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Meta tags are used to provide structured data about data, similar in many ways to the information provided in traditional library catalogue records.
Access to information stored in webpages can be enhanced by the provision of an informative title, description (summary of the text) and subject keywords. Keywords are often taken from a controlled vocabulary such as a thesaurus, which ensures that words are added consistently. In addition, the thesaurus lists synonyms so that a number of alternative search terms are provided. For example, if the keyword 'fishing' is assigned to a page the near-synonym 'angling' should also be added.
Words which are often misspelled are often added as keywords. For example, accommodation and millennium are misspelled almost as often as they are spelt correctly. Adding these misspellings as keywords is therefore of potential value.
Meta tags have been the focus of a field of marketing research known as search engine optimization, or SEO. In the mid to late 1990s, search engines were reliant on meta tag data to correctly classify a webpage. Webmasters quickly learned the commercial significance of having the right meta tag, as it frequently led to high rankings at search engines - and thus, high traffic to the site.
As search engine traffic achieved greater significance in online marketing plans, consultants were brought in who were well versed in how search engines perceive a website. These consultants used a variety of techniques (legitimate, and otherwise) to improve rankings for their clients.
In the early 2000s, search engines veered away from reliance on meta tags, as many sites used inappropriate keywords to obtain any and all traffic possible.
Some search engines, however, still take meta tags into some consideration when delivering results. In recent years, search engines have become smarter, penalizing websites that are cheating (by repeating the same keyword several times to get a boost in the search ranking). Instead of going up rankings, these websites will go down in rankings or, on some search engines, be kicked off of the search engine completely.
Alternative to Meta tags
An alternative to meta tags for enhanced subject access within a website is the use of a back-of-book-style index for the website. See examples at the websites of the Australian Society of Indexers (www.aussi.org) and the American Society of Indexers (www.asindexing.org).
- Meta Tags Explained (http://www.ilovejackdaniels.com/seo/meta-tags/) - A tutorial explaining what each Meta Tag does and which are worth using.
See also: metadata, HTML tags.