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Meta tags for SEO, explained

Compelling meta tags are one of the essentials of good SEO. In this guide, you’ll learn how to use them for more visibility and clicks in Google search results.

The meta tags of your website are small elements which can have a big impact. In fact, they’re often underestimated. Today we’ll show you how the click-through rate (CTR) in SERPs can be vastly improved with them, and how to effectively use meta tags for SEO. Let's get started, and optimize those meta tags!

A short history of meta tags

Meta tag optimization looked very different just a few years ago. In the early days of SEO, it was important that as many keywords as possible were in the meta tags.

This meant that the Meta Description, Meta Title and Meta Keywords tags often suffered from keyword stuffing. Shudder. However, just as with content optimization, those days are now long gone.

Why meta tags are important for SEO

So why do meta tags matter? Here are a few reasons why:

Increased competition in the SERPs. Google places a block with three or even four listings from Google Ads for many search queries. This significantly reduces the space for organic search hits in the SERPs. If you then add a “local pack” or a featured snippet, the space available for the top 3 results on Google is even tighter. Therefore, it’s really important that your snippet is compelling.

Relevance to ranking: The page title of a URL may be just one ranking factor, but it’s still important. If there are many similar pages for a given search query, then an optimized meta title can be crucial. You’ll have a lower chance of being in the top 3 in the SERPs if your title does not contain the central keyword, for example.

Higher CTR: A better meta description and meta title helps your snippet get more clicks in the SERPs. This, in turn, can improve the CTR of your URL, which leads to more traffic. Google reads these signals and then tests whether your website is the best search result for users and can let your snippet rank in position 1 for a while. If the test was positive, optimizing your meta elements can effectively lead to an improvement in ranking.

Positive branding: A compelling meta description and title, which Google uses for the snippet in organic search results, are the first elements of your website that your target audience will see. For this reason alone, you should maintain and optimize your meta tags!

One important thing to note is that the Meta Keywords tag has not been used by search engines for a long time, so you can safely leave it blank.

How does Google use meta tags?

When we talk about meta tags here, we’re primarily concerned with meta description and meta title. These two elements are important for the presentation of your website in the SERP snippets.

Please note however, that Google does not guarantee that the meta description you have written in the source code will be used for the snippet in the search results:

"Google will sometimes use the <meta name="description"> tag from a page to generate a snippet in search results, if we think it gives users a more accurate description than would be possible purely from the on-page content."

It’s therefore important that you try to write a compelling meta description and title for every page, and also that you store unique meta tags.

Why we write meta tags for users, not Google

Meta description and title are important elements for SEO. However, you should primarily keep your target audience in mind when writing them. Because it’s these people who ultimately decide whether they click on your snippet, or a different search result.

If you want to optimize meta tags, you should integrate these measures into your on-page SEO. Therefore, remember that the focus is on a positive user experience, not “tricking” search engines.

So, enough with theory and background! Now it's time for the practice…

How to optimize meta titles

The meta title is the HTML page title of an HTML document. It appears as a snippet in search results, and is also used by browsers to label the browser tab.

Therefore, your meta title needs the following attributes:

  • Contains the focus keyword

  • Contains the brand name

  • Maximum of 70 characters, including spaces

Whether or not your primary keyword is at the beginning of the meta title isn’t critical for SEO. But what is critical is that it is included somewhere.

If you want to optimize meta titles, you should always do keyword research beforehand. The goal of this research is to determine the focus keywords of your most important URLs.

Even if Google indicates that the page titles for the "title links" in the snippet are created fully automatically based on website content, you should still optimize page titles. This increases the likelihood that the exact well-crafted title that you have entered will be displayed in the search result.

Basically, the following rules apply to page titles:

  • Every URL on your website should include a page title. Don’t leave the <title> tag empty

  • Write page titles carefully, and leave out unnecessary filler words

  • Avoid keyword stuffing

  • Avoid repetition

By using a main keyword, users (and therefore Google) should be able to quickly grasp the “topic” of the page.

In the following example, the focus keyword is "cheap sneakers", and the online store is called “Simply Shoes"

Not good: Buy cheap cheap inexpensive sneaker men's shoes shoes | Simply Shoes

Better: Buy cheap sneakers | Simply Shoes

In practice, it can be tedious to create each individual page title by hand, especially for websites with several thousand URLs. Good news! You don't have to. You can create the page title automatically, for example by placing the focus keyword in the H1 heading or the title of the category.

