Recently, there has been a lot of debate in the search engine marketing community about some of the more simple or basic elements of search engine optimization, a web page's meta tags. When I refer to meta tags, I am specifically talking about the meta description tag and the meta keywords tag. Combined with the title tag, I still believe that as online marketers we absolutely need to make sure that we continue to populate these meta tags correctly and appropriately on all pages of our websites or our clients' websites even though some search engines do not use certain tags for ranking purposes.
Why? Let me explain.
Back in the mid 1990s when I was practicing search engine optimization on my websites to get more traffic from search engines like Excite and Altavista, search engines used the title tag, the meta description tag, and the meta keywords tag to "figure out" what a web page was about. Some of the more "creative" and "enterprising" individuals out there felt that it was necessary to be dishonest when it came to filling out those meta tags just to get more visitors to their websites. We call those people search engine spammers, and that's one reason why search engines need people like Matt Cutts to help clean up the search engine results.
In fact, back in the 1990s, search engine spammers did not care whether or not the information in the meta tag actually matched the content of the page: as long as that keyword brought traffic to their website, they thought that they could "convert" those visitors into actual dollars in their pockets. Once someone had searched at a search engine for a keyword, clicked on the search engine result and came to the search engine spammer's website, back in the 1990s it was actually possible to convert those visitors into dollars. All you had to do was put a banner ad on the page (even a blank web page with only 1 banner ad on it) would make money for the search engine spammer because visitors had nothing else to do on the page but click the banner ad.
The search engines did not look at the content of the entire web page. They primarily looked at the meta tags, and trusted the web page owner or webmaster to tell the search engine what the web page is about. But now, in 2010, we are way past that. Search engines are looking at a lot more factors than the meta description and the meta keywords tag on a web page. There is a great overview of all of the search engine rankings factors right here on SEOMoz. I believe that Google does index everything on the page. What they do with that data and how the use it as a part of their search engine algorithm is always going to be debatable. That's a good thing.
Sure, when we're optimizing a web page we still need to include an appropriate title tag on the page. But what about the meta description tag and the meta keywords tags? I still believe that it's absolutely imperative that when we optimize a web page now and in the future, we need to still pay attention to the title tag, the meta description tag, and the meta keywords tag. The information in those tags need to accurately describe the information that's on the web page where they appear. IF the page is about large blue fuzzy widgets then the title tag should include "large blue fuzzy widgets". The meta description tag should be one sentence in length that includes "large blue fuzzy widgets". And the meta keywords tag should include something like "large widgets, blue widgets, fuzzy widgets, widgets".
Why even bother with meta tags?
Yes, I know it's a pain to take the time to fill out all of this stuff for all of your web pages. Sure, if you are using WordPress and you have some sort of SEO plugin that will do it for you then that's great. But if a website is using a shopping cart or other type of CMS and allows you to fill in all those meta tags (even the meta keywords tag), then you need to take the time to do it. Fill it out. Make sure that they are all appropriate (that they describe the content on the page) and those meta tags are unique. Don't just copy/paste the same meta description and meta keywords tags on the all pages of the website. Why? It's not just for search engines anymore.
It is time to move on.
It's 2010. As online marketers, we must start to think about optimizing our websites for more than just the search engines. Sure, there are still some search engines out there that you and I never use that still support the meta keywords tag. I agree, that is no reason to take the time to write a proper meta keywords tag for every web page on your website. But what about the other uses for the title tag, the meta keywords tag, and the meta description tag? Yes, Olivia, it's not just about search engines. There are social media sites, social bookmarking sites, review sites, shopping sites…I could go on and on about the type of other sites (other than search engines) that might use this meta data.
I could think of a ton of reasons, as a search engine optimization professional, or even as an online marketer, why you should take the time to make sure that your title tags, meta description tags, and your meta keywords tags must be filled out on every web page on your site. Let's just look at two of them, though.
In order to keep pages indexed in the search engines (mainly Google), you'll need at least one link to each web page on your website. One of the more "creative" ways that you could get additional links to every web page on your web site would be to create a spreadsheet of all of the data. For example, you might create a spreadsheet with all of this data:
Title (from the title tag)
Description (from the meta description tag)
Tags (from the meta keywords tag)
Wait, did I just use the word "tags"? Yes, I did. The meta keywords tag could actually be converted into "tags", which are now very popular on social bookmarking, some review sites, and even other sites like blogs (check out what Huffington Post is doing), and shopping sites. If you export all of this data (the meta tags) into a spreadsheet, you will be able to do some pretty cool things with that data. And all of that can eventually lead to additional links to your web pages and, hopefully, more traffic to your website.
Why not use a tool to export all of your meta data into a spreadsheet and create a file that you could then populate a social bookmarking tool (like something similar to Social Poster) that would then submit to Delicious.com? That would then give you an RSS feed of the data and that might help with getting the pages indexed. There are plenty of things that you can do with an RSS feed, like add that RSS feed on other websites. Or, if you have the meta data exported you can even crunch that data, add prices and photo URLs to it, and upload it into Google Product Search.
So, what's my point here?
We absolutely need all of the major meta tags. As search engine optimizers and as online marketers we still need to take the time to fill out all of the meta data on our web pages, including the meta keywords tag, and make sure they're accurate and unique on all of our web pages. Once that is done, you have a lot of options for what you can do with that data. And if you do not have that data, there is nothing you can do with it. We do not know what type of cool sites that will exist in the future that will possibly use the meta data on our web pages. I can assure you that it is probably not going to be a search engine.