Published in DM Review Online in September 2003.|
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Knowledge: The Essence of Meta Data: Metatag – The Newest Member of the Meta Data Familyby R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D.
It isnt mentioned much in most Web design and development books. The vast majority of people will give you that deer in the headlights look when you bring the subject up. Without it, you have a snowballs chance in the south of succeeding in the world of electronic commerce. What is it? Allow me to introduce one of the newest members of the meta data family. Metatags are not exactly new, but they really came to the forefront in the early 2000s. One of the issues people have been struggling with is the ease and success of the Internet. There is simply too much information with only a limited ability to find what information you are looking for. A simple search for "meta data" delivers 2,380,000 hits. I think my site is in that list, probably number 2,125,361. The bright side of this is that you will only have to hit the "next" button 212,536 times to get to me. Undoubtedly, most of these hits wont provide you with even the basic understanding around the concepts of meta data. The metatag is not only part of the problem but also part of the solution.
There are two basic types of metatags. The first is the "HTTP-EQUIV" tag that is used as a directive to the browser. The directive might include "en-us" to define the language as English and the United States. Metatags with an "HTTP-EQUIV" attribute are equivalent to HTTP headers. Typically, they control the action of browsers and may be used to refine the information provided by the actual headers. Tags using this form should have an equivalent effect when specified as an HTTP header and in some servers may be translated to actual HTTP headers automatically or by a preprocessing tool. An example "HTTP-EQUIV" might look like the following code that tells the browser to refresh the HTML code from the server every five seconds.
<META HTTP-EQUIV="Refresh" CONTENT="5">
Some of the other most common "HTTP-EQUIV" tags include:
Figure 1: HTTP-EQUIV Tags
The second type of metatag is the "NAME" tag. This tag provides the developer a mechanism for documenting the page. (Clark, 1998) This metatag provides a robust collection of documentation keywords. Figure 2 provides a sample of basic tags.
Figure 2: Name Tags
An example of a name tag that identifies the editor of the HTML document as FrontPage might look like the following:
<META NAME= "Progid" CONTENT="FrontPage.Editor.Document">
Metatags can fall into two categories. Site tags define characteristics for the entire site and are usually found on every page with identical values. Page tags are specific for each page being described.
Metatags play a critical role in the development of web sites. Metatags can assist in the process of knowledge management by cataloging information and organizing content. This information can document the relevance of the document without actually reading the content and attempting to interpret the meaning. This, in turn, allows for greater management of the web site (Watchfire 2000). Over the past 20 years, software has grown extremely complex and difficult to maintain. HTML is now approaching the same complexity and growth. Even today, Web sites are becoming a burden to maintain. Some of these problems are physical in nature while others are not.
It sounds like metatags are a great idea. Well hold on, there are several authors that disagree. Danny Sullivan (2003) of Search Engine Watch describes the death of the metatag in his October article. Saying "Given that Inktomi is the last major crawler to still support the meta keywords tag, I don't think it was worth the time or bother for many Web masters to use." In a recent study, Hodgson (2001) presented information that 84 percent of the Web pages that contained metatags and comments contained little or no semantic content.
Why are the search engines now looking away from the metatag? Metatags are part of the HTML source code that is invisible to someone viewing your site in a browser. Search engines can see them and in the early days used them to position sites. Unfortunately, this was an easy way for people to take advantage, and soon search engines had to adjust their algorithms to use the content of the site, not just what a programmer or optimizer wanted them to see. The point is that the metatag is a great idea that was simply abused. The search engines realized they couldnt trust the information placed in the tags.
Why am I so high on the metatag?
A special note about legality regarding metatags. Some people have "borrowed" someone else's metatags and have been successfully sued in the courts. In general, this seems to have involved the inclusion of trademarked keywords, but in theory it would be possible to copyright a set of keywords. It is best to be sure and create your own descriptions and keywords. (Internet-Tips.net, 2003)
There are many similarities and lessons to be learned from the success, failure and ultimate role of the metatag within the Internet environment. Perhaps there is an opportunity within your organization for enhancing the utility of meta data and the metatag.
Clark, S. (1998). Back to Basics: META Tags. Retrieved July 1, 2001, from the World Wide Web: http://www.webdeveloper.com/html/html_metatags.html
Hodgson, J. (2001, January-February) Do HTML Tags Flag Semantic Content? IEEE Internet Computing, 20-25.
Internet-Tips (2000) Metatags:. July 25, 2003, from the World Wide Web: http://www.internet-tips.net/index.html
Sullivan, D. (2003). Death Of A Meta Tag. Retrieved July 6, 2003, from the World Wide Web: http://searchenginewatch.com/sereport/article.php/2165061
Watchfire (2000) Metatags: They're not just for search engines anymore. June 17, 2001, from the World Wide Web: http://www.watchfire.com/resources/metatagswhite.pdf
R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D. is the director of Meta Data Services Group for the BellSouth Corporation, located in Atlanta, Georgia. He has more than 20 years of experience in information technology and speaks around the world on meta data, data architecture and information technology. Stephens recently earned his Ph.D. in information systems and has more than 70 publications in the academic, professional and patent arena. You can reach him via e-mail at Todd@rtodd.com or to learn more visit http://www.rtodd.com/.
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