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Meta tags are little lines of code that are placed between the <HEAD> and the </HEAD> tags in your site's HTML code. They are designed to give search engines instructions on what your page is about and how they should treat it. These tags are not displayed to humans visiting your site, but they can be used to influence the way your site appears in the search results.

There are several meta tags that you can add to your pages, but in my opinion the only useful ones are the keywords tag, the description tag and the robots tag. Most others, like the author or distribution tags are not used by the search engines, and I don't recommend using them - you don't want to clutter the top part of your page with useless things, as it can have a negative impact on your ranking.

Let's take a look at the most important meta tags:

Meta tags: The description tag

<META name="description" content="A search engine shows the content of this tag below the title of your site when it appears in the results.">

This tag is very important, since you can use it to encourage people to click on your listing when you are found in a search engine. When your page comes up in the search results, the contents of your META description tag are displayed right below the title of your page. If no description tag is found, the search engine attempts to create a description for you and often fails to describe your page properly.

It's worthwhile to pay some attention to fine-tuning the META description tags you use on your pages. The main reason why you should do so is that the two things that determine whether you'll get people to click on your listing or not are this tag and the title of your page. If you're going to work hard enough to grab a position in the first page of results, you wouldn't want visitors not clicking on your listing just because it looks uninteresting, now would you?

Make your description meta tags short but informative - if you can trim them to less than 13 words and you feel that they can still give enough information to make the user visit your site, you've done well. If your description tag is over 13 words, try to think how you could reduce the amount of words and still say what you want to say.

Why should your description meta tags be so short? Well, usually the search engine only displays a small part of it in the results list, and if the tag contains too many words, the "extra" words are cut off. So a description like:

"John's homepage! If you visit my site, you'll find a huge amount of information about my favorite food, apples!"

Can look like:
"John's homepage! If you visit my site, you'll find a huge amount..."

If the user is looking for information about hot dogs, he probably won't visit Mike's site even if it has a high ranking on the result list, because the user doesn't see that it's contains a huge amount of information about hot dogs. For this reason, try to place the relevant stuff near the beginning of the description and the blabber to the end (or just cut the latter right off). If Mike used

"Information on apples, my favorite food. If you'll visit my site, called 'John's homepage', you'll find a huge amount of interesting stuff related to them."

As his description, he'd be better off than in the first example. He'd still have a description that is too long, but if the search engine decided to cut it, people would still see it as relevant to apples from the first four words and visit. It would be even better if John could just lose the uninteresting stuff after the first sentence, since this would raise the weight of the word 'apples' in his tag, earning a (very small) boost in his ranking from the search engine.

Notice that of the major search engines, Google (supplies secondary results to Yahoo's search) doesn't support the description tag.

Meta tags: The keywords tag

OK, now you've learned what the META description is about and how you can use it to your advantage. Let's move on to the next tag on our list, the keywords tag. This is what it looks like:

<META name="keywords" content="hot dogs information recipes">

The keywords tag contains words and phrases the creator of the page considers to be relevant to the document. These words can be separated by commas, spaces or both - the method of separation makes little difference. This tag is not shown to the people arriving to your site, nor do the search engines display it in their results, but many search engines do read the keywords tag and give a slight boost to the page's ranking for the words that are mentioned in it.

Generally, you should only include words and phrases that are mentioned on your page and you shouldn't use any word more than three times in your keywords tag. The optimal size for this tag is around 10 words or less, as you do not want to dilute your important keywords and phrases with obscure words. All of the words you put in your keywords tag should be relevant to the document; don't add "mp3" to your keywords if your article about endangered wolves just happens to mention that you listened to a mp3 while creating the page.

Previously, in the stone age of search engines (1998 or so), the keywords tag was a very important part of a successful search engine optimization effort. Nowadays, its effect has been reduced by the appearance more sophisticated search engine algorithms. I'd still use this tag on my pages, but I wouldn't fuss too much about it - a good META keywords tag can give you a small boost in many engines, but its weight is minimal compared to other page elements.

As you have seen from the above, creating the META keywords and the META description tag is relatively easy. However, if you for some reason do not want to do it by hand, this utility will create meta tags for you. Remember to check out the "Keyword optimization" article before creating your META tags in order figure out what to put in them.

Meta tags: The robots tag

The third tag we will cover is the META robots tag. It, just like the keywords tag, is never shown to the human visitors. The META robots tag is a simple instruction to any search engine spiders on how to treat the page. It looks like this:

<META name="robots" content="parameters">

The word 'parameters' should be replaced with commands to the spider. The available commands are INDEX and FOLLOW, and their negative counterparts, NOINDEX and NOFOLLOW. The INDEX statement instructs the spider to add the page to the search engine's index and the FOLLOW statement encourages the spider to follow any links it finds on the page. As you might have guessed, the NOINDEX tells the spider not to add the page to the index and the NOFOLLOW instructs the spider not to follow any links on the page.

Although most spiders automatically assume that any pages they come across can be indexed and links from them can be followed, it might be a good idea to add a robots tag with the index and follow statements just in case:

<META name="robots" content="index, follow">

However, like the META keywords tag, this is nothing to get all worked up about - you'll usually do fine without a robots tag, it's just a safety measure. As you have noticed from the above, the robots tag can also be used to prevent the indexing of a page. However, when doing so, remember that not all spiders support the META robots tag; you should also add a robots.txt file that forbids the spider to index the page to be on the safe side.

Meta tags: The infamous refresh tag

The last tag we'll cover is the META refresh tag, used to automatically redirect visitors from one page to another. It looks something like this:


It's not one of the useful META tags, but its not among the useless ones either. It's one of the few potentially dangerous tags there is. While it works quite nicely, many search engines dislike it because it is (or was) commonly used with doorway pages. I recommend that for the sake of your search engine success, leave this tag alone and instead redirect visitors by giving them a link to click. JavaScript redirects (preferably in external JS files) can also be used, although with some caution.

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