Meta Tags in 2020: SEO On Page Optimization - Rank Right Now

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Meta Tags in 2020: SEO On Page Optimization

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I'm Michael Peggs

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Your pages are far more likely to rank high in relevant Search Engine Results Pages (SERps) when search engines (and users) can easily determine what type of content they feature. That’s why meta tags are important. Technically part of a page’s HTML code, they help search engines identify the topics a page covers or relates to. They can also make a page more accessible to users viewing it on mobile devices, or using a screen reader to digest their content.

Knowing how to use meta tags effectively is key to your Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategy. This guide will cover specifically what they are, what their role is in on page optimization, and what you can do to leverage them to their full potential.

What Are Meta Tags?

Different types of meta tags (covered in greater detail later) serve different specific purposes. In general, however, they describe a page’s content to both search engines and users.

Different types of meta tags (covered in greater detail later) serve different specific purposes. In general, however, they describe a page’s content to both search engines and users.

They’re also always HTML elements. Thus, you might need to research how your particular Content Management System (CMS) allows you to insert meta tags. Some popular options, such as WordPress, make the process relatively simple thanks to their standard features.

Below is an example of a user editing meta tags in WordPress using the Yoast plugin:

Source

WordPress and other popular CMS options also offer plugins to more effectively use and manage various types of meta tags. After reading this guide, research how to use meta tags with your CMS, and whether you should make any upgrades to its capabilities.

Why Are Meta Tags Important?

Meta tags improve your SEO in several ways. First, they may be displayed when your page is shown in a relevant SERP (although there are some meta tags which impact other factors, such as page accessibility). This lets a potential visitor know what type of content they can expect to see on your pages, should they decided to click to your website.

Search engines use meta tags to determine both the nature of a page’s content, and what type of information/text to display in SERPs. For example, here is a SERP for the query “Brooklyn pizza”:

The title tag (A Guide To The Best Brooklyn Pizza – New York – The Infatuation) for this article includes not only the article title, but the words “New York,” ensuring both potential visitors and search engines understand the localiazed nature of the content.

However, to fully appreciate the importance of meta tags, you need to learn about their unique features and functions.

Description Tag

A meta description serves as a brief summary of a page’s content. The following is one example of how meta descriptions typically appear in SERPs:

The query was for “New York pizza guide.” The meta description of this result is the gray text beneath the green URL. As you can see, it clearly describes the content of the page, while also including many of the keywords (“New York Pizza Guide,” “pizza in all five boroughs,” “New York City pizza”) a potential visitor would likely find relevant to their interests. If you don’t have a plugin that allows you to easily create a meta description, the HTML code format is:

<head>

<meta name="description" content="Insert meta description here.">

</head>

Google typically displays up to 155 to 160 characters of meta descriptions. Exceeding this length will result in a meta description that’s cut off.

While it is important to include keywords and phrases in your meta description, your main goal should be to accurately describe a page’s content. If you try to trick users into visiting a page that doesn’t actually correspond to their search, many will probably leave it shortly after clicking on your link. The low “dwell time” and high bounce rateis can have a negative impact on your SEO in the future.

Your meta description also needs to give users a genuine reason to click on your link. It should explain the value they would get from visiting your page. Thus, you want to avoid boring language that doesn’t include keywords and doesn’t compel a user to take action. Again, consider this example:

This is a relatively strong meta description. It’s long enough to describe the page’s content, but not so long it gets cut off. It includes keywords when relevant, lets users know exactly what they will find on the page, and gives a specific type of reader (someone who loves New York City pizza) a clear reason to visit the page (finding out which NYC pizza is best).

Compare that to the earlier example:

This result also appeared on the first page of the SERP for the “New York pizza guide” query, as well as the “Brooklyn pizza” query.

It’s unfortunately fairly lacking. While it’s accurate and to the point, it features limited usage of keywords, and doesn’t dynamically convince a particular type of user to click on the link. And Click Through Rate (CTR) from SERP is one of 200+ SEO ranking factors.

Experiment with different approaches to writing meta descriptions in order to find one that works for your content. Just be sure to create unique meta descriptions for every page on your site. It’s important to be specific when writing meta descriptions. You can’t achieve this if you reuse the same ones.

Header Tags

Header tags represent another type of meta tag that can serve multiple purposes. There are also several types. A Header 1 (H1) tag may be used for a page title, an H2 tag for distinct sections of content, and an Hh tag if you wish to break the content up into additional categories.

