Titles, meta descriptions and meta keywords

Titles, meta descriptions and meta keywords should form part of every page. When you go to View Source on a web page you will see text. Between the opening <head> and the closing </head> tags look for title, description and keywords:

<title>Title for this page here</title>
<meta name="description" content="Description words" />
<meta name="keywords" content="Some key words for page" />

Although you may not be manipulating code directly because you are using a content management system, these are the tags that the search engines will be reading.

Titles are probably the most important SEO item to get right

Titles will appear above the browser’s address bar and on tab headings, though they are truncated on some browsers. But for you it’s the importance that search engines attach to titles that is the most significant thing, not how or where they are displayed.

There is no absolute gospel on this because the search engines differ slightly, but to make the most of it here are some guidelines:

  • never leave the title tag empty – it’s a wasted opportunity;
  • don’t start with your brand or website address;
  • don’t use the page name eg Home, Contact;
  • do use words and phrases that match likely search queries for your industry;
  • do not exceed 65 characters, but try to get as close to that many as possible;
  • you can use delimiters like hyphens, commas and full stops (but not underscores) though they could be considered a waste of characters;
  • ideally it should be easy to read, particularly by a robotic machine.

Titles should never be duplicated within the website

Each page is supposed to be about a different topic – and besides, with the title tag you have the opportunity to extend the number of ways you can describe your product or service.

There is a balance to be struck between the benefit of having a large number of pages and the visitor finding your site repetitious or confusing. This is a case where the SEO could be in conflict with the UXO.

Meta descriptions are one of the most important UXO items to get right

In the major search engines, there is a ‘snippet’ underneath the search result which can derive from this meta description. In the absence of a decent description, the search engine will attempt to derive a snippet the best it can from the body text.

Google snippet

In the above search for Nikon DSLR the meta description of this website has been faithfully reproduced. The website author has made the description 100 characters long including spaces. Perhaps more importantly, it’s about the right length for a visitor to scan and digest quickly. Visually it probably has more impact since it’s gone to two lines, and the search engine has highlighted the search query.

Meta descriptions should be between 50 and 100 characters long

This is not a technical constraint; depending a bit on the search engine between 25 and 150 characters are allowable but it’s your human visitors that you are trying to inform. If you want to go the whole hog, punctuate it with full stops. This will tell the search engines where they can break it up if necessary.

The description should reflect the content of the page and the important words in it should also be found in the body of the page.

Meta descriptions should not be duplicated within the site

As mentioned with titles above, each page is supposed to be about a different topic and once again you have the opportunity with the meta description to extend the number of ways you can describe your product or service.

You should ensure that there is a well-thought-out description tag within the header block on each page of your website – ideally this text will convert your prospect into a customer, so it’s really important to get right.

Meta keywords are mostly irrelevant, but not completely

In the early days of the web meta keywords were roundly abused and misused so the search engines had little option but to ignore them. Even the World Wide Web organisation makes a couple of notes that 'user-agents' (in this case, search engines to you and me) may ignore them.

However it’s perfectly possible that a search engine might look at the first (say) 20 and if it also found these words in the body text, use them to reinforce its understanding of the website.

It’s also possible that a specialist or niche search engine might use keywords, but they too will be unimpressed by an onslaught of repetitious words.

Therefore it is suggested that you put in a few key words/phrases that match content in your page, but don’t go mad and don’t bother with location information (eg city names) since that is now taken care of with geo-location directives.

To reduce ambiguity it may be appropriate to use two- or three-word phrases rather than single words. Meta keywords and phrases should be separated by commas, not spaces.

Meta keywords should not be duplicated across pages

Each page is supposed to be about a different topic and so the meta keywords on each page should be different.

Clearly there may be commonality between some meta keywords on different pages across a website, but essentially they should differ to reflect the different pages.

Generated pages like those in shopping systems need optimisation too

A shopping system should present appropriate titles, meta descriptions and meta keywords.

How you implement this - or even if you can implement this - will depend upon your shopping or catalogue system.

For titles, lead with the product name, service name or likely query. Consider appending your brand at the end of the title, if necessary after a full stop if your brand name sends the title length to more than 65 characters.

In descriptions, you can offer search engines a clue as to what’s on the page with a set of key:value pairs eg Description: T-shirts. Sizes: S, M, L, XL. Colours: Black, White, Olive green. Product id: 123456. In programming terms key:value pairs are the kind of pattern that search engine developer geeks look for.

Final note

You can go completely mad on optimising titles, descriptions and keywords but diminishing returns will set in quite quickly. Here we've tried to get the balance right between the resources a business should devote to SEO and the likely returns. SEO is just one way to get in trade.

Top - Contents - Next: web page structure