Making Sense of Metadata

Ah, metadata. It's often forgotten about or misunderstood, but it's only here to help. In fact, if more of us used meta tags to their full potential, we’d make search engines a much better place. 

What are Meta Tags?

They are short snippets of text that describe a page’s content without actually appearing on the page itself. Primarily used by search engines, they are a lot like the labels on a t-shirt—not really part of the product, but there for a user to see if it’s the right fit before they bother trying it on.

Meta tags consist of two different parts, titles and descriptions. While titles also get to flaunt their wares in browser tabs, descriptions are limited to guest appearances whenever Google, Bing or other search engines decide to give them a spot.

What do Meta Tags do?

It’d be easy to think they don’t do much, actually. They only appear outside of the page itself and don’t directly affect your search ranking, but they are often the deciding factor in whether your little listing gets picked on the big stage.

If the potential for extra attention alone isn’t enough for you (it should be) then consider this. If you start to get clicked more than those around you, you could be bumped higher up the rankings.

Imagine a search results page as a high street. Come on, bear with me. Your search listing is flanked by others on either side. Your meta tags are your signage and posters, they are the search equivalent of mannequins in your windows or the smell of your food drifting out the door.

They can also have the opposite impact. If you’re getting impressions on search engines but have a poor click-through rate (this can be tracked in tools such as Google’s Search Console) your meta tags should be one of your main suspects. Fortunately, it’s simple to update them.

Ok, so what do I need to do?

That depends. Ideally, every one of your pages should have its metadata pored over. They should be tested, analysed and reworked until search users are powerless to resist them. From experience though, this is unrealistic.

With digital marketing involving more internal politics, channels and angles than the average House of Cards episode, it’s easy to see why meta tags are often shunned. If left blank, the first lines of copy on a page can even be pulled through automatically. Job done, right? Wrong. While convenient, the message is unlikely to be optimised for the search audience and, depending on the page structure, may not even make sense.

No need to worry though. It’s relatively easy to get your meta tags to a good level and capitalise on their powers. First though, let’s deal with the length issue.

As they are pulled through into search listings that have their own rules, meta tags have to get their important points across in a restricted number of characters. Fortunately, it’s more than enough to work with. Unfortunately, the number you’ve got to work with fluctuates all the time.

Search engines continuously update their pages in their quest for maximum manipulation and different devices affect listings too, so don’t get too caught up in it. As a rule of thumb, if your title is between 50 to 70 characters and your description 100 to 170, you can’t go wrong. The worst that will happen is the end of your sentence gets cut off and shortened to something that fi...

Whatever you do, don’t feel compelled to add more words just because a search engine says you can. You’re better than that. Think of your meta tags like adverts. Play by the rules of the platform they’re going on, but make sure they connect with people rather than just appease the governing body.

***

With the restrictions in mind, it’s time to write. Whether you decide to tackle every page or just start with the ones you think are important, get them listed on a Word doc or Excel sheet. Page, Meta Title and Meta Description are the minimum fields you’ll need, but you can lay this out however you’re most comfortable.

Use the characters you’ve got to summarise the page and clarify why whoever’s reading would be mad not to follow your listing. Verbs and calls to action are particularly useful to the latter, but if you make ‘clear and compelling’ your mantra while writing and ensure every meta tag is both of these things, you’ll be on the right track. If that’s not enough, chant the following while you work:

What does the page do? Why should people look at it?
What does the page do? Why should people look at it?

As for working within the length restrictions, you can add character checking formulas to a spreadsheet (e.g. =70-LEN(insertrelevantcellhere) for title tags), check character counts manually in Word (just highlight the text and press Ctrl+Shift+G) or use an online tool. Again, just do whatever suits you.

When you’re finished, you just need to add them to site. You should be able to do this in your CMS, via a bulk uploader or one at a time in the different pages’ settings. If your CMS doesn’t do this or you don’t have one, you can also add them via FTP. You should probably be looking into a CMS rather than your metadata though, for what it’s worth.

Let’s play Good Meta, Bad Meta

With the above in mind, join me as I create some good and bad meta tags for imaginary webpages.

The home page of WeCleanStuff, a domestic cleaning service:

Good Meta
Title: We Clean Your Home So You Don’t Have To | WeCleanStuff
Description: Balancing work and family with cleaning your home is hard. Discover our cleaning services today and make this the last time you ever have to lift a finger.

Bad Meta
Title: Home
Description: We Clean Stuff - WeCleanStuff’s website.

A blog about Meta tags from some marketing people:

Good Meta
Title: Making Sense of Metadata - Venn Digital
Description: Ah, metadata. It's often forgotten about or misunderstood, but it's only here to help. Find out what meta tags are, what they do and where you come in.

Bad Meta
Title: Marketing Blog | Some Marketing People
Description: Read our marketing blog for posts about marketing and stuff.

A specific service landing page for WeFixStuff, a general repair business:

Good Meta
Title: Same Day Toaster Repair Service | WeFixStuff
Description: Is your toaster broken? Do you want some toast? We’ve got your back. Get in touch today and find out why our toaster repair team are the best in the business.

Bad Meta
Title: INSERT KEYWORDS HERE
Description: Steven, remember to look up what these meta things are.


In summary, meta tags are labels that should describe what a web page does. They don’t affect ranking performance and are unlikely to win business by themselves, but they can make you stand out in the scurry of the search results.

What does the page do? Why should people look at it?

To take advantage of them, you should go through at least all of your key web pages and write clear, compelling lines that summarise the page and its value.

What does the page do? Why should people look at it?

The role of meta tags is a modest but decisive one.

What does the page do? Why should people look at it?

Ignore them at your own expense.

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