For example, continuing with the NYC pizza theme, you might structure a page on this topic according to this format:

H1: The Best Pizza Spots in Every NYC Borough

[Introductory paragraphs]

H2: Best Pizza in Brooklyn [e.g. Borough Name][Borough Name]

H3: GRIMALDIS [e.g. PPizza Spot Name]

You can see a variation on this format in the image below. It’s a snip from the “A Guide to the Best Brooklyn Pizza” article from the SERP in the last entry:

And here are the relevant header tags in HTML format:

This page uses H3 tags to highlight the restaurants on its list, while also directly below letting users know where a specific restaurant is located. This helps readers find relevant information.

Many CMS platforms allow you to insert header tags naturally in your content. If yours does not, use this HTML format:

<h1>The Best Pizza Spots in Every NYC Borough</h1>

(Substitute H2 or H3 accordingly.)

Header tags can indicate a certain section of content relates to a certain topic. This helps search engines determine if a page is relevant to a user’s query.

It also makes it easier for readers to digest content on mobile devices. This is particularly important now that mobile browsing is more popular than desktop browsing.

On a small mobile screen, it can be difficult to read long pieces of content. Breaking your page up into sections makes it easier for users to scan your content and find the information they are looking for.

It can also impact how your page appears in SERPs. Although it’s sometimes a good idea to include keywords in header tags, there are instances when it’s smarter not to. The following is an example of a Google Rich Snippet that appears when users search for “best food apps.”

Google used the header tags within an article to display a rich snippet featuring a list of apps. This gives readers an even clearer idea of what type of content they may find on this page. Keep that in mind when using header tags in list-based content.

Alt Tag

An effective SEO strategy should involve striving to make your content as accessible as possible to all users. For instance, if you post an image-heavy article, blind users might not get much value from it.

Unless they’re using a screen reader. With alt text, you can add a description to your images. A screen reader will read the text to blind visitors, allowing them to consume the content entirely.

There are also instances when images simply don’t load properly. When this happens, alt text will be displayed instead. This is important if an image is crucial to a reader’s understanding of your content. While you ideally want your images to load consistently, you can at least be certain they’ll still grasp the significance of the image when they don’t.

It’s also important to understand that alt text tells search engine crawlers what a particular image represents. This is yet another way to ensure search engines “understand” what your pages are about.

As with the other entries on this list, you may be able to add alt text to images through a CMS feature. Here is an example of the proper HTML format if this isn’t an option:

<img src="pizza.jpg" alt="New York City pepperoni pizza slice">

Here’s an example of an image, and it’s alt text:

you wouldn’t want to simply make the alt text “pizza,” as that is too generic. “New York city pepperoni pizza slice” goes into greater detail.

That said, you also have to remember how your alt text will impact the user experience and accessibility. Stuffing too many keywords into your alt text could backfire if vision-impaired users actually do use screen readers on your page. You don’t want a long list of keywords read back to such users every time there’s an image in your content. Be descriptive, but don’t use this as an opportunity to stuff your tags with keywords.

Canonical Tag

Many sites have pages with duplicate content. Often, this isn’t even the fault of the person who designed the site. Sometimes multiple URLs can correspond to the same page. This might happen because a CMS automatically adds different tags or similar elements to a single page’s URL based on the way a user accessed the page. Also, search engines can mistakenly interpret multiple variations of a particular URL as representing multiple pages. For instance, a search engine might interpret “http://www.page.com” as a separate page from “https://www.page.com.” This is more common with homepages.

Such issues have the potential to negatively impact your SEO. Maybe a page isn’t ranking as high as it could be in SERPs because a search engine believes guests are visiting multiple different pages due to URL differences. Even if the content is the same across all pages, the search engine will not “realize” all these users are visiting the same page/content. Thus, it won’t adjust the page’s ranking accordingly.

Canonical tags prevent this. They allow you to select a single URL for a given page of duplicate content as the primary one for search engines to use. To assign a canonical tag to a specific URL, use this format:

< rel="canonical" href="http://sample.com/" />

You particularly want to focus on adding a canonical tag to your home page. If you decided https://www.page.com is your preferred domain then you would add the following canonical tag to the page http://www.page.com:

<link rel="canonical" href="https://www.page.com/" />

There are also instances when you may choose to add a canonical tag to a page that has very similar (but not completely duplicated) content to another page. An example of this would be multiple versions of a page that only differ slightly because different currencies are referenced on each page. Such examples are common in ecommerce. In these circumstances, you might decide to prioritize one version of the page. However, you should know that doing so can negatively impact the page-ranking eligibility of the other versions.

