A practical guide to meta tags - NAME or HTTP-EQUIV?


META tags are a way for you to define your web page and web site to the outside world. You can declare the keywords and description, which help your placement in search engines. In addition, you can specify who owns the copyright, how often the page is to be visited by search engines and many other useful pieces of information.

Please understand that META tags are just notes, little snippets of information that you chose to put into a page, for informational purposes. META tags are not necessarily recognized by search engines as vehicles for ranking, although some still do read them and use them. Also, search engines (especially Google) constantly change their views on META tags and constantly make decisions whether to even read them, or totally disregard them.

Important side note: Many make the mistake of putting the TITLE tag into the META category. Folks, the TITLE tag is not a META tag, but a crucial element of every web page. If your page does not have a title, it becomes one of the 30 million meaningless Untitled Documents.

So are there any tags that make a difference in terms of search engine placement?

The misuse of META tags was the main reason for which search engines do not rely on them so heavily any more. Unscrupulous webmasters used META tags to mislead the search, in order to artificially inflate the number of visitors. In the past, META tag optimization was the key-point in any search engine optimization strategy. Today, other factors (like link popularity) are far more important. Many SEO (Search Engine Optimization) gurus tell you not to ever again bother with META tags, totally forget they ever existed and focus on links.

My personal opinion is, if it matters only 0.05%, then why not use them, since it's just a simple "type and forget" deal anyway and does not require that much work? Similarly to the stock market and investing strategies, a tiny 0.05% can actually help in the long run. In today's competitive internet, where your site is just one out of billions, every bit helps.

Several Web search engines, such as InfoSeek and AltaVista, still recognize META elements with NAME values "description" and "keywords". The words listed in a "keywords" tag might be used (and perhaps emphasized) when indexing documents. However, generally such keywords are useful only if they occur in the normal text of the document too, and in that case you can expect the keywords extracted from your page's text to be used in indexing anyway!

This is exactly why, you will see an increasing amount of SEO community folks telling you to stop even thinking that the "keywords" tag ever existed.

I am more of a conservative nature when it comes to SEO and my philosophy is that whatever page element is not known for sure to penalize your search engine ranking, should be left, just in case things change, or even just for some smaller and less important or known search engines (the entire world seems to be concerned solely with Google today) might actually help you in the long run. Basically, all I'm saying is don't put all your eggs in one basket.

Keywords are separated by commas and may be considered case sensitive by search engines. If the same keywords are repeated too often in the META element, some search engines will not index the document. Search engines typically only process the first 1000 characters of the keywords list. So, if you use keywords, do it carefully, as this is one element that can actually get you penalized.

On the other hand, a "description" tag should be used, since many (but not all) search engines show this info as the abstract for the document when returning query results. But you should also take into account that many search engines just take the first few words of the document, so you might include a short summary into the document body right after the main heading.

To avoid being truncated (that is, cut) by search engines, the description should be brief - no more than 200 characters.

Let's clear one more common confusion: The META tags affect the way your document is indexed when it is included into a data base of a search engine. However, it will not make a robot find the document when it searches candidates for inclusion into a data base. Therefore, if you think the document is important, and especially if there are not several links to it in other documents, consider submitting those pages to the search engines manually.

When I first started studying META tags and took a closer look, my first question was why some pages use the META NAME format, while others use META HTTP-EQUIV for the same stuff.

Here is the technical explanation of the difference between the two formats. Afterwards, I'll try to translate this into English.

Begin technical explanation:

The difference between NAME and HTTP-EQUIV is that the latter has a special significance when documents are retrieved via HTTP, whereas the interpretation of NAME attributes is up to each particular browser or other program which processes HTML files (although some common practices may emerge and might be standardized later). HTTP servers may use the property name specified by the HTTP-EQUIV attribute to create an RFC 822 style header in the HTTP response. (RFC 822 is the electronic mail protocol used on the Internet.) The header name (which is case insensitive) is taken from the HTTP-EQUIV attribute value, and the header value is taken from the value of the content attribute.

The HTTP-EQUIV attribute may be used in place of the NAME attribute to indicate that the property is an HTTP header. Some servers will send the HTTP header specified in the META element, and browsers often recognize the header even when it is not sent by the server.

Note: While HTTP-EQUIV META tag appears to work properly with some browsers, other browsers may ignore them, and they are ignored by Web proxies, which are becoming more widespread. Use of the equivalent HTTP header, as supported by e.g. Apache server, is more reliable and is recommended wherever possible.

HTTP headers may be generated by CGI scripts, and in Apache and CERN httpd by using a side file containing metadata. Other servers may have other mechanisms to generate headers. Note that certain server-generated headers may not be overridden (such as Date), and that others are only meaningful with a non-200 status code. Using an HTTP header is preferable to using META tags, since the header will be understood by cache agents and proxies in addition to browsers, and metadata (such as PICS data) may be associated with image files, sound files, etc.

End of technical explanation.

Ok, if you read the above and got it, then you should be building rocket ships or playing with nanobots and not be reading silly articles! For the rest of us, here is a very basic translation:

The HTTP-EQUIV is for headers sent to your browser by the server after a request for a page/file has been made. In plain English, this information may direct/control how your page will be displayed in a browser.

The NAME attribute is there to provide additional information about the document (such as keywords, description, author information, copyright information and so on).

There is still a disagreement between many people about with which attribute the keywords and the description should go.

My personal advice is to use both! Be careful, because if you use a design tool, it will generate the tags only in one format. In that case, I would just copy the generated block of info, duplicate it on the page (do it just after the original, so you don't mess up the page's coding), then change NAME to HTTP-EQUIV on the duplicates if the originals were NAME, or HTTP-EQUIV to META, if the originals were HTTP-EQUIV. Again, you don't get penalized for doing this, and until the world comes to an agreement, you are covered both ways!

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