Recently, an SEO client of ours was sold a custom CMS , similar to WordPress. It was actually quite nice and had some SEO-friendly functionality such as the ability to create custom URLs. However, there was one problem: it did not have the functionality to enable a custom title, or to add a meta description or meta keywords field. My request was that these fields be added according to SEO best practices, and that they should be included as part of the standard package offered by the developers. The response we got from them went something like this:
Custom title tags are useless for SEO because they should always match the title on the page.
Meta descriptions are not needed because Google will simply pull the most relevant snippet of content from the page for the reader.
Meta keywords are not used for any SEO algorithm.
There is some truth to these statements.
Titles at the top of a page’s content as <h1>headers</h1> are great for SEO, and duplicating them in the <title> of the page that search engines frequently list is of value to the user, and is a good practice when you don’t have the ability to customize them.
Search engines will pull a snippet of content from the page that often includes the search term entered by the user when either no meta description is present or the meta description is completely irrelevant for the user.
Meta keywords will not directly impact your rankings and are not typically part of a search algorithm.
However, the thing that gets me tingly about Search Engine Optimization is that it goes far beyond simply ranking well on Google – it also delves into the realm of common sense. Allow me to explain:
Although it is useful to replicate the on-page title in the meta title of a page, it is even better to customize it so that it is not exactly the same as the <h1>blog title</h1> that appears on the page. Generally, an <h1> on the page looks really messy if it is too long, where a meta title can be up to 60-70 characters in length and will look good on Google and Bing when viewed on a desktop display (i.e. it is not truncated with an ellipsis at the end). By being able to customize the title, we are not only able to add or tweak a keyword if needed, but we are able to add a call-to-action when we don’t need keyword tweaks.
Taking any benefit of ranking well on Search Engine Results Pages, or SERPsout of the equation, the meta description is highly effective for a compelling call-to-action (CTA), which translates into increased click-through rates (CTR). When you create a custom description, you can tailor it to draw the user in, and any keywords in there will appear in BOLD which draws their eyes to your listing, and not your competitor’s. It could be the difference between a 1% CTR (i.e. 1 out of every 100 users actually visits your website) on a listing with a poor, nondescript description and title and say, a 2-5% CTR, which translates into 2-5x more traffic than an automated snippet pulled from the content of the page.
Here’s an example. If you search Google for ecommerce strategy, you’ll most likely see my previous employer in the #2 slot (confirmed on 11/30/2012), directly under Network Solutions, which appears as the #1 seed. Take a look at the descriptions:
Keyword: ecommerce strategy. Which description is more compelling to you?
When you don’t have a meta description on the page, you often get a crappy snippet from somewhere on the page that you have no control over, like the one for Network Solutions. Granted I would tweak my old company’s description even further but there was an internal debate about how to write ecommerce (e-commerce?) and I lost.
Rather than gibberish composed of various snippets from your webpage:
You don’t need this field for Google, Bing or Yahoo. In fact, some WordPress plugins for metatags do not even include it; as of the date of this post, the plugin on this very website leaves it out; we’ll have to do something about that! However, it is a good practice to include a few relevant meta keywords anyway. Let’s say you put your SEO in the hands of a person or company whom you hire and end up parting ways with in the future – with relevant keywords assigned to a page of optimized content, it will be more efficient, faster and more cost-effective for the next person who manages the optimization of your website (or your client’s website) to figure out what the person before them did. These keywords, when used strategically, will serve as a roadmap for future optimization, and the common notion that competitors will “steal” your keywords is hogwash because anyone who knows enough SEO to be effective will know the right keywords regardless.
In addition there are still a few websites that will pull meta keywords from your content and turn them into links, such as Folkd – it’s not a lot, but it will help if/when people do bookmark you on sites like that.
The Bottom Line
There are reasons for including well-written, relevant meta information in the HTML of a webpage. Some of these are helpful to improving your rankings, but all of them, when used effectively, can significantly impact your CTR positively on search engines and can be very useful to users and in shaping your overall SEO strategy.