Metatag Strategy and Design

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Metatags, also known as meta tags, are an essential part of a well-designed Web site. They are not seen by visitors to the site, but they are read by search engines, spiders, and similar indexing programs. They can affect where a Web site will appear on a keyword search. With the explosive growth in the number of Web sites, Web users have become more dependent on search engines to find relevant sites. As a result, metatag strategy has evolved into a field called search engine optimization (SEO). Search engine optimization means getting your Web site listed at the top of search engine results when users enter a related keyword in one of the major search engines.


Metatags are simply words that are embedded in a Web site but are not visible to users. They typically follow the site's heading. Every Web site has a heading. The heading begins with the title of the Web site. The title may be followed by a short comment of a few sentences. The comment is useful for search engines that don't use metatags.

The first metatag is the description. The description applies to the page to be displayed in search results. Experts recommend that metatag descriptions be limited to a few sentences, with 150 characters as the maximum recommended length. The description should contain complete sentences and employ good grammar. The description should not include the keywords under which the site is to be listed. Some search engines display the description in their displayed results.

The second metatag is a list of keywords. Five to seven keywords are recommended, as more tend to dilute their impact on search engine rankings. Keyword Wizard ( has compiled a list of the top 5,000 keywords by collecting information on live searches from major search engines and tabulating the results.


According to an August 2001 post to Search Engine Forums (, most search engines no longer read most metatags. Rather, rankings are based on keyword density for the page, the title tag, the headline tags, and link popularity. Thus, writing keyword-rich content can be more effective in optimizing search engine placement than spending a lot of time with metatags.

SEO experts recognize the importance of using the right keywords in Web page copy, not just in metatags. One recommendation is to develop compelling copy for end-users and to incorporate keywords that are relevant to the site. The use of these keywords will typically improve a site's rankings in search engine results for queries using those keywords. This copy, unlike metatags, is visible to the user.

The critical factor is using keywords that not only represent what your site is all about but that also match keywords that people are using in conducting Web searches. A couple of resources that can help with the search for the right keywords are Keyword Wizard and WordTracker ( WordTracker is a paid service that offers a free trial at its Web site. It is a database service that ranks keywords based on whether or not people are actually using them and how many other sites are using the same keywords. Keyword Wizard offers a list of the top 5,000 keywords currently in use.

Once you have determined the most effective keywords, these can be incorporated into the Web site's descriptive copy, which users will read, as well as into its meta description tags, which are invisible to users but are sometimes picked up by search engines. Experts recommend using the keywords at least three times in descriptive copy and incorporating them into headlines and subheads whenever possible. Hyper-linking the keywords will help them get noticed by search engines. Hyperlinking keywords is more effective in text-based page navigation links than in image links, such as buttons.


Many search engines have adopted the practice of offering pay-for-placement search results. Companies typically pay a fee to list or link their sites to specific keywords. During the first three quarters of 2001, paid keyword placements accounted for 4 percent of online advertising revenues. They represented the fees that online search engines charge advertisers to list and/or to link their company sites to specific keywords or phrases. The fees are often generated through a bidding process, with the highest bidder for a particular keyword appearing at the top of the search results for that keyword. Overture Services, formerly known as, was considered the market leader in offering "paid inclusion" in search engine results.

According to a mid-2001 survey done by Jupiter Media Metrix and reported by eMarketer, pay-for-placement ad spending ranked the highest among five types of online advertising in terms of effectiveness and satisfaction. Companies were more satisfied overall with pay-for-placement search results than with opt-in e-mail, paid inclusion, cost-per-click banner ads, and cost-per-thousand banner ads.

Another factor highlighting the importance of search engine results was the fact that Web searching was a major online activity. According to a U.S. Department of Commerce survey released in February 2002, the top five activities of U.S. Internet users were:

  • e-mail (84 percent)
  • product/service information searches (67.3 percent)
  • news, weather, sports (61.8 percent)
  • playing games (42.1 percent)
  • product/service purchases (39.1 percent)

In a February 2001 survey by the NPD Group, some 55 percent of more than 2,000 U.S. respondents said their online purchases originated with search listings.


There are several other tools and techniques that can be used to improve search engine results. They include:

  • Adding links from other sites. These can include larger, high-traffic sites that are relevant to your business as well as paid listings in directories.
  • Purchasing a program that adds search capabilities to your site and indexes it on a regular basis. These programs are useful for sites that make frequent changes. One example is the Search Partner program available from
  • Subscribing to the SubmitDirector service, which provides charts, graphs, and analytics that allow you to see your site the same way search engines do.
  • Using Web positioning software for home page creation that also automates submitting your Web site to various search engines as well as reporting functions.

In short, using the appropriate keywords in meta-tags is only one step toward optimizing search engine results. It should be part of an overall strategy that incorporates as many tools and techniques as possible to drive traffic from keyword searches to your site.


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Lloyd-Martin, Heather, and Jill Whalen. "Copywriting for Search Engines." WordBiz Report, 27 February 2002. Available from

"Meta Tags Forum." 30 April 2002. Available from

Regan, Keith. "Yahoo! Makes Paid Search Results a Long-Term Fixture." E-Commerce Times, 26 April 2002. Available from

"The Search Engines." 30 April 2002. Available from

Valentine, Mike Banks. "Little Guy Looks for Search Engine Edge.", 29 August 2001. Available from

Vigoroso, Mark W. "Search Engine Results That Pay Off." E-Commerce Times, 7 December 2001. Available from