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Is Meta Tag Optimization for SEO Dead?

August 5, 2016 / Search Engine Optimization / By Kathy Alice

meta tags obsolete?
Do you remember when you learned how to do on page SEO optimization by updating meta tags? For me, it felt like I got the keys to the kingdom. By placing keywords into the meta tags on your page you had a tool that would magically rank your page at the top of the Google search results where it belonged. Right?

Well not so fast, in today’s SEO, optimizing your meta tags may not have the impact you think.

What is Meta Tag Optimization?

Let’s define Meta tags first. Meta tags are HTML tags that are placed between the head tags on your web page. They contain information about your page but do not display on the page. Historically, search engines have used these tags to learn more about the topic of the page. This is overly simplistic, but you can think of the value of meta tags this way: if a searcher searched on “cat toys” and your meta tags contained that keyword then your page should be a candidate to rank for that search term.

There are several meta tags of interest that SEOs will typically optimize for a page:

  • title tag: Even though the title tag isn’t really a meta tag, it makes sense to include it in this discussion. Title tag is literally the title of the page that will be used in various places on the web. Such as:
    1. In the browser tag for your page
    2. As the default title for your social media posts
    3. As the clickable blue link in the snippet the search engine constructs to represent your page in the search engine result pages

    Of all the meta tags, the title tag is the most important tag for SEO.

  • meta description: Up to 160 characters of this tag is shown by Google to describe your page. It isn’t a ranking factor but essential for that all important click through.
  • meta keywords: Google has ignored this tag for ranking for years, so most SEOs don’t bother with it.
  • meta robots: This tag is useful for controlling the crawling and the indexation of the page.

To do meta tag optimization for a page on your site you would select a primary keyword for your page and add it to your title and meta description tag. The selection of the keyword would be informed by keyword research as well as competitive research.

Conversely in the case of duplicate content, you may decide that the page doesn’t belong into the Google index and set the meta robots tag to “noindex”.

So what do I mean by Meta Tag Optimization being Dead?

You should still add keywords to your meta tags, but the exact selection of the keyword may not matter as much as you might think.

Let me illustrate this with an example.

Open up your browser and search on “internet marketing”.

When I did this search, the top three results did NOT have the keyword “internet marketing” anywhere in the snippets. Instead pages optimized for “online marketing” and “digital marketing” ranked instead.

Let’s take a look at the top two results.

Quick Sprout’s Beginner’s Guide to Online Marketing

The Beginner's Guide to Online Marketing

I’ve been monitoring the results of the “internet marketing” search for a couple of years now. The Quick Sprout Beginner’s Guide to Online Marketing is relatively new to the party, Neil Patel and his team are to be congratulated for ranking first for such a competitive term as well as putting together an awesome resource.

I think they also nailed the searcher intent perfectly, as it is likely to be people new to online marketing that will search on such a broad term. This page is optimized for “online marketing” (actually the title tag is set but the meta description tag is not).

Wikipedia entry on “Digital Marketing”

In position 2 we have the wikipedia article on digital marketing, which is interesting because previously their article on online marketing used to dominate position 1. The article acknowledges that the terms “online marketing” and internet marketing” are similar to “digital marketing” and notes that “online marketing” is widely used in the US, but globally the term “digital marketing” is the most prevalent.

I found this interesting, so I did a quick check in Google Keyword Planner and found that “digital marketing” has the greater search volume (22,000 monthly searches) than both “online marketing” and “internet marketing” even in the US.

marketing keyword search volumes

I also noticed that Google Keyword Planner assigned the same search volume (8100) to both “online marketing” and “internet marketing” which is a behavior I’ve noticed before. Keyword Planner is notorious for rounding the search volume numbers, however my conclusion is that this signals that Google has decided the terms are interchangeable, but please leave me a comment if you have a better insight.

Internet marketing vs. Online marketing for a keyword?

So if you were to ask me which is better for a keyword for your title tag, “online marketing” or “internet marketing”, I’m likely to answer that in this case, the choice may not matter much at all.

When it comes to “digital marketing” Google seems to treat that a little differently. The Wikipedia article ranks first for that term. But I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that a competing page must be optimized for “digital marketing” to knock wikipedia out of position 1.

Domain Authority and the content itself are going to be what matters, with title tags playing a supporting role.

It’s not just about the Meta Tags anymore

That brings me to the point I want to make with this article. Meta Tags are just one of a constellation of SEO factors that Google uses to rank your web page. And with Google’s evolution beyond just matching up the “strings” in Meta Tags with the keywords in search queries, your on page SEO optimization needs to evolve as well.

In the last couple of years, Google’s shift to using semantic search means that it thinks more in terms of topics, topics comprised of related words rather than in terms of a single keyword out of context.

And in fact, keywords in your title tags may not matter as much as they once did. This SearchEngineJournal article on important SEO tags for 2016 cited a Backlinko research study that found that a keyword optimized title tag was associated with a better ranking, but that the correlation was smaller than it once was.

What often happens, is that after a website is built, the site owner will hire someone to “SEO” the website. In the old days that often meant updating the meta tags with promising keywords with good search volume, even if the page didn’t mention the keyword at all.

I’ve been guilty of this, I’ve had clients that weren’t willing to change their pages, but yet wanted meta tag optimization.

But meta tag optimization shouldn’t be a separate and isolated activity. It no longer works (if it ever did) to optimize your page for a keyword that doesn’t match the topic of the page. On page SEO optimization is now a holistic practice where your page needs to fully address a “theme” that involves many closely related keywords both in your meta tags and in the content of the page.

So is meta tag optimization dead? No, not exactly. But the way you are doing it might be.

About the Author Kathy Alice

Kathy Alice Brown is a SEO expert specializing in Technical SEO and Content. In her spare time she loves to get outside.

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