Search Engine Optimization Basics (Part 3 - Meta Tags)
by Andy Beal

If you have been following this series, you will know that we 
have so far covered the importance of search engine marketing 
(SEM), effective keyword research and title tag formats. As we 
move through the "Back to Basics" series we find ourselves at 
the notorious topic of Meta tags, specifically "description" and 
"keywords" tags. Now, I know what you are thinking; "surely we 
don't need to worry about Meta tags, as most search engines 
ignore them" and for the most part you would be right. The 
importance of Meta tags has diminished so considerably over the 
past couple of years, that I fully expect this to be the last 
article that I will write discussing their optimization. That's 
not to say that they are already a dead issue, but in the next 
6-12 months their importance will be virtually extinguished.

So, if this will likely be my last article on the topic, what 
is there left to discuss? Well actually there are still a few 
things you should consider when researching and constructing 
Meta tags. While search engine marketing has moved into the 
realms of page themes, keyword density, content and linking, 
Meta tags can still provide some benefits.


The Meta description tag is located in the <head> area of your 
website's HTML code and its content is sometimes displayed in 
the results page of crawler search engines. The description tag 
looks something like this in your code:

<meta name="description" content="Brief description of the 
contents of the page">

It used to be that all search engines would pull this 
information and use it as part of their search results. Not only 
would your search engine listing include information from your 
title tag, but also below it would be a copy of your Meta 
description tag. With this predictable structure, search engine 
marketers could manipulate the way their website listing was 
displayed in the search engine results by changing these tags. 
In addition, the Meta description tag would have great importance 
when determining which position your website showed up in the 
search results. The number of keywords, their relevance and 
density within the description tag could be manipulated to help 
achieve the elusive #1 position on the search engine results.


When Google became the search engine of preference, it ushered 
in a new era of how search engine listings are displayed. Google 
chose not to use the Meta description tag and instead relied on 
the content contained within a website. The biggest impact from 
this decision resulted in the Meta description having no 
significance whatsoever on where a website is positioned within 
Google's results. A website owner could optimize their 
description tag to the highest degree, and it would have little 
effect on how their website was positioned in Google. The other 
effect of choosing to ignore the description tag was that Google 
did not use this information as part of the website's listing; 
instead formulating it's own description using content extracted 
from the web page itself (only if there is very little page 
content will you see Google display the meta description). When 
it became apparent that Google's approach was successful, other 
search engines started following suit to the point that few 
search engines today spider and display the Meta description tag.


So with so many search engines choosing to ignore the 
description tag, why bother to optimize it? The answer is 
simple. It takes just a couple of minutes to optimize the 
Meta tags on the web page you are building. While you may not 
influence the likes of Google, Yahoo, or AOL, there are plenty 
of smaller search engines that still spider the Meta description 
tag. The largest of these is Inktomi, which was recently acquired 
by Yahoo. Although, Yahoo has not yet switched its search results 
to the Inktomi database, there are still many search engines that 
rely on Inktomi results. The biggest Inktomi audience comes from 
MSN's web page results. The web page results at MSN come after 
featured sites, sponsored sites and web directory results but 
nonetheless they are there. While you are unlikely to have your 
Inktomi listing displayed on MSN for generic terms such as 
"computers" or "Compaq" you should see traffic from MSN for 
longer, more specific terms such as "refurbished Compaq 
computers". The more specific the term, the more likely that 
MSN will rely on the spidering technology of Inktomi to provide 
the search results. And with reporting in April 2003 
that 45% of all searches are for phrases with three words or 
more, you can see that there is still a large audience to reach 
by optimizing your Meta description tag and targeting crawlers 
such as Inktomi.


Like every other aspect of search engine marketing, relevancy is 
the key to obtaining better search engine ranking. While your 
competitors may include dozens and dozens of search phrases in 
their description tag, fewer, more targeted phrases will increase 
the relevancy of the web page and will provide a greater benefit 
from your description tag. Unless you have a small website that 
has only a few pages, resulting in the need to place many 
phrases in each description tag, you should aim for around 5-10 
phrases in each description. Keep each of the phrases within the 
same theme and you will further increase your chances of better 
search engine ranking for that page. An optimized description 
tag might look something like this:

<meta name="description" content="Desktop computers and computer 
hardware supplies for home and office.">

As you can see there are many keyword combinations that can be 
extracted from the above description tag. The most important 
phrases are at the start of the description, which adds to your 
chances of better search engine rankings. However, the search 
engines can also extract their own word combinations such as 
"office computer supplies". With Inktomi providing a paid 
inclusion service which re-spiders and indexes your website 
every 48 hours, you can change and manipulate your Meta tags to 
find a format that works best for your website. Whenever 
formatting your description tag, remember that most search 
engines that continue to spider description tags also use that 
tag when displaying your listing. With that in mind, make sure 
that the description tag is inviting and coherent as well as 


Much of the advice for your description tag also holds true 
for your Meta keywords tag. The keywords tag used to be very 
important when optimizing a website with all the search engines 
spidering and utilizing the information. When it became obvious 
to the search engines that webmasters were stuffing their 
keywords tags with dozens of unrelated search terms, the search 
engines moved away from algorithms that used information 
collected from keywords tags. We are now at the stage where, 
very few search engines use the keywords tags to any significant 
degree. However, examine your traffic logs and you will be 
surprised at how many different search engines bring traffic to 
your website. I'll bet there are many small search engines, 
bringing traffic to your website, that you have never heard of 
before. With many of these smaller search engines relying on 
older technology, and with it only taking a couple of minutes to 
add a keywords tag, it is worthwhile to at least look at the way 
you format your meta keywords tag.


Within your website code, your keywords tag will look something 
like this:

<meta name="keywords" content="keyword 1, keyword 2, keyword 3">

I'm not going to spend long discussing the format and 
optimization of the keywords tag, just as I do not expect you to 
spend hours optimizing them. That being said, make sure that you 
use your keywords tag to include words that might be missing 
from your web page content or perhaps include alternate 
spellings of words. I have also found it beneficial to include 
product SKUs or manufacturers model numbers in your keywords 
tag. These in particular tend to be very targeted keywords with 
fewer competitors. This often results in their inclusion in your 
keywords tag providing the edge over a website not using a 
keywords tag. In addition, the keywords tag is a great place to 
add geographical search terms such as the city you operate in, 
the county or even the State.

While you can add as many keywords as you wish to your keywords 
tag, I would avoid using more than 20-25. Don't agonize over the 
use or non-use of commas and forget any thoughts of repeating a 
keyword over and over again. An effective keywords tag may look 
like this:

<meta name="keywords" content="Presario 800t, s400t, s300nx, 
wake county, Raleigh, North Carolina, NC">

As you can see in the example above, the best use of the 
keywords tag is for targeting either obscure terms, model 
numbers or targeted regions. Using this approach will help 
you get the most out of the limited benefit of the keywords tag.


I hope you have found the above useful. Limited space allows for 
only a brief overview of the subject. If you have any questions 
regarding the use of description or keywords tags, then please 
feel free to email me at Those of you 
looking for further information, may wish to consider these 
additional resources:

Meta Tags and Title Tags -
Search Engine Features for Webmasters -
Meta Tags Revisited -

Andy Beal is Vice President of Search Marketing for and, global leaders in 
professional search engine marketing. Highly respected as a 
source of search engine marketing advice, Andy has had articles 
published around the world and is a repeat speaker at 
Danny Sullivan's Search Engine Strategies conferences. Clients 
include Alaska Air, Peopleclick, and Jos. A. Bank and Crutchfield. 
You can reach Andy at