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Complete guide to meta tags in SEO

Labels and stickers isolated on white. Vector elements.

A complete introduction to all the meta tags a webmaster may need when creating or optimising a webpage for SEO.

Everything will be covered here, including: Title Tag, Meta Description, Alt-Text for images, Canonical Tag, Noindex, Nofollow, H1 – H6 tags, Robots Meta Tag and the various tags involved in Google News.

But first, let’s answer the question…

What are meta tags?

Meta tags are HTML elements that provide information about a web page for search engines and website visitors.

These elements must be placed as tags in the head section of a HTML document so therefore need to be coded in your CMS.

Some are easier to implement than others, especially if you have WordPress or any other ‘out-of-box’ CMS, where things like merely writing a headline creates your H1 tag and there are specific sections to add your own canonical links or meta descriptions.

None of them are as complicated as they sound though, so let’s define each one in alphabetical order.

Alt-Text for images

As we stated in our guide to image optimisation for SEO, Google can’t ‘see’ your images, but it can ‘read’ them and what it reads is what you write in the alt-attribute.

A Wodpress window showcasing the fields that enhance image optimisation

Alt-text should be clear, descriptive, concise and not stuffed with keywords. Alt-text is also what’s used by screen reader software to describe images to people with visual impairments.

The alt-text also shows up in the text box that appears when you hover over an image.

Canonical Tag

If there are two identical pieces of content that exist on the internet (normally if you’ve syndicated another website’s content) you must include a Canonical Tag which contains the original published article’s URL.

This will pass all of the PageRank and other Google ranking signals back to the original webpage, informing the search engine that this is the page that should appear in search results.

The Canonical Tag will look like this in the link HTML:

link rel=”canonical” href=”” /

Or often there’ll be a section in your article’s CMS where you can simply copy and paste the original URL:

canonical tag

Google News meta news_keywords

The meta news_keywords allows you to specify the 10 most relevant terms in your news articles.

To use Google’s own example, in an article about the World Cup you could add the following code to help Google News better understand the nature of your content:

meta name=”news_keywords” content=”World Cup, Brazil 2014, Spain vs Netherlands” 

The meta news_keywords tag is only useful for sites that are in Google News by the way, the won’t be any use if you’re not.

Google News Standout Tag

You can tag an exclusive, breaking story from your website by implementing the standout code.


link rel=”standout”

Or, you could use a meta tag:


meta name=”standout”

This should only be used for genuinely excellent and original pieces of journalism. If Google finds you abusing the standout tag it will either ignore your site’s tags or remove you from Google News all together.

Google News Local Source Tag

Google recently introduced a Local section in Google News, which it claims will “surface content from regional papers to hyper-local blogs that otherwise wouldn’t appear in national news.”

Unfortunately these tags can’t be manually added, instead they’re automatically added by Google. It does this by “looking at where a publisher has written about in the past and comparing that to the story location.”

H1 – H6 tags

The H1 tag is what visitors see at the top of your page. Your headline or webpage name will (in the majority of cases) form your H1 tag.

H2 – H6 tags tend to form any subheadings in your article. It’s a good idea to break up you content with as many H2 and H3 tags as possible, but try to use them in a descending, logical order.

h2 and h3 tags

Normally you’d only use one H1 tag per-page. Although this isn’t strictly true if you’re using HTML5 where you can use one H1 per section.

Meta Description

The meta description is the short paragraph of text that appears under your page’s URL in the search results, it’s also something you should have complete control of in your CMS.

guide to primavera sound 2016 Google Search

Write succinctly (under 156 characters is good), clearly and make sure it’s relevant to your headline and the content of the article itself.


Add rel=“nofollow” to any links that you don’t want search engine crawlers to follow.

For example:

a href=”“ rel=”nofollow”EXAMPLE/a

This basically means that Google does not transfer PageRank or any other ranking signal across these links.

You’re encouraged to use nofollow for any paid links (such as those brought about by sponsored content or native advertising), links for products in return for reviews or publicity and untrusted content.

It’s also a good idea to make sure any comments on your website are automatically nofollow as this can be a haven for web spam.


Adding a noindex tag to your page will stop search engine crawlers from indexing that particular page. You may wish to use this if you want to keep certain pages private.

To prevent Google web crawlers from indexing a page, place the following meta tag into its head section:

meta name=”googlebot” content=”noindex”

To prevent other search engines indexing a page on your site:

meta name=”robots” content=”noindex”

However Google warns that it is still possible that your page might appear in results from other search engines.

Robots meta tag

The robots meta tag lets you specify if a particular page should not be indexed by a search engine or whether all the links on a page should be followed or unfollowed.

Place the robots meta tag in the head section of your webpage, like this:

meta name=”robots” content=”noindex” /

Here are the various implementations of the Robots Meta Tag and what they mean:

meta name=”robots” content=”noindex, nofollow” /

Do not Index this page. Do not follow the links on the page

meta name=”robots” content=”index, nofollow” /

Do Index this page. Do not follow the links on the page.

meta name=”robots” content=”noindex, follow” /

Do not Index this page. Do follow the links on the page.

meta name=”robots” content=”noimageindex” /

Do not index images on this page.

meta name=”robots” content=”noarchive” /

Do not show a “Cached” link in search results.

meta name=”robots” content=”nosnippet” /

Do not show a snippet in the search results for this page

meta name=”robots” content=”notranslate” /

Do not offer translation of this page in search results.

Title Tag

Title tags are used to tell search engines and visitors what your site is about in the most concise and accurate way possible.

title tag on page

The keywords in your title tag show up highlighted in search engine results (if the query uses those keywords), as well as in your browser tab and when sharing your site externally.

You can write your own title tag inside the head area of your site’s HTML:

titleExample Title/title

Example Title

You should use a few accurate keywords describing the page as well as your own brand name. Only use relevant keywords though, and the most important thing to consider is that although you are formatting for search engines, you should write for humans.

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Search Engine Watch.You can follow him on Twitter: @Christophe_Rock

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