Metadata, or meta tags, refer to the html code giving information about your website to machines, like browsers or search engines. Metadata isn’t usually visible to people looking at your website. (There’s one important exception, discussed below.) It’s machines talking to machines.
Back in the mists of time, like 2005, you could have a website with a big picture on the home page and use meta data to tell search engines what your page was about. You’d list the keywords you thought you should rank for and put those same keywords into the alt text for your photos, and Alta Vista might just trust you and use that list. Black hat SEOs misused this method of communicating with search engines, so modern search engines just quit paying attention to those messages. Google ignores the meta tags that used to be valuable for SEO.
Nowadays, meta tags are mostly used by web designers to provide useful information about how your website should look, or specific instructions and information about things like the language or characters being used.
What meta tags exist?
There are lots and lots of meta tags. Most of them are for building a website. Here are some examples of metadata that might be in a website:
- the language of your website
- a special piece of code to verify your ownership of the website for Google Search Console or Analytics
- instructions on how to render your website on different devices
- warnings for people using obsolete browsers
- instructions not to translate content automatically
- a request not to index specific pages
- Open Graph information for social media
- Apple and Microsoft messages for devices and apps
These meta tags are for building a website, not for writing posts and pages. Using them correctly helps SEO, but that’s because they’re part of building your website correctly in the first place.
What meta tags are used for SEO?
First, your title is important. Your page title isn’t actually a meta tag, but it shows up on the SERPS — the search engine results pages. Here’s a real title, with domain redacted to protect the guilty:
This is not an informative title.
Next, your description, an actual meta tag, is important because it is likely to show up on the SERPS. This is the exception mentioned above.
The screenshot below shows the kinds of meta descriptions you’re likely to find with pages using meaningless titles.
Are you tempted to click through and visit? Probably not.
By comparison, here are the title and meta description of the blog you’re reading:
SEO Blog | Haden Interactive
Haden Interactive’s blog offers SEO and web design information, news, and advice in plain English — sometimes even in fancy English.
This tells you where you’re going and what you’ll find there.
Alt text for pictures
Finally, you should know about alt text for your pictures. Since search engines are not as good at understanding pictures as humans are, you should give them some text to explain the pictures in your website. This text is called “alternative text” — or alt text. People with limited vision using assistive devices to explore a website can hear the description of the picture, too.
A form in your WordPress editor allows you to put alt text — words explaining your picture — into the code automatically when you add a picture. In the example above, the image shows the Alt Text field in the WordPress form, so “alt text” describes it well. If it were a picture of a puppy, you could call it “puppy.” Read more about choosing the right alt text for your images.
Is that all the useful metadata?
Pretty much. In the past, there was a keywords meta tag which allowed you to specify the keywords you wanted to emphasize. There still is an author tag which can be helpful for students who want to cite your articles correctly. As far as SEO goes, though, meta tags have typically been misused to the point where search engines ignore them.
If you use the Yoast SEO plugin, you can handle your meta descriptions through the plugin. Yoast can also help you perfect your titles. Add your alt text when you add your images, as shown above. That covers it.