It would be important, however, that you can always customize the page title if necessary (most content management systems allow this). It gives you the opportunity to optimize and test different titles, for example.

How to optimize meta descriptions

Although the meta description is no longer relevant for ranking, it can still have an indirect effect on your ranking in the SERPs. This happens when Google ranks different snippets higher for testing. If you end up in a Google Top-10 test with a URL, it can subsequently lead to a better ranking. This is the case when the user data (low bounce-to-SERP rate) is positive.

Here’s what to include in a meta description:

Focus keyword: This is important because Google bolds the terms in the snippet that users typed into the search bar. If your description contains the main keyword, it will also be written in bold and your snippet will be more noticeable.

Call to Action: To increase the CTR, there should always be a “call to action” in the snippet. For example, if online shops fail to use the word “buy” on a button, it is statistically clicked less often.

Length: A maximum 156 characters, including spaces. This number of characters is based on the available pixel width of the description. If your description is longer, it may be truncated or Google will not consider it.

An important point: Your meta description should briefly and concisely describe what users can expect on the page when they click on the snippet. In order to address this expectation in the snippet, simple “wh-questions” will help you, like “What can I buy?”, or “Where can I buy this?”, or “Why should I buy this?”.

As with the title, the meta description should be unique, compelling and descriptive. You can regularly test different versions if you find that the CTR has gotten worse despite good rankings.

OK, let’s go back to our example from the fictitious online store “Simply Shoes”, which has the focus keyword “cheap sneakers”.

An effective meta description might be: “Find cheap sneakers here in our online shop. We offer fast delivery, top brands, low prices and friendly service. Order online now.” (131 characters)

Tip: You can use Ryte's Snippet Optimizer when creating the meta description and title. The tool shows you how your meta elements might be displayed in the SERPs on desktop, mobile or tablet.

4 tips to improve your meta tags

While there are some best practices that are specific to meta titles or descriptions (as covered above), there are also a few points that apply to both:

Use emojis and special characters carefully 😉

Google and other search engines can display emojis or other special characters in the SERP snippets. So you can use the entire inventory of characters that you otherwise use when chatting with friends, or in social media.

But consider carefully your target group, and how they might perceive emojis. Some readers might perceive them as spammy or inappropriate, so proceed with caution here.

Take a holistic view of meta tag optimization

When you start optimizing the meta titles and descriptions, you should keep the overall snippet optimization in mind.

For example, if your website uses structured data such as ratings, date displays for articles, nutritional values ​​or event data, these also take up space in the snippet.

As a result, there is less space for your description. Therefore, use live tests to regularly check whether rich snippets are being displayed for your website and adjust your descriptions if necessary.

Don’t underestimate tone of voice

Whether you want to convey an informal, relaxed style, or a more serious and formal one will also play an important role in meta tag optimization. After all, descriptions and titles are the first elements of your website that your target group sees when they search on Google.

Therefore, when creating titles and descriptions, consider how you want to address your users. Ideally, you will convey a consistent impression of your company and your brand, from the SERPs to the first loading of your page.

Test meta tags regularly

Meta tags have the great advantage that they can be adapted quickly and easily. As on-page elements, they offer you the opportunity to work directly on optimizing your website.

Tip: To get an overview of your meta titles and descriptions, use the Ryte reports “Meta Title” and “Meta Descriptions”. These show you which of your meta titles or descriptions have the right length, and which meta tags should be optimized further.

Fig. 2: Overview of meta tags in Ryte Search Engine Optimization

And how do you find out if your meta tags are actually performing?

You should look into Google Search Console (or the Ryte “Page Performance” report) for this. Use the performance report and see the CTR on selected keywords. If the CTR is low but the page ranks in the top 3 on Google, optimizing the snippets can provide the necessary boost.

Important: It’s best practice to use Google Analytics to see how long users stay on your target page and how high the bounce rate is. If you find discover short dwell times and high bounce rates, you should not only optimize the snippets, but also the content of your website.

Final thoughts

Meta tags are still rather underrated elements of optimization for many SEO managers. Yet they have lots of potential, and can help you to assert yourself in the SERPs with your website against your competitors. Give these suggestions a try!

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Published on Mar 4, 2022 by Philipp Roos