Ready to learn what meta tags Google actually understands? Here we go…
If you’re even remotely interested in ranking a web page or site, then you likely already know about the importance of meta tags. Those are tags that appear in the <head> section of the HTML document that contain information about the content of the page. They’re called “meta” because they’re metadata, or data about data.
However, there are numerous flavors of meta tags. One tag is used to provide an overall description of the contents on the page. Another one reveals the character set. Still another provides information to the search engine bots that crawl websites.
Meta tags are typically defined using the “name” and “content” attributes, for example:
<meta name=”description” content=”This is a synopsis of what you’ll find on the page.”/>
These days, even search engine optimization (SEO) novices are aware that some meta tags don’t accomplish anything. For example, the “keywords” meta tag is obsolete. In ages past, SEO professionals would use that tag to provide keywords relevant to the page. Now, the search engines employ an algorithm used to extract relevant keywords based on the actual content on the page.
There are still plenty of meta tags that search engines recognize, though. Here’s a list of the meta tags that will help you in your SEO and content optimization efforts. These are the meta tags Google actually honors, taken directly from their list.
The “description” meta tag lives up to its name. It provides a summary, that can sometimes be as long as a paragraph, about what’s on the page.
If the “description” meta tag is on the front page of a website, it’s usually a description of the entire website. However, if it’s on a particular page within the website, then it’s usually a synopsis of the content. It’s very common for the “description” meta tag to basically repeat the lede in a news article.
The contents of the “description” meta tag will often be found in the search results as well. Usually, the title of the article will be in bold in the search results, with the description appearing just below.
Here’s an example of a meta “description” tag:
<meta name=”description” content=”Apple unveiled its latest suite of technological innovations in California today.”/>
It’s a great idea to include keywords that you’re using for SEO purposes in both the title and the description. Just be sure that the keyword placement looks natural and not forced, otherwise you could end up hindering your SEO efforts.
Google also offers the following helpful suggestions about “description” meta tags:
- Use the “description” meta tag on every page. The tag represents a bird’s eye view of the contents of the page. It’s an excellent way to give both Google and potential readers an overview of what they can expect to read on the site.
- Differentiate the descriptions on each page. Some sites, to this day, will have the same description content for every page. That doesn’t help Google or your target market understand what’s on a specific page. Make sure that each “description” meta tag is unique across your site.
- Programmatically generate descriptions. If you’re importing data for an e-commerce site, be sure to set the “description” meta tag for each product so that search engines can properly parse the specifics of the products being offered.
- Use quality descriptions. Put some effort into your descriptions. You can make them as captivating as you make your titles for an additional hook that will bring more visitors to your site.
If you want to learn how to improve your CTR with meta descriptions, I recommend you read this post.
The “robots” meta tag sounds like something you would expect to see in a sci-fi environment. However, it’s quite real.
The word “robots” is used here because it refers to the automated crawling that search engines use when they’re looking for new web pages all over cyberspace. Companies like Google employ bots that effectively browse around the web looking for content.
The “robots” meta tag tells those bots how to behave when they get to your site.
For starters, you aren’t required to use the “robots” meta tag. It’s an option that, if you ignore, results in the default behavior.
What’s the default behavior? It means that the search engine bots will crawl your site by visiting every page they can find. In most cases, that’s what you want.
However, for some reason there might be certain pages on your site that you don’t want the search engines to visit, then you’ll use the “robots” meta tag to tell the search engine bots to hit the road.
There are, however, a variety of other commands you can give to the search engine bots with the “robots” meta tag. The tags that Google understands are:
- “noindex” – prevents the page from being indexed by the search engines
- “nofollow” – tells the search engine bots to not follow links on the page
- “nosnippet” – prevents the snippet (usually, the contents of the “description” meta tag) from being shown in the search results
- “noodp” – prevents the alternative description from ODP/DMOZ from being used
- “noarchive” – keeps Google from showing a cached version of the page
- “unavailable_after” – specifies a time and date after which the search engines will no longer crawl the page
- “noimageindex” – prevents the page from appearing as a referring page for images that appear in Google image search results
- “none” – the same as “noindex” and “nofollow” combined
It should be noted that multiple options can be used if they’re separated by a comma. For example:
<meta name=”robots” content=”noindex,nofollow”/>
Also, you can specify a search engine with the “name” attribute. For example, if you want to prohibit the Google bot from indexing pages, you would use a meta tag as follows:
<meta name=”googlebot” content=”noindex”/>
It should be noted here, though, that there is no governing body anywhere that mandates what search engines can and cannot do with your website. The day may come when all search engines will happily ignore the “robots” meta tag.
The “nositelinkssearchbox” meta tag is one that you’ll not likely need or want, but it’s a tag that Google recognizes.
Here’s how it works. In some cases, Google presents another search bar within the search results. For example, if Pinterest is a search result, you might see a search bar below the Pinterest result that allows you to search for recipes, fashion, etc. within Pinterest only.
The “nositelinkssearchbox” tag tells Google not to display that additional search bar. That’s it.
In this case, no “content” attribute is required. You just have to specify the “name” attribute as follows:
The purpose of the “google” meta tag might surprise you. It’s used to prevent Google from translating pages into another language.
Google is smart enough to detect that a page in the search results might not be in the same language as the user would prefer. In those cases, the search engine giant provides a link to display the page in the user’s native language.
For whatever reason, some webmasters might want to prohibit Google from translating their content into a foreign language. In that case, they would set the “google” meta tag as follows:
<meta name=”google” content=”notranslate”/>
The “google-site-verification” meta tag is used to verify site ownership.
When you’re adding a new site in the Google Search Console, you’ll need to offer some kind of “proof” that you actually own the site. Google doesn’t want you viewing the traffic patterns of sites you don’t own, after all.
There are several ways that you can verify site ownership. One of those ways is with the use of the “google-site-verification” meta tag. Google will provide you with a code to put in the “content” attribute of the tag so that it can verify that you do, in fact, have rights to the site. Once you’ve added the tag with the code, the Google Search Console will reread the page, examining the meta tag. If the code checks out, then the new site will be added to your list of sites in the console.
There’s something noticeably different about the “Content-Type” meta tag. It doesn’t use the “name” attribute.
Instead, the tag uses the “http-equiv” attribute. So, the meta tag would look like this:
The purpose of the “Content-Type” meta tag is to define the document type and character set used on the page. For this tag, you’ll still use the “content” attribute.
The “content” attribute defines the document type, which is usually “text/html”. If, for whatever reason, you’re serving up an XML document, then it will probably by “text/xml”.
As with the “robots” meta tag, the “Content-Type” content tag can accept multiple options. However, the options are separated by a semicolon instead of a comma.
It’s typically the case that people not only specify the document type with the “Content-Type” meta tag, but also the character set that’s used. Character sets often vary from language to language and sometimes even within a language. It’s important that your page properly identifies the character set that’s being used so that the page can be displayed properly by the browser.
To identify the character set, the “charset” attribute is used. As noted above, though, it’s usually used in conjunction with the “content” attribute. A typical “Content-Type” meta tag looks something like this:
<meta http-equiv=”Content-Type” content=”text/html; charset=UTF-8”/>
In that case, you’re using the UTF-8 character set to render an HTML page.
The complete list of character set options is available from IANA.
Wrapping It Up
Although there are some other tags that you might read about, either Google or W3C (or both) has declared them obsolete and/or recommend that you don’t use them. However, the tags described here, as of this writing, are still recognized by Google and you can use them for SEO purposes.