A relatively basic yet important part of SEO is the meta tags included on the page that tell the search engines important information about the page’s topic.
You can think of HTML meta tags on a web page like the computer in your car that is telling the car what to do.
The meta tags on your page tell the search engines a lot of information about the page and what to do. Various others tell the browser what to render and show on the page, but don’t really affect SEO.
This article will be covering the most common HTML meta tags for SEO so that you can make sure you optimize them correctly in order to rank as well as possible.
Also remember that having your meta tags properly optimized is very basic SEO. While it is undeniably important, there is a lot more that goes into SEO – such as crawling, more pages targeting keywords, link acquisition, content, and much more.
The meta tags we cover in this post are:
- <title> tag
- Meta description
- Rel next/prev
- OG tags
- Site verification
Let’s get to it right after a quick introduction.
What are meta tags?
Meta tags are pieces of code in the <head> section of your webpage. You probably know (and should know) that websites are split into two parts:
- The <head>
- The <body>
The simple explanation of the difference between the two is that the <head> contains a bunch of code that tells the browser what to do and what to load. This is also accessed by search engine crawlers, which is what we care about for SEO with the head section. This is the code we will be talking about in this article
The <body> contains the code that then displays to the person loading the page in their browser. This code absolutely matters for SEO, but we will not be covering it in this article. We wrote about it in our on-page SEO guide.
The <title> tag is arguably the most important meta tag for SEO because it is the tag that shows up in Google’s search results when your page ranks for a search query typed in by a searcher:
Title tags should have your main keywords included in the text, optimally near the front of the title tag. While this was a stronger signal in the past, it is still a very strong signal to search engines what your page is about.
This is the code:
<title>Top 20 SEO Agencies – Credo</title>
The optimal title tag length is ~60 characters as of June 2020, and pixel width is ~600. The vast majority of your title tags should show completely at this length, though with different screen sizes and search engines constantly testing this may change.
SEO impact: high
The meta description contains the text that you want to display in the search results below your title tag:
Meta descriptions are useful because they are copy that is meant to tell the searcher what the page is about and thus to entice their click away from other ranking sites. Usually, the search engines will also bold the text in your meta description that matches the searcher’s query (but not always).
The code looks thus:
<meta name=”description” content=”Looking to hire an SEO, PPC, or digital marketing firm/consultant? We’ve created a network of vetted providers and will help you hire the right one!”>
The optimal meta description length as of June 2020 is 160 characters. Note that Google has tested this a lot over the years and continues to do so, including increasing the length to 320 characters in 2018 or so. In order to be safe and not have to update your descriptions when the goalposts move, we recommend keeping them to under 160 characters.
It is important to also note that meta descriptions are not used for ranking, as they were heavily spammed in the past to game the search results.
SEO impact: minimal
The next meta tag we need to talk about is the canonical tag.
The canonical tag tells the search engines the original source of the information as well as which URL to index. This is mostly important when a website has not properly implemented 301 redirects to control for issues such as http/https, www and non-www, and trailing vs non-trailing slashes on URLs.
Here is Credo’s homepage canonical:
<link rel=”canonical” href=”https://www.getcredo.com/”>
This tells the search engines that even if someone links to https://www.getcredo.com, they should apply those links to the trailing slash version of the URL and rank that URL in their results.
The canonical is a hint, not a strong directive, so the search engines reserve the right to ignore it if they think it was done in error. A canonical is not a replacement for a proper redirect to cure duplicate content, but it can be a band-aid for a bit.
Canonicals can also be used cross-domain, meaning if a site (such as a publication like Medium) reposts a piece of content that was originally published elsewhere a canonical tag can be applied to send the search engines to that original source. Sites will not always do this, but it is best practice.
SEO impact: medium
Rel next and previous are tags in the <head> that from 2011-2019 told the search engines if the page is part of a set of pagination. This was sunsetted in 2019 when Google admitted (after investigation, apparently) that it hadn’t done anything in “quite some time”.
