A spectre is haunting search engine marketing - the spectre of metadata. But behind this intimidating term lurks a fairly simple concept. In this guide, we'll take you through the basics of metadata and hopefully go some way to demystifying this arcane website component.
Before getting into the nitty gritty of metadata, it's worth introducing HTML (HyperText Markup Language). In simple terms, this is the language of web pages; read by browsers to render the content on the site. Invented by physicist Tim Berners-Lee in 1980, this is made up of a number of elements or tags that have various attributes. If you're interested in learning more, Moz offers a great guide on the basics of how HTML is used to create the websites we're all familiar with.
There's currently a lot of furor around metadata in both social and search circles, and with good reason. It's a prominent element in the way search engines interact with your website and many social platforms are increasingly utilising metadata in a range of interesting ways.
One common adage is that metadata is simply data about data and although not entirely accurate - it serves well enough. In the world of SEO, metadata is used to refer to the information that helps search engines recognise and categorise the data on websites.
For the most part, this is hidden on the interior of a web page, meaning the average user won't usually encounter it outside of search result pages. While metadata can affect the way you appear in search results, it generally has a lot less weight in determining page rank than in previous years (in terms of Google at least).
Meta tags are a form of metadata used by search engines to garner more information about a web page. These are typically found in the <head> element of a web page. While
some metadata unfairly gets lumped in with meta tags - and vice versa - for the purposes of this guide, we'll treat them as one happy family. Some of the most common meta tags used in SEO include:
Title Tag: This simple tag does exactly what is says on the tin - provides a title for the site that will appear in search results and at the top of many browsers. This is a required element of all HTML documents and can have a massive impact on whether or not people click on your site.
The title tag of your site is akin to the headline of a news story, so it's best to include relevant keywords or phrases (which will be displayed in bold should they match the user's search query) and make this as enticing as possible (within the 70 character limit imposed by Google).
Meta description: This is a highly useful meta tag and is another element that will be displayed on search result pages. It provides a short description about a specific page and while it no longer directly affects your ranking, it can influence rate at which people click-through to your site. Therefore, it's well worth spending some time on honing this to make it as appealing as possible.
Meta Robots: This is where things get slightly technical. While your site is effectively invisible if it can't be indexed by search engines, there are a number of situations where you might not want them to catalogue certain sections. For example, there's some evidence that duplicate content can negatively influence your page rank, so it can be a good idea to hide printable versions of existing pages. Similarly, you might want to restrict access to unfinished pages or those that contain confidential information.
Enter the robots meta tag. This is a tool that can be used to tell the crawlers, robots or 'bots' employed by search engines not to index certain sections of your site, not to follow links on a certain page or not to archive a cached copy of the page.
Other Meta Tags
While the above are the meta tags that tend to get all the attention, there's a number of others that can be used in various ways including:
Meta Keywords: This tag was formerly used by search engines to judge the content of a site, but has largely been discarded in favour of more sophisticated methods.
Meta Language: While it's largely fallen out of favour, Meta Language can be used to explain which language a web page is in.
Notranslate: Another language-based tag, this prevents search engines from translating a particular page.
Refresh: This tag tells the user's browser to automatically refresh a page after a pre-defined period of time and is favoured by sites that are constantly updating their content.
The Role of Metadata in SEO
While search engines now pay less attention to metadata when ranking pages, it remains an important element of SEO. Factors like the meta description and the title can have a significant impact on whether people choose to navigate to your site from search engine result pages.
Although the meta keywords tag has lost some of its SEO value, when competing for certain terms you want to be found for - it's a good idea to include key words or phrases in things like your title and description. Similarly, lesser-known tags like meta refresh, meta revisit-after and meta content type still have a role to play in SEO, although it's a lot less critical than in previous years. There's heaps of advice available on this front, but we'll save those for another blog post.
So what are your thoughts on metadata and the future of search in general? We always love to hear your views so don't be shy and leave us a comment!
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