The Mythical META Tag

2009-02-07 - It seems as though the topic of SEO Myths comes up for discussion every now and then.

There is a topic at WebmasterWorld titled: SEO: The Current Myths of Search Engine Optimization (Subscription Required) that discusses some of the various myths that continue to perpetuate within the Internet marketing communities.

Two of those myths revolve around the use of the META Description Tag and the META Keywords Tag.

<meta name="description" content="" />
<meta name="keywords" content="" />

Table of Contents

  1. Myths about META Description and META Keywords Tags
  2. The Myth Continues and Yahoo! is the Perpetrator!
  3. Google and Whitespace
  4. Google Content Analysis
  5. META Tags Abuse
  6. Top 10 META Tags in 2005
  7. META Tag Myths Confirmed
  8. More Information about META Tags

Myths about META Description and META Keywords Tags

One of the statements you'll see being made today by Internet marketers is that the META Keywords Tag is useless, deprecated or, get this, deader than AltaVista.

GoogleYou'll also see comments from search engines like Google to the effect of...

While accurate meta descriptions can improve click-through, they won't impact your ranking within search results.

Yahoo! HelpAnd then you have other search engines like Yahoo! who make statements such as these in their 2009 Small Business Promotion documentation.

How do I improve the ranking of my web site in the search results?

How should I write my keywords?

Why can't I enter more than 256 characters for my keywords or description?

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The Myth Continues and Yahoo! is the Perpetrator!

META Tag GenieFirst we have Google, the top search engine as of 2008 December (72.07%), stating that the META Description Tag won't impact your ranking in the search results.

And then we have Yahoo!, the second largest search engine (17.79%) stating that both the META Description Tag and META Keywords Tags will help in your rankings.

AskWindows LiveNeither Windows Live Search, the third largest search engine (4.10%) or Ask, the fourth largest search engine (3.15%) make any specific references in their Webmaster Guidelines to the use of META Tags. They do make general references to following the authoring guidelines and protocols for the elements and attributes that you may be using in the markup of your documents.

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Google and Whitespace

Google's Webmaster Guidelines are not going to tell you which elements are ranking factors with the exception of the TITLE element which is a given, it is the most important part of the document. But, when it comes to any other HTML Elements and/or Attributes, you won't find many things in writing that give you a definitive yes or no answer to those questions about META Tag Myths. Google leaves enough whitespace between the lines for interpretation or misinterpretation. You will find these references concerning the META Description Tag in Google's Webmaster Guidelines.

Google's creation of sites' titles and descriptions (or "snippets") is completely automated and takes into account both the content of a page as well as references to it that appear on the web.

We use a number of different sources for this information, including descriptive information in the META tag for each page. Where this information isn't available, we may use publicly available information from DMOZ. While accurate meta descriptions can improve clickthrough, they won't impact your ranking within search results. We frequently prefer to display meta descriptions of pages (when available) because it gives users a clear idea of the URL's content.

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Google Content Analysis

Within the Google Webmaster Tools interface is a section titled Diagnostics with a sub-section titled Content Analysis. The META Description Tag is given quite a bit of fanfare here. There are three distinct areas that Google reports on and those are; duplicate meta descriptions, long meta descriptions and, short meta descriptions.

Meta description problems: Potential problems with duplicate or otherwise problematic meta descriptions.

My question to you, the reader, the professional SEO, is this; If Google doesn't utilize the META Description Tag (as one of their 200+ quality signals) in determining the relevancy of the document it describes, why are they so focused on this particular element within their documentation and Webmaster Tools? Why are they providing the Webmaster with information about the META Description Tag that is helpful in determining the quality of their documents? And why is there an area specifically devoted to problematic meta descriptions within Google Webmaster Tools?

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META Tags Abuse

I've heard, and have read the ongoing arguments that META Tags have been abused over the years that they have little, to no importance when determining the ranking of a document. In general, I tend to concur with the "they have little" portion of the statement. It was only a natural progression that these elements lost their high relevance signals as other elements and attributes were included in the algorithms.

There was a time (pre 2K) when the TITLE, Description and Keywords were the top three primary factors in search engine ranking. If you were to assign points based on a 100 point scale, the TITLE would have been 10 points, Description 5 points, and Keywords 3 points. It was a very simple algorithm then, one that didn't require a high level of mathematical and analytical skills.

Today, based on Google's claim of looking at 200+ factors in determining the quality of a document, I would give the TITLE 3.00 points, Description 1.00 point, Keywords 0.25 (¼ point). I feel there are quite a few of those ¼ point elements that can be utilized "properly" throughout a document's structure to improve its relevance and that includes those items that may appear in the <head></head>.

There are only so many things you can do to optimize a document for the search engines. How many of those are you aware of? And, how many of those do you think are the ¼ pointers that could nudge something a spot or two, maybe more?

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Top 10 META Tags in 2005

From Google Code Web Authoring Stats: In December 2005 we did an analysis of a sample of slightly over a billion documents, extracting information about popular class names, elements, attributes, and related metadata.

Here are those Top Ten META Tags in order of frequency showing the META Keywords Tag being № 1 and the META Description Tag being № 2. I'd like to think that if there are that many web pages utilizing these two metadata elements, that the search engines are going to include those in calculating the overall relevancy of a document. Sure, they may not have the relevancy points they once did but, I believe there are still some points (¼, ½, ¾) there to be had.

Top META Tags Chart
  1. keywords
  2. description
  3. robots
  4. generator
  5. author
  6. revisit-after
  7. copyright
  8. progid
  9. distribution
  10. language
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META Tag Myths Confirmed

  1. META Revisit-After Tag (searchBC)
  2. META Abstract Tag (IBM)
  3. META Subject Tag (MS Word)
  4. META Classification Tag (Netscape)
  5. META Contact Tag (IBM)
  6. META Distribution Tag (No Official Resource)
  7. META Title Tag (Obsolete)
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More Information about META Tags

  1. Google Webmasters/Site Owners Help - Webmaster Guidelines
  2. 2009 October - Information Removed from Yahoo!
    • What are META Tags?
    • How should I write my Keywords?
    • Why can't I enter more than 256 characters for my keywords or description?

Tags: META Tag Myths, META Description Tag, META Keywords Tag, META Tags

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