OG stands for “Open Graph”, and these are meta tags that are used for the various social media platforms to tell them to pull in the correct image/description of the page.
They look like this:
<meta property=”og:locale” content=”en_US”>
<meta property=”og:type” content=”website”>
<meta property=”og:title” content=”Credo – Hire the best pre-vetted SEO, PPC, and digital marketing firms”>
<meta property=”og:description” content=”Looking to hire an SEO, PPC, or digital marketing firm/consultant? We’ve created a network of vetted providers and will help you hire the right one!”>
<meta property=”og:url” content=”https://www.getcredo.com/”>
<meta property=”og:site_name” content=”Credo”>
<meta property=”og:image” content=”https://www.getcredo.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/credo-mark-trans.png”>
<meta property=”og:image:secure_url” content=”https://www.getcredo.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/credo-mark-trans.png”>
<meta property=”og:image:width” content=”400″>
<meta property=”og:image:height” content=”400″>
<meta name=”twitter:card” content=”summary”>
<meta name=”twitter:description” content=”Looking to hire an SEO, PPC, or digital marketing firm/consultant? We’ve created a network of vetted providers and will help you hire the right one!”>
<meta name=”twitter:title” content=”Credo – Hire the best pre-vetted SEO, PPC, and digital marketing firms”>
<meta name=”twitter:site” content=”@getcredo”>
<meta name=”twitter:image” content=”https://www.getcredo.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/credo-mark-trans.png”>
<meta name=”twitter:creator” content=”@getcredo”>
OG tags don’t technically help with SEO (ranking in search engines), but they are part of overall website optimization and good practice to have on your site.
Meta robots is a very common tag on webpages that controls if that page is indexed by the search engines and thus able to rank for its targeted terms.
A meta robots tag looks thus:
<meta name=”robots” content=”index, follow, max-snippet:-1, max-image-preview:large, max-video-preview:-1″>
You can see Google’s full rundown on the meta robots tag here, but the most common values are:
- index/noindex – tells the search engines whether the page should be indexed or not (does not control crawling though)
- follow/nofollow – whether the links on the page should be followed or nofollowed (aka passing lin equity to their target)
- max-snippet – to control how much of the snippet provided the search engines can/should show in the index to optimize for clicks. -1 lets search engines decide.
- max-image-preview – same as above, but for images. -1 lets search engines decide.
- max-video-preview – same as above, but for videos and how long a snippet should be when shown in the search engines. -1 lets search engines decide.
Meta keywords is an old meta tag that the search engines used to use to determine what the page was about. This tag was spammed a lot by SEOs back in the late 90s and 2000s, and has not been used for at least a decade for ranking.
You may still come across it from time to time, but do not spend time implementing it.
Going beyond meta tags for SEO
As I said at the top of this article, meta tags are basic SEO and nowhere near the full picture. Here’s a way to visualize SEO:
So how do you go beyond meta tags for SEO and actually build a holistic SEO program?
Here are a few ways and where to start.
Establish SEO strategy
First things first, know what the landscape of your niche looks like from an SEO perspective.
Build your site on a platform that takes SEO into account, or optimize your current site to be more SEO friendly.
Do keyword research to find the keywords in your niche and develop a plan for the pages on your site that should rank.
If needed, get a technical SEO audit done to identify the top issues and prioritization for fixing them.
Optimize your page templates using our guide.
Now go create the pages you need to rank for the keywords you’ve identified.
First create your transactional pages targeting the keywords your ideal customer will be searching to find your service.
Then create content around those topics to rank for questions and other needs higher in the conversion funnel.
This is called content marketing.
Get others to talk about you
Then finally, get others to talk about you. Most SEO professionals refer to this as “link building”, but really what you are trying to do is get exposure where your ideal customers are already hanging out online and get links back to your site that they can click on to visit your site.
Links from other sites are strong ranking factors, and you need links to rank for anything mildly competitive.