It’s also important to check the current canonical tags of all pages on your site. This lets you know which you need to add or remove. Moz offers a tool for this as well.

Responsive Design/Viewport Tag

It’s become increasingly essential over the years to consider what type of device a visitor may be using to view a page on your website. Remember, people are more likely to use their mobile devices rather than their desktop computers when browsing the Internet these days. That means viewports vary.

A viewport is simply the area of a page that’s visible on a user’s screen. Let’s look at how that impacts the user experience by visiting the Brooklyn pizza guide from the SERPs discussed earlier. Here’s how it looks on a MacBook Pro:

And this is how it looks on an iPhone:

The difference is obvious. It’s also necessary. If a smaller device were to display the article the same way it’s displayed on a larger screen, users would struggle to read it.

That doesn’t mean you need to create new versions of every single page on your site in order to meet the needs of your guests. You can simply add the following HTML code to each page:

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0">

This ensures the page automatically adjusts to the size of a viewer’s screen when they visit. Without this tag, users may be forced to scroll across their screens horizontally to read your content. This isn’t something most people are accustomed to. Most people are used to scrolling vertically. The responsive design/viewport meta tag allows them to do so on your pages.

Keywords Tag (A Word of Warning)

Not all meta tags are as valuable as they always were. Keyword meta tags are one example.

The keyword meta tag is a relic from the early days of the Internet. Back before search engines had more sophisticated algorithms, site owners could create meta keyword tags for the keywords they wanted to rank for in SERPs.

You might be able to predict why this wasn’t an ideal, long-term solution. Site owners packed their lists with keyword meta tags in an attempt to rank higher than the competition. Many times those keywords didn’t actually correspond to a page’s content.

That’s why Google no longer includes them as a ranking factor. While you still can use keyword meta tags, you’re wasting your time if you’re trying to improve your ranking in Google SERPs.

You might also be harming your SEO strategy on other search engines. For instance, Bing used to consider pages as spam if they included too many keyword tags that didn’t accurately reflect their content. While it remains unclear if this is still a Bing policy, it’s a risk you likely don’t want to take.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming this means keywords in general are redundant. They still play an important role in SEO. Keywords tags, on the other hand, can be ignored.

On Page Optimization Checklist

It’s probably clear to you now that several steps are involved in making sure you’ve optimized your meta tags and overall on page SEO. Luckily, the process doesn’t need to be as difficult or overwhelming as you might assume. You can simplify it by following this checklist:

1. Audit Title Tags & Meta Descriptions

Don’t simply draft strong titles tags and meta descriptions for any pages you publish moving forward. It’s also important to review all the titles and descriptions for your existing pages.

Obviously, if they don’t have these tags, you should add them. However, even if pages do have title tags and descriptions, they may not be as strong as possible. Consider ways to improve those that are lacking.

2. Check Pages on Mobile Devices

Checking all your pages on a variety of devices is essential. First, you want to be certain every single page on your site has the appropriate responsive design/viewport tag. Pages that require you to scroll through them horizontally are probably lacking such tags.

(You should also manually confirm these tags are included in the HTML code of all your pages.)

Checking your pages across a range of devices also tells you whether you need to use headers and other formatting elements to make your content more scannable. There may be instances when you should make adjustments to formatting in order to keep up with changing user behaviors.

On that topic…

3. Audit Headers

Check your pages to determine if there are any ways you can improve your existing headers. This isn’t simply about adding them where necessary. Remember, the right headers can improve the way your page link appears in Google rich snippets. Consider this when auditing your current headers.

4. Check Alt Text

Make sure all images on your pages have alt text tags. Additionally, make sure all those tags (both the ones you add and the ones that already exist) strike the balance between descriptiveness and concision. You might even want to hear what your pages sound like with screen readers to get a better sense of how your alt text impacts the user experience.

5. Check Canonical Tags

Use the Moz tool mentioned earlier to check which of your pages have canonical tags. Add them where necessary, and consider adding them to pages of content that are very similar, even if they’re not an exact match.

Of course, you also need to monitor your performance. There’s always room to improve an SEO strategy because SEO best practices are always changing. By keeping these points in mind and vigilantly monitoring your strategy’s performance, you’re much more likely to rank high in SERPs.

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