Meta Tags: Still Useful? - History
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Meta tags were instituted as a way for search engines to understand a given web page. When the search engine found a web page, it would go straight to the meta tags and use that information to store the web page and rank it for different keywords. Back then, it was vital for a website to have well-designed meta tags to ensure a good search engine result as well as ranking.
As the technology of search engines developed, they became better at classifying a web page without relying on the information provided by the website itself. They looked to the actual content of the website and reported that information instead. Over time, the majority of keywords were not as important, and so it was not as important for website developers to use the keywords.
One of the biggest driving factors for the decline of meta tags is the fact that people had found ways to cheat the meta tag system. One of the meta tags, keywords, was relied on particularly heavily for search engine rankings. Unscrupulous developers took advantage of this fact to enter keywords that might not have anything to do with the website. They could also specify the same keyword more than once to increase their ranking.
To discourage these unscrupulous behaviors, top search engines decided to develop their technology to look at actual web pages instead of the information that developers offered with the meta tags. Now, search engines look at the frequency of words on a web page, as well as their relative importance and size. Basically, a search engine finds the same words first that a typical individual would find first.
Different search engines decided to take different routes in developing their technology. As late as 2002, at least one top search engine relied on the keywords meta tag to determine the content of a web page. Even today, Yahoo reportedly uses some information from the keywords tag to help determine its rankings.
Depending on the search engine, different meta tags serve different purposes. Although their purposes have decreased over time, many of those purposes are still there in one form or another. It takes some experience and knowledge to know which aspects of each meta tag are still viable for which search engines.
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