Why Metadata Matters

We’re often asked by our clients ‘What is metadata?’ and ‘Why is metadata important?’ Metadata quite literally means ‘data about data’. In terms of web pages, metadata allows you to describe your website, mostly for the sake of search engines but it can also benefit your users too.

The HTML format allows for the inclusion of a variety of types of metadata, most commonly keywords and description however it can be expanded to highly-granular information such as the Dublin Core and e-GMS standards.

Metadata is typically hidden from a user when they visit a webpage, however a search engine spider will be able to pick up the metadata. Metadata helps a search engine spider understand what a webpage is about, helps to categorise the webpage, and therefore helps to facilitate search and retrieval (NISO, 2001).

Four Key Reasons Why Metadata Matters

1. Meta data works on image-lead pages
It’s a bit of a cliché but there is some truth in the statement oft-used by search engine optimisation (SEO) experts, that “content is King”. Certainly having a lot of content, that changes and updates regularly is a key criteria in optimising for search engines; however there are many valid situations, web pages and entire websites that are very image-lead. As an example many web designer and artist’ websites would naturally contain a gallery of graphical and image lead work. Ensuring you have detailed meta-data describing the site and page content and the nature of your business ensures that search engines have something to get hold of other than just the image content.

2. Meta data expands on existing content
There is often more than one way to describe something – perhaps there is an incorrect way of describing something or there is a commonly used slang expression. If you want to keep your pages corporate and don’t want to include this alternate content however you’d like to rank in the search engine results page (SERP) for the slang, adding them to your metadata may help you rank well for text which doesn’t actually appear on your on-page content.

3. There’s more than one way to spell
There is sometimes more than one way to spell a particular word, for example English spellings tend to prefer the ‘s’ whereas American spellings prefer ‘z’ (e.g. specialisation vs specialization).

If you want to keep your website consistent, you will want to ensure that you keep your descriptions and spelling conventions consistent throughout all your webpages. However what if you run an international website and you want to rank for the alternative spelling?

Metadata can help by allowing you to add these alternate spellings into your metadata. Effectively this data is hidden from your user when they visit the webpage so there are no consistency issues; however it allows search engine spiders to potentially rank your webpage for a variety of other terms.

4. Good metadata increases click-through rates
Search engines will often use the title and meta descriptions of each webpage when they list the result in the SERP. Pages with good metadata are much more likely to be clicked on than ones with poor metadata for example:

metadata example 1Poor metadata – the title of the page is unhelpful, the description doesn’t say anything about the company.

metadata example 2Better metadata – the title of the page explains what the company does and includes keyword targets, the meta description gives more detail about the company’s services and what’s on the page.

If any of the contents of your metadata match up with the phrase the user has searched for, the keyword terms will be bolded up in the SERP. Research has shown that users are more likely to click on a result the more bolded keywords there are in the listing, thus it is important to plan your metadata carefully and ensure that every page on your website has unique, hand-crafted metadata.

However if you leave your metadata out, it’s not the end of the world – search engines will often try and use some of the on-page content in the SERP if you don’t have a meta description and there are “over 200” factors which influence a web page’s position in the SERP for a given keyphrase (that’s the Google secret sauce) therefore you may still rank well even if you leave this key information out. It does tend to be harder and take a lot longer!

References

Google (nd); Google Basics – Serving results
Available from: http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=70897&ctx=sibling
[cited: 25 August 2009]

NISO (2001); Understanding Metadata
Available from: http://www.niso.org/publications/press/UnderstandingMetadata.pdf
[cited: 25 August 2009]

About the author

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Nichola Stott

Nichola is Founder and Director of theMediaFlow; with over 10 years experience in online marketing, over six of which in search. Nichola learned all about search at Yahoo! as head of UK search partners.

5 Comments

  1. Bradley Holt says:

    Yes, metadata matters but I would encourage people to focus on visible data over hidden metadata (a microformats principle). Within a silo website or a trusted network hidden metatdata can be useful. However, once you hit the global web scale hidden metadata is too easily neglected (i.e. not kept up-to-date) or outright abused (e.g. keyword spamming). As a historical example, Google’s success was partially won by ignoring hidden keywords and focusing on visible hyperlinks between pages (PageRank). Visible metadata also provides the opportunity for authors and visitors to see and correct mistakes. Hidden metadata often falls out of sync with the content and becomes less-and-less useful.

  2. theMediaFlow says:

    Thanks Bradley. Some valid points there. We’re definitely not advocating that site owners focus on metadata at the expense of any other data; more that it is still worth making the effort with this area for the reasons above.

  3. Bradley Holt says:

    Sure, and as I said, good post! Yes, the PageRank algorithm is very complicated but the feature that defined its initial success over the competition was its focus on the credibility of *visible* hyperlinks. Hidden keywords have always played a minimal role in the PageRank algorithm and have played no role for at least a few years now. In fact, Google finally officially stated as much the other day:

    http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2009/09/google-does-not-use-keywords-meta-tag.html

  4. theMediaFlow says:

    Yes – I did see that Google post. Extremely interesting that they have officially qualified this. It has been conventional knowledge (as you rightly say) for at least a few years now. Google never do anything lightly so the cynic in me wonders why they have chosen to specifically qualify this now.

  5. Nichola says:

    At SMX East today, Barry Schwartz (of Search Engine Land) has liveblogged that Yahoo! no longer include META keywords in their ranking algorithm either. Cris Perry of YahoO! confirms this in the Ask The Search Engines panel. http://searchengineland.com/yahoo-search-no-longer-uses-meta-keywords-tag-27303

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