Make metadata meaningful

Metadata is potentially the most important tool your online content will have. When written properly, it works like a hybrid of an elevator pitch and a rescue flare — drawing the attention of human users and search engine optimisation (SEO) algorithms alike.

Using plain language is vital when creating metadata in your page descriptions and page titles, because you can only use a limited number of characters. Search engines are now being programmed to search using plain language principles. If you write metadata that’s full of adjectives but doesn’t actually describe your content’s purpose, it will fail to draw the search engine’s attention. Your metadata has to work for you, not against you!

What is metadata?

Metadata is data about data. It tells the users about the content it’s attached to and what it’s for. Human website users and SEO algorithms, also called ‘crawlers’, use different types of metadata in the search process.

How it works

Say you’re looking online for cute cat pictures to look at during a rainy lunchbreak. You open up Google or Bing (or whichever search engine you’re using) and type in ‘cute cats’. The search engine regularly sends its crawlers out into the web to store the keywords from content as it’s published. When you look for ‘cute cats’, the search engine goes to the list of sites that have a combination of the keywords ‘cute’ and ‘cats’ that the crawlers found. These are shown to you in the order that the search engine thinks is the best fit for your search. The more relevant keywords you use, the more precise your results will be.

Image, front page of a Google search for cute cats


The description metadata is what makes a human want to click on your content. Image by Rhiannon Davies / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

From there, the list of websites to choose from will have a small description of what they’re about under their main link. This information will determine whether or not you choose to go to the site.

Different types of metadata

Each type of metadata has its own function. Let’s look at keywords, title tags, meta tags, and meta descriptions.

Keywords

These are the words or phrases in your content that you want to use for the SEO algorithm’s lists. They’re also the foundation for all your other metadata.

You can choose from two kinds of keywords:

Image, keyphrase window in the back end of a WordPress website

Focus keyphrase in the working end of a WordPress website. Image by Rhiannon Davies / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

 

Image, focus keyphrase in text and title in the public-facing end of a WordPress website


Focus keyphrase in text and title in the public-facing end of a WordPress website. Image by Rhiannon Davies / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Title tags

Title tags are the HTML element that give a webpage its title. If you’re using a content management system (CMS) like WordPress or Silverstripe, this will be the title that you enter into the Title field. It’s the name your web browser shows you when you search for things. The title tag also shows up in the tail end of your page’s URL (unless you specify otherwise), and in the tab that you see in the top of your browser when you open the page.

Image, title tag on the front page of a Google search for 'cute cats'

Title tag on the front page of a Google search for ‘cute cats’. Image by Rhiannon Davies / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Meta tags

Tags are essentially keywords that are used to index your content. They’re outside the content so human readers don’t see them, but the SEO algorithms will. If you’re using a CMS, you’ll see a separate box to set your tags in.

Alt-text for images also falls into this category. Alt-text is primarily used for people with low vision who use screen-reading programs like JAWS, but SEO algorithms also use it as a content index for images.

Image, tag window in the working end of a WordPress website

Tag window in the working end of a WordPress website. Image by Rhiannon Davies / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

 

Image, tags in the public facing end of a WordPress website

Tags in the public facing end of a WordPress website. Image by Rhiannon Davies / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Meta descriptions

The description is the text underneath the main heading of your site when it comes up on your browser’s results page. It tells the reader what the piece of content is about. It’s mainly written to entice the human user to click through to the website, but the SEO algorithms will still check it for keywords. These are usually about 164 characters long, including spaces.

Some content management systems will offer to use a sentence or two from your content as the meta description. This might seem like a good idea, but the AI’s choice might not convince the human user to click through to your site. It’s always best to write your own.

Image, keywords in a metadescription on Google


Keywords in a meta description in a Google search. Image by Rhiannon Davies / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Image, meta description snippet editor in a WordPress website

Meta description snippet editor in a WordPress website. Image by Rhiannon Davies / CC BY-NC-ND

AI? In my search engine? It’s more likely than you’d think

In 2011 Google launched Panda, an algorithm that prioritised websites using these plain language principles and ignored sites that didn’t. In 2013 Google launched Hummingbird, which tries to figure out the meaning behind what the human user is asking, rather than simply looking for content with keywords that match exactly.

Image, tortoiseshell cat sitting on a 4-shaft table loom

My cat Monster would have keywords like ‘cute’, ‘sassy’, and ‘fuzzy’. Image by Rhiannon Davies / CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

BERT was released in 2019, letting Google’s search engine better understand what they call ‘natural language’ — the organic, everyday language that people use to talk to each other. Understanding natural language meant it could understand less formal language used in searches. Other search engines may not have BERT-style technology yet, but where Google goes, Bing, Yahoo, Duck Duck Go, and others will follow.

In short, the search engines are searching for content in the same way that a human would. If a human would struggle to understand your content, so will the crawlers. If you’re not using plain language principles in your metadata, you may very well find your content forgotten on the back page of the internet.

How do I make metadata work for me?

Search algorithms have been programmed to behave like human readers. Naturally, using plain language in your content will make sure the right information gets to the crawlers. Use active voice and simple words, and be concise. Then your content will be easier for the crawlers to process, which will boost your search engine ranking.

Take our online Plain Language Foundations course
Learn how to use our Plain Language Standard
Learn more about SEO optimisation

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