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What is metadata and how does it affect SEO?

Updated: Jun 28, 2021


Optimizing your website’s metadata is an aspect of technical SEO that can help business owners rank higher in the search engine results. The goal of this article is to explain what metadata is and how you can use it to optimize your site’s SEO.

What is Metadata?

Metadata is “data about data,” little pieces of code that may never be seen by your human visitors, but that go into the HTML to help systems like Google and Facebook better understand your site.

Metadata can also improve your site’s functionality across devices and software platforms. For example, meta tags can tell browsers the ideal resolutions for your page or if it’s written in a foreign language.

While some metadata can give your site a massive boost in search engine rankings, other types are obsolete and not worth the trouble in the long run. Once you understand metadata, you can differentiate which is which to save time and money.

In this article, we’ll talk about the most important meta tags and what they can do for your site and its SEO.

Basic Metadata

Meta title

The meta title is displayed as the page title in browser tabs, and it’s what shows up as the link text in search results.

The title tag is essential for SEO because it has a significant effect on your keyword rankings, and it’s what users typically see as the link text in the search results. You want to optimize it for keywords while also enticing searchers to click through to learn more.

Meta keywords tag

Back in the early days of SEO, you could list the keywords you wanted to rank for in the meta keywords tag, and the search engines would honor this since that was the purpose of the keywords tag. In theory, this was a great idea if only everyone were honest.

Spammers quickly figured out they could stuff the meta keywords tag with a ton of irrelevant keywords to rank for anything and everything. Meta keyword tag spam became a major problem for search engines as spammers ranked for keywords that had nothing to do with their site, drowning out the relevant results.

Spam became so bad that search engines abandoned the meta keywords tag, choosing instead to focus on the actual content of the page that human users would see, not the hidden keywords.

Even though they seem tailor-made for SEO, meta keywords are not worth adding to your site. Google has officially stated that they do not use meta keywords tags and have no plans to do so.

Meta description tag

The meta description tag does not help you rank higher, but search engines will sometimes display it when your site shows up in search results, making it worth doing right. Other times they will pull some content from your page if they find it more relevant.

A meta description tag should be a short message about your page that quickly tells searchers why yours is relevant to their search.

Image alt attribute

Alt tags were initially intended to describe images when they fail to load or when blind visitors use screen readers. You sometimes see them pop up when your mouse hovers over an image.

Search engines pull keywords from alt tags, so they are worth optimizing, but you don’t want to overdo it and venture into keyword spamming.

Advanced Metadata

Robots meta tag

Since the early days of search engines, a robots.txt file has been put on sites to tell robots like search engines web crawlers which pages to index and which to ignore.

Robots.txt evolved into robots metadata tags, which go into the HTML code of pages to tell web crawlers whether or not to index the page and if the crawler should follow the links on the page or stop there. These robots tags are called follow, nofollow, index, and noindex.

Robots tags are valuable when you have pages on your site you’d rather not have show up in search results, such as dynamically generated pages like product listings or internal search results that would create duplicate content if a crawler got lost trying to go through every link.

Social metadata like Facebook’s Open Graph and Twitter Cards

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter created their new meta tags to improve how sites get shared across their platforms.

Social meta tags do not directly affect search engine rankings, but they do make your site preview look better on social media, like which thumbnail image and description text they use, so they are worth creating.

Structured data like JSON-LD and microdata

The cutting edge of metadata is what’s called “structured data” or “microdata.” The most prominent of these is JSON-LD, which stands for JavaScript Object Notation for Linked Data.

That’s quite a mouthful, but the simple explanation is that it’s a way to format data that machines can more easily understand.

JSON-LD is based on “schema,” which are standardized ways to describe things like local businesses, products, how-to guides, FAQ’s, events, reviews and ratings, and other familiar chunks of information you find on the web. Google and other search engines recommend using JSON-LD since it gives them an easier way to pull accurate information. The improved clarity structured data provides increases your odds of being featured in “rich” search results that go above the standard listings, in a spot sometimes called “rank 0”.

You’ve likely seen structured data in action when Google shows “rich” search results about companies, such as featuring their logo, 1-5 review star ratings, or links to menus and online ordering for restaurants.

If you’ve ever asked Google for a recipe or to verify a fact, the “rich snippets” they show are likely taken from structured data, too.

Structured data is only going to become more critical in providing quick answers and fruitful search results as more people use voice search on smart devices like Google Home and Amazon Alexa.

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