Meta Data: What is it good for?
Everett Sizemore is a friend, former colleague and my “go to” guy for all things SEO. He’s taught me alot over the years and I always enjoy picking his brain about search engine optimization questions. He agreed to sit down with me to discuss a topic that comes up with every single site we do: meta information.
CHRIS: Everett, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions.
EVERETT: No problem Chris. Like you, I’m always game for an opportunity to clear up some myths surrounding SEO.
CHRIS: Optimizing a site for search engines is one of the things I focus on with clients both early on and after launch, and I’ve found that more and more people are aware of the importance. What I also find is that there is a sort of Y2K mentality with many people when it comes to meta data. I know in the old days sites used meta keywords to “stuff the ballot box” if you will, but we know now that Google has downplayed the value of those, true?
EVERETT: Yes, it is true that the relative value of some meta tags has gone down in recent years. What strikes me as odd is how many people still think SEO is all about meta tags. Maybe 1/20th of my time is spent dealing with them (if that), yet people seem to think that’s what SEO is all about.
CHRIS: So what role, if any, does meta data play in search engine results these days?
EVERETT: That all depends on what type of meta data you’re talking about. Videos have meta data associated with them and even the keyword tags seem to still play a significant result in their rankings.
CHRIS: Ok, but what about the HTML header meta data that is in our source code? Waste of time?
EVERETT: It is true that keywords in your keyword meta tag play little, if any, role in the ranking of your web page on most search engines. Several tests out there indicate that Google doesn’t even index the keyword meta tag anymore and as recently as this October Yahoo said publicly that they don’t either. But then the very next week Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land proved that Yahoo still does index and use the keyword meta tag, prompting them to change their story. Now they say meta keywords are “the lowest ranking signal in [their] system.”
CHRIS: So should we or should we not worry about meta keywords? The reason I ask is because that seems to be one of the few SEO tactics that everyone has heard of and depending on the amount of pages in a site—could take substantial time that could be spent elsewhere.
EVERETT: Personally, I still use them. Whether they play no role at all, or are just “the lowest signal” in a ranking algorithm, keyword meta tags are there as a reminder to future web designers, SEOs and copywriters. They tell them at a glance what the page is supposed to be optimized for without having to do any textual analysis on things like keyword density of frequency. They also keep me focused when optimizing a web page and tell me what text I want to get inside links to those pages when I move on to linkbuilding later in the project.
CHRIS: Interesting, that’s definitely a great insight into how you work. OK so let’s assume that the keywords inside the keyword meta tag don’t do much good, if any. What about the keywords inside the meta description or the title tag?
EVERETT: Yes, the keywords located inside both of those absolutely factor into the ranking of a web page, the Title Tag more so than the meta description.
CHRIS: On scale of 1-10 for each with 10 being extremely important?
EVERETT: For the title tag, I’d give it a 10. Keywords within the title tag are probably the single most important ranking factor, although the text within external links to the page and the content of the page itself are certainly close runners up. I’d give it about a 3-5 for the meta description though. It is always important to use the keywords you’re optimizing a page for in both the title tag and the meta description not just because it helps with search rankings, but because that is usually the first impression a searcher is going to have of your page. These are the two things they’ll see in a search result as they make the decision on whether or not to click on that result. The URL used to be another first impression, but at least on Google they are quickly being replaced by breadcrumbs.
CHRIS: How come the meta description we use on the page isn’t always the thing Google shows in the search results?
EVERETT: That could be happening for a few reasons. First, they might be using the description provided by the Open Directory Project, also known as DMOZ. If this is the case, you can put in another meta tag called NOODP that will keep this from happening. Also, if the search query matches a phrase that shows up within your content better than anything provided in your meta description, Google may instead choose to show them that snippet. Usually this is good for you because when a searcher sees their exact phrase bolded inside a site description on a search result it tends to increase the click-through-rate. It could also tell you that your meta description isn’t optimized for the page well enough.
CHRIS: I agree. Maybe it’s best not to even do a meta description so you get that benefit?
EVERETT: I’ve tried it both ways and prefer to provide the meta description. Why voluntarily give up control of a major piece of first impression marketing? If Google chooses to show something else, fine, but let’s at least give them a hint about what we think they should present to potential customers as a way of describing our businesses. More often than not they seem to take that hint.
CHRIS: What advice would you give to people who want to write search engine optimized meta tags and titles?
EVERETT: 1. Match the keywords in your meta tags and titles to the keywords that show up most frequently on the page. If those aren’t the keywords you were hoping to rank for, it means you need to rewrite your content. 2. Write for humans too. Not trying to optimize any one page for too many keywords will help you with this. Which title would you be more likely to click on if you searched for “Denver Movie Times”:
#1 Denver Movie Times, Colorado Movies, Denver Showtimes, Cinema Listings
#2 Denver Movie Times: Find What Time Movies Are Playing in Local Theaters
CHRIS: Wow. A very simple tip that many sites don’t take advantage of. Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Everett.
EVERETT: My pleasure. Thanks for giving me the chance to clear some things up. I wish more designers had the desire to learn as much as they can about SEO. Your knowledge of search engine optimization should be a major point of differentiation when being considered for a design project.
Everett Sizemore is an eCommerce SEO Consultant and self-described “keyword farmer”. He has presented at several conferences and events, including Colorado SEMPO, RMDMA and SMX, and has guest lectured at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business. You can follow him on Twitter @balibones.