What the hell is a META tag?

Let’s back it up a little and discuss metadata first.

I’ve never been a big fan of people using a word to describe that same word’s function, but to put it most simply (as much as it pains me), metadata is data about data. The team at W3 describe it perfectly in saying that ‘Metadata is machine understandable information about web resources or other things’.

We say that metadata is ‘machine understandable’ because it is machine parsable – the data we provide in a META tag isn’t visible on the web page itself – it works in the background to assist search engines in indexing a website’s content by using meta elements. These elements might be page descriptions, keywords, document authors and modifications, but there are a tonne of alternative elements that can be used depending on the requirements.

So if we know that META tags are used by search engines to index content, we can safely say that the success of a site is heavily reliant on meta tags to drive traffic and generate user interest – take the LegRoom site as an example. If you Google ‘LegRoom Geelong’, you’ll find:

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With the corresponding META description (behind the scenes):

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As you can see, the description is relevant to our business and is relevant to the search input. It entices the user to view the page by providing a short description of our business and the services we offer.

If we were to leave the META description blank, the search engine would then formulate a description for the site based on arbitrary text picked up from the page. This might be something as simple as button text, like ‘click to go home’, which as you can imagine, wouldn’t be very effective (or professional).

While META tags are practical (and valuable) in explaining a website’s content to search engines, it is often confused with being responsible for increasing search engine rankings (that’s something called SEO, which we’ll discuss at another time). A really simplified way of looking at it is to remember:

  • A META tag tells search engines that your website exists.
  • SEO tells your website where it should stand.