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The Motive Web Design Glossary

metadata, meta element, [meta tags]

An element of confusion

Webpage metadata elements are often referred to (incorrectly) as ‘meta tags’. For clarification, see elements/tags.

Metadata is information-about-information, for example, classification by subject, format, author, etc.

Metadata records are either added to individual webpages or submitted to a third-party repository. For example, New Zealand Government agencies submit records describing the information and services they provide to the portal using a tool called the metalogue. A user can then locate an agency or service by searching these records (rather than the content of the individual agency websites).

Webpage-level metadata

Metadata can be added to a webpage using meta elements.

Meta elements comprise of a pair of values (or attributes): a name (noun) and a content qualifier (adjective), for example:

<meta name="keywords" content="cats, domestic short-hair (DSH), ginger" />

Common webpage-level meta-information includes:

file type
<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=iso-8859-1" />
<meta name="description" content="Description of the page content" />
<meta name="keywords" content="Synonyms and phrases that classify the content" />

Search engines and metadata

Plurals and searching

Speakers of English commonly use the plural form of a word when describing the action of seeking a ‘thing’. In response to a question such as: “What are you looking for?”, the response will tend to be: “I’m looking for books, cars, houses,….”. The prompt provided by a search form; ‘Search for …?’ elicits a similar response. For this reason, use the plural form of a keyword when creating metadata.

Search engines may use webpage-level metadata when generating and listing search results.

The content of the meta elements may be treated as webpage text when a search engine generates results. A match will be made when the keyword or phrase searched for, is found in a meta element. The meta elements enable the author to add keywords and phrases to a webpage, without complicating the content. The alternative is to add synonyms and related terms to the copy, which can result in content that reads like a thesaurus entry.

Search engines, including Google, use the content of the description meta element (if provided) as the blurb about the webpage (displayed under the link on search results pages).

How to view webpage metadata

  1. right mouse click (WIN) or [control]+click (MAC) the webpage
  2. choose "View Page Source" (or similar) from the pop-up contextual menu

The meta elements are contained within the <head></head> element at the top of the HTML code.

Page ‘meta’ title

The trouble with defaults

Place-holder title text added by visual webpage editing software can have an unforeseen side effect—try googling: “Welcome to GoLive CyberStudio”…

While not technically a meta element, the content of the <title> element (title text) is also a form of metadata and it is often used by search engines.

<title>Page (meta) title text</title>

Location of Title field in Dreamweaver

Editing page title text in Dreamweaver

Blog aggregator metadata (tags)

Electronic journal (blog) aggregators often refer to metadata as tags. Services such as Technorati and Flickr describe tags as like a subject or category. Contributors are encouraged to tag their content to build a subject index.

Presumably the use of tag to mean classify, combines the colloquial term for metadata (meta tags) and one of the four elements of hip hop: graffiti or ‘tagging’.

While author-created metadata typically adheres to established taxonomical and hierarchical distinctions (drawing on the field of library science), tagging can be seen as a more personalised or subjective classification system. For example, Technorati tags include: rant, ramblings and random thoughts.

Microdata, microformats and rich snippets

Metadata can be added to the content within a webpage by adding a descriptive classification attribute to an HTML element. The value of the attribute is selected from a standardised annotation system that is relevant to the type of content, and that is recognised by the targeted content aggregator or search service.

For example, a review (of a product or service), can be marked-up using the hReview markup format. This format is recognised by Google and used to show an inline rating underneath a product or service webpage listing on the Google search results page.

Google uses certain microformats to generate ‘rich snippets’: excerpts of webpage content that are shown underneath the page listing within a search engine results page.

Related terms: content, Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, folksonomy, markup, NZGLS, search engines, search engine optimisation, spiders.


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