The term “meta tags” can sound a little intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be, I promise! In this article, I’m going to explain in simple terms what a “meta tag” is, and talk about the two meta tags you should be paying attention to when you write your posts and pages. For WordPress users, I’ll also give you a simple way to insert those tags in your content using a WordPress plugin, so that you never have to get your hands dirty with HTML code!
What is a meta tag?
“Meta tags” are bits of information that you can add to the HTML of your web page. They are “hidden” from visitors to your page, so they don’t show up in content that gets displayed. However, behind the scenes, they give information to the search engines about your page.
In my last blog post, I gave an introduction to keywords, and how to use them in your posts and pages to help you get found in the search engines. I mentioned that Google doesn’t actually pay attention to the “meta keywords” tag, so you don’t need to worry about it! However, there are two tags that Google does use that you should definitely be aware of. These are the title tag and the meta description tag.
When your web page does come up in Google (or any of the other search engines’) search results, it is displayed with a title and a description. Here’s an example from an old blog post of mine:
The Title Tag
By default, Google will use the title that you have set in your post or page as the title that appears in the search results. Sometimes, it will append the title of your website (as you can see in the example above with the “ – Julie,” which is a truncated version of my site title). It’s possible that the post or page title is the same as what you’d want to display in the search results, however, you may wish to do some fine tuning.
A good title is descriptive, concise, and unique within your site (meaning you don’t reuse it on multiple pages). You may want to add your focus keyword for the page (the word you want your page to be found for) in the title, but don’t overdo it. Just use one variation of the keyword. You don’t want Google to think you are doing what’s called “keyword stuffing.” Finally, it’s a good idea to append your website title (no tagline) after your page or post title, to add some context. Use a separator, e.g., “Health Benefits of Onions | Julie Waterhouse.”
Keep in mind that there are no guarantees. Google may still adapt your title for display in the search results, depending on the query that the searcher makes, but they are less likely to do so if you follow the guidelines above.
The Meta Description Tag
The meta description tag is the one that is the most important for you to control. By default, Google will use the first few words on your page or post as the description that appears in the search results. This is often not what you want; it may well be that the first few words on the page are not the right words to get a click through from the search results. That’s why you need to add a “meta description” to your page so that Google will use that text instead.
When people enter a search term related to your business, and your page actually comes up at the top of the Google search results, that’s a big win! However, the next challenge is to get people to actually choose your link, and click through to your website. The description that Google shows for your page is critical to getting that click. It must be well-written, clear, and enticing. You have only those brief sentences to convince the searcher that your page is the one that will give them the answer they’re looking for!
Think about what kinds of descriptions you like to see to make you click through. A good meta description is a concise, human-readable summary, that is unique for each page (in other words, don’t use the same meta description on multiple pages). You can also include some structured data to give more information about your page that doesn’t actually appear in the body copy. The example that the Google documentation provides is the following meta description: “Author: A.N. Author, Illustrator: P. Picture, Category: Books, Price: $17.99, Length: 784 pages”
If you want more details about the title and meta description tags in Google’s own words, check out their documentation. It’s actually quite easy to follow:
Under the Covers
For your interest, here’s what the title and meta description actually look like in code, for one of my old posts. You can see this by doing “View Source” on your page in the browser:
<title>Make it EASY for Your Visitors to Tweet About You</title>
<meta name=”description” content=”Learn how to use clicktotweet.com to help your visitors tweet about you with just two clicks using a custom tweet that you write for them.”/>
But I Don’t Want to Write Code!
You don’t have to! 🙂 There’s a great free plugin out there that can help you ad your titles and meta descriptions without ever touching any code. It’s the same plugin that I mentioned in my post on keywords. It’s called WordPress SEO by Yoast. Among (many!) other things, this plugin adds fields on your WordPress page editor that give you a place to enter your title and meta description. Here’s what it looks like for that old post of mine: