There is a great deal of misinformation about what meta tags are and what influence they have in search ranking. First, note that we are concerning ourselves exclusively at this point with descriptive meta tags. There is another form, http-equiv meta tags, that have a very different function. (You have come across an
http-equiv tag in the HTML template we use:
<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=UTF-8" />).
First, meta tags are written in the
<head> section of an XHTML document. That should tell you something: meta tags are not body content. Rather, they are information about the page.
“Meta” (from the Greek) means literally “beside” or “after”. Used in English, it is commonly interpreted to mean “greater than”, “transcending” or “encompassing”. A metaphor doesn’t address a thing directly, but alludes to it; metaphysics doesn’t speak directly about physics, but about bigger, broader ideas and implications of physics.
The idea of descriptive meta tags is to summarize what a page is about. You would not attempt to read an entire book in a bookstore in order to work out what the book was about – you’d probably flip to the back cover and read the summary there. Meta tags function in the same way. From the Dublin Core website:
“The word "metadata" means "data about data". Metadata articulates a context for objects of interest – "resources" such as MP3 files, library books, or satellite images – in the form of "resource descriptions". As a tradition, resource description dates back to the earliest archives and library catalogs. The modern "metadata" field that gave rise to Dublin Core and other recent standards emerged with the Web revolution of the mid-1990s.”
Like HTML, the original intention of meta tags was lost in abusive and irrational practices during the early years of the web. Like XHTML, meta tags have been re-written and tightened up in specification to be more useful and relevant: this initiative is called “Dublin Core”
The Dublin core spec is long, varied and complex. There are various tools that can be used to automatically generate appropriate metadata for your pages, but let’s assume you are creating meta tags from scratch.
All descriptive meta tags share the same syntax:
- <meta name=”x” content=”y” />
Dublin Core meta tag
name attribute values always start with
DC. However our first two lines will not be meta tags, but links, written in the
<head> section of our document, so that the browser and search engine can understand what follows if they do not already:
- <link rel="schema.DC" href="http://purl.org/dc/elements/1.1/" />
- <link rel="schema.DCTERMS" href="http://purl.org/dc/terms/" />
We will come across the
link tag again when we get to stylesheets. It is a way of using, or addressing, an external resource without physically creating a hyperlink to it. In this case, we are saying “If you (the browser, the search engine spider) don’t understand what follows, here’s the place to look up definitions that we are going to use to describe our content.”
The next three lines are DC meta tags, but remain unchanged in most cases:
- <meta name="DC.language" scheme="DCTERMS.RFC1766" content="en" />
- <meta name="DC.type" scheme="DCTERMS.DCMIType" content="text" />
- <meta name="DC.format" content="text/html" />
These three lines basically say that our DC meta tag content is going to be in English text, as HTML. If you decide to write meta tags in a different language, change the two-letter extension to the first line to the appropriate language code (
jp for Japanese, for instance).
Finally, the meta tags that change in terms of their content. On the left, the name attribute value. On the right, what they should be set to.
|An expansion of the title of the document, typically longer and more informative.|
|Typically the creation date of the document, article, or resource, in the format yyyy-mm-dd.|
|The creator of the document, article, or resource: typically, you.|
|The publisher of the content: typically the owning company (your client, for example).|
|A person, organization or service that contributed content to the document: a graphic designer, photographer, etc.|
|A short description of the document. It should be many things, but is usually a summarizing paragraph.|
|A series of keywords, separated by commas. Typically no more than a dozen terms.|
Not all of these meta tags will be appropriate to every document, not will they be unique to every page on a site, although some, such as
date, should be attempted to be made so. For example, look at the source code for this page (CTRL-U, if you are using Firefox) and find the following line as an example:
- <meta name=“DC.creator” content=“Dudley Storey”>