing in other countries around the world, and you'll end up in a whole bunch of trouble if you try and do it. Of course, there is nothing to stop you stressing the products themselves that you sell, in common with that of your competitors, in your meta tags and you may find that this works rather better than putting in their names anyway!

Should I use commas or not?

Some people do, some people don't. I've yet to be convinced that either is the best approach. For what its worth, I do.

I use AOL, and I'm having difficulty putting in meta tags. How do I do it?

Can't help with that one, I'm afraid. Since I'm not an AOL person, I can't get access to their authoring tool, so I don't know how it works. I have had a lot of people asking me this one, so its a problem that a lot of people have - you're not alone! All I can suggest is that you contact AOL technical support and see if they can come up with something to help. However, I've also had people writing to me saying that AOL technical staff don't know the answer themselves!

Since writing this I've had a very helpful email regarding this problem and am including it below; it should sort out any problems!

I noticed a query about AOL users including metatags in their home page. If they use the automated approach, they won't be able to. However, they can FTP into their site, following the instructions for advanced users, download the home page from the folder "myhomepage" (it will be called something like "aboutme.html"), open the file in a text editor, and insert metatags to their heart's content. They can then upload that file back into the folder on aol (I think that will over-write, without having to delete the original first).

Many thanks Gerry!

Should I put meta tags on every page, or just meta tags on the home or index page?

Put them on every page that you create and publish. The search engines will find all your pages and if you want to stand a good chance of them ranking your pages highly, you'll want to put the meta tag element on each of them.

Can I write and ask you questions about meta tags?

Sure! If I can answer them for you I'd be happy to do so. I can't always provide answers, but I'll do my best.

Please note that this article is now very old, and so the information contained in it may well be inaccurate. However, I am keeping the article active since it’s still visited.