Meta-Tag Optimization Tips: A Search Usability Perspective

Shari Thurow on
  • Categories: All Things SEO Column, Channel: SEO, SEO: General, SEO: Titles & Descriptions

  • I know. I know. Seasoned search engine optimization (SEO) professionals might yawn and roll their eyes when the subject of meta-tag optimization comes up, as they might think, "Meta-tag optimization is SO 1990s."

    Personally, I think meta-tag content gets a bad rap because, in the past, many SEO professionals and website owners exploited meta-tags to achieve undeserved search engine visibility. As a result, the tags’ content was devalued in favor of other criteria. Overall, though, if you look at the big picture, meta-tag abuse contributed to the evolution of better, more accurate ways for determining the "aboutness" of web documents.

    As an SEO professional, I optimize meta-tag content because there are multiple reasons to use meta-tags on web pages and other files, apart from ranking purposes.

    Meta-tag content and relevancy

    Some commercial web search engines use meta-tag content to determine page relevancy. Some do not. Most of the time on a text-based document, meta-tag descriptions and keywords are not used to determine whether or not a page ranks. Search engines have long evolved to use other on-the-page and off-the-page criteria, as many SEO professionals know.

    Due to the emergence and ubiquity of blended search results, many SEO professionals need to re-think their meta-tag optimization viewpoints. What file types are appearing in search engine results pages (SERPs) for targeted keyword phrases? Optimization strategies for text files differ slightly from optimization from non-text files.

    Meta-tag keywords and descriptions become more important when the search engines are not able to determine (or have a difficult time determining) the "aboutness" of a file, such as a video file. In this situation, a keyword-focused meta-tag description can make or break search engine visibility.

    If I am able to help implement SEO best practices at a company, I try to make metadata optimization for all file types part of a normal process. Once copywriters, graphic designers, video and audio producers, and web developers make it a habit to produce high-quality metadata content, it does not seem like a daunting task.

    Going back and re-optimizing (or initially optimizing) 2,500 video files can seem like a daunting task. But people have to start somewhere, and one properly optimized video file is better than no optimized video files. I might have ten people optimize ten video files per day, minimum. I always begin with the video files that have the greatest impact on achieving business goals. All too often, management needs to see some relatively fast results before committing staff time to full implementation.

    If everything goes as planned, within a few weeks, the optimization for those files is complete, and now the optimization procedure has become a habit at the company. If I am working with a company that has a great web analytics package, I always measure the ROI of video optimization.

    Meta-tag descriptions and search behavior

    Since some major search engines use meta-tag descriptions when displaying a page’s (or file’s) listing, it is important to write meta-tag descriptions that accomplish the following:

    • Encourage searchers to click on the link to your web page
    • Reinforce content that is already available (and visible to users) on the page
    • Help to obtain top search engine positioning in the search results that use meta-tags to determine relevance

    How listings are displayed in search results is very, very important. I often feel as if search engine advertisers have a better grasp of display effectiveness than SEO professionals. Snippet length and term highlighting greatly affect a listing’s clickability.

    For example, for navigational searches where users wish to go to a site’s home page or a specific page on your site, smaller snippets are often more effective. On informational searches where searchers desire information irrespective of where the information might be found, longer snippets are more effective (What are you looking for? An eye-tracking study of information usage on web SearchPDF version).

    With navigational queries, the destination is important, and the URL provides a clear indicator of the final destination. Some Google research showed that 17% of mobile queries were navigational (A Large Scale Study of Wireless Search Behavior: Google Mobile SearchPDF version). With informational queries, however, the URL becomes less important to searchers because the desired information is the main target, not necessarily the URL.

    Which pages on your site are better pages to display in response to navigational queries? Which pages on your site are better pages to display in response to informational or transactional queries? Understanding your target audience’s intent with various keyword phrases will help you create better pages and more effective listings, leading to a more positive user experience.

    Often, search engines do not take listing descriptions from the meta-tag description. They might take the listing description from other on-the-page content, or use a combination of the two. For this reason, I prefer to have meta-tag content reinforce the most important keyword phrases on the web page. However, if I know that the main searcher goals are navigational, for example, I will try and keep the meta-tag description short to help searchers achieve their goals more easily.

    Meta tags and site search engines

    The meta-tag keyword attribute often gets a bad rap because many of the commercial web search engines do not use this content to determine relevancy. Nonetheless, the commercial web search engines are not the only search engines in existence. Many sites utilize their own site search engine. The content in the keywords meta-tag can make site search engine results more accurate, which is exactly what users want.


    Many website owners still cling to the mistaken belief that meta-tag content alone can make or break a ranking in the web search results. Heck, my co-author had to persistently correct a university lecturer about this common misconception only a few weeks ago, which he found rather frustrating. I understand his frustration about the narrow view of meta-tag usage, especially since optimization strategies have evolved.

    Nevertheless, metadata certainly has an effect on long-term search engine visibility and ROI. I always try to optimize meta-tag content based on usability testing and observing search behaviors during those tests. Web analytics data also provides helpful information. Your best bet? Do not ignore meta-tag optimization, but rather try and understand its role in the big picture.

    Shari Thurow is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the book Search Engine Visibility. The 100% Organic column appears Thursdays at Search Engine Land.

    About The Author

    Shari Thurow
    Shari Thurow is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the books Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and the ASLIB Journal of Information Management. She also served on the board of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).