SEO: Why Is Metadata Important?

Editor’s Note: Meet Jill Kocher at Ignite 2015, our conference on Sept. 16 and 17 in Dallas, where she’ll present two sessions: “The Essential SEO Checklist for Ecommerce Companies, for 2015” and “Keyword Research for SEO Success: How Do Consumers Search for Your Brand and Products?”

Metadata is simply data about data. Data sounds like an insufferably dry topic; but it’s critical that ecommerce marketers understand the metadata that drives search engine optimization. Without metadata, we weaken our ability to drive consumers from search engines to our ecommerce sites to purchase products.

Nearly all metadata is invisible to your visitors and customers. It lives and works behind the scenes in the HTML of your web pages. The metadata we use most for SEO speaks to search engines directly from each page crawled, to communicate important information or request a specific action from the search engine.

Metadata is a series of micro-communications between your site and search engines, and the closest answer to the oft-asked question: “Can we just call Google and tell them what we want?”

The image below shows a bit of the metadata from“Panda 4.2 Complicates SEO for Ecommerce Sites,” my last article.  You can see the code or “source” of any page showing in your browser in the “View Source” option in your browser’s menu.

Example metadata from a recent Practical Ecommerce article.

Example metadata from a recent Practical Ecommerce article.

This article will outline at a high level the types of metadata most commonly used in SEO, and elaborate on more in-depth sources of information for each. It’s not an exhaustive list — please include the metadata you think are missing in the comments.

Pay careful attention to the language used below. Meta tags are metadata, but not all metadata are meta tags. Some elements commonly called “tags” are actually properly referred to as “attributes of a tag.” Sounds like picky semantics, I know. But when you’re speaking with developers who do know the difference between data, tags, and attributes, using the wrong words can result in miscommunication and incorrect implementation.

Meta Tags for SEO

The most obvious metadata for SEO are meta tags, so we’ll start there. The meta tag takes the form of:

meta name=”description” content=” This what a meta tag with a name attribute of description looks like.” /

Each of the tags below follows this format with the beginning tag of “meta,” and the following “name” attributes. Don’t worry too much about memorizing the each format of the tag — your content management system does the heavy lifting for you. When you type a meta description into your CMS, it automatically generates the meta tag in the correct format.

  • Description. Sometimes used by search engines as the descriptive black text in the search result listing, meta descriptions can help increase customer click through in search results but will not impact rankings. The description attribute for the meta tag describes the page content in a summary that needs to be at least 11 words but no longer than 150 characters.

Description content fewer than 11 words won’t be displayed; and content past 150 characters may not be displayed because it’s close to the search engines’ truncation length. Don’t bother placing the first 150 characters from the copy on the page into your meta description — just leave it blank if you have to. Google will ignore such descriptions and determine the most relevant content to display as the summary text in its search results from among the content on the page.

  • Keywords. Meta keywords ceased to impact rankings in 2009. Bing may still use them, but only as a spam signal. In other words, too many irrelevant keywords in this attribute may actually harm rankings in Bing. Do not use the keyword attribute unless your internal site search engine requires it.
  • Robots. Part of the exclusion protocol, the meta robots attribute tells search engines whether to index or pass link authority through the links on a page. The four attributes are “index,” “noindex,” “follow,” “nofollow.’ Keep in mind that search engines by default index content and follow links. So it’s pointless to use the attribute combination of “index, follow.” These attributes are commonly used at the template level, since you may want to exclude all pages using a certain template from being indexed.

Remember, though, that accidental use of the noindex tag can result in drastic decreases in SEO performance. The robots attribute can also request that search engines not pull descriptions for pages from Yahoo directory (noydir) and the now-defunct open directory project (noodp). This is useful when the descriptions for your site that are found in those directories are outdated and not editable.

Title Tags for SEO

Title tags are still the single most important piece of metadata on the page. Their format is simple, and as with meta tags, your CMS will generate the tag for you from the title or headline you enter. Here’s what a title tag looks like:

titleSEO: For Conversions, Every Page Is a Landing Page | Practical Ecommercetitle

The best title tags begin with the most relevant keywords, product name, or article name, and end with the name of the site as shown above. Stay within 60 to 65 characters and keep the most unique, relevant, and valuable keywords toward the beginning of the title for maximum SEO benefit. An entire SEO article could be written about title tags, but these are the very basic guidelines.

Image Tags and Alt Attributes

Image tags are primarily used to identify the URLs for the images to be shown on the page. For SEO, the alternative attribute is used to apply some textual context to an otherwise unreadable element for impaired customers and search engines. Other attributes can specify the height and width of the image. Here’s what an image tag looks like:

img src=”” alt=”Practical Ecommerce” /

The alternative attribute is the most important image attribute for SEO, though its relative importance to other SEO factors is very small. Intended to serve accessibility needs for customers with vision or mobility disabilities, alternative attributes provide a short textual description of the image referred to in the same tag. They also serve as small keyword relevance signals for SEO, most importantly in image search.

Alt attributes should only be placed on product images, images that contain important words, navigational elements that contain words, and conversion buttons that contain words. Ideally, all textual content would be rendered on the page as plain text rather than locked into an image file, thus rendering alt attributes unnecessary for all images except product images.

All decoration elements should contain blank alt attributes within the image tag because they add no value to customers with disabilities, and no real SEO value. I’ve addressed alt attributes here previously, at “6 SEO Myths about Alt Tags.”

To understand the difficulties in navigating a site with too many alt attributes or redundant alt attributes, use the Fangs add-on for the Firefox browser. Fangs prints out the text that a screen reader would read to a vision-impaired customer. If you can’t stand to read through that page, imagine what a visitor feels having to listen to it.

There are many other forms of metadata relevant to SEO, but these are the most commonly used tags and attributes. Other metadata communicates the language and country at which the content is targeted, canonicalization to prevent duplicate content, pagination to assist indexation in deep sites, data to identify product attributes like price for rich snippets, and data used in social sharing.

I will address these and other metadata in upcoming articles.

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