DM Review 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 Family

by R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D.

It isn’t 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 snowball’s 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 won’t 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.


Some of the other most common "HTTP-EQUIV" tags include:

Figure 1: HTTP-EQUIV Tags

Keyword Example
content-language Specifies the language
content-script-type Defines scripting language used
content-style-type Defines type of style sheets used
content-type Specifies type of data within document
expires Expiration date of the document.
ext-cache Define Netscape external cache
imagetoolbar This turns off Internet Explorer's image toolbar that appears when you hover over an image
page-enter Specifies the transition effect that is to be performed when the page is loaded.
page-exit Specifies the transition effect that is to be performed when the page is unloaded.
pics-label Includes rating information so content filters can do their job
pragma Do not locally cache documents
refresh Indicates the document displays for a specified amount of time before switching to a new URL.
set-cookie Sets the name and value for a persistent cookie.
site-enter Specifies the transition effect that is to be performed when the site is loaded.
site-exit Specifies the transition effect that is to be performed when the site is unloaded
window-target Specifies the name of the frame for the current page

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

Keyword Example
abstract Define a secondary description.
author Records the name of the author of the document.
classification Classify the site into the appropriate category.
copyright Used to include copyright information in the document.
description Some search engines pick up this description to show with the results of searches.
distribution Declares whether a document is available to the Web or on an intranet.
doc-class Indicates completion status of document.
doc-rights Indicates copyright status of document.
doc-type Specifies type of document.
expires Expiration date of the document.
generator The name of the program that created the document.
googlebot Define pages to be excluded from googlebot indexing.
keywords Inform search engines what your Web site or page is about.
MSSmartTagsPreventParsing Use this tag to prevent any Microsoft product from automatically generating smart tags.
owner Define the owner of the page or site.
progid The program identifier for developing the Web site
rating A simple rating for a site.
refresh Indicates the document displays for a specified amount of time before switching to a new URL.
reply-to E-mail address of contact for document.
resource-type Indicates the type of Web resource.
revisit-after Defines how often search engine spiders should revisit your site.
robots Define pages to be excluded from robot indexing.

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 couldn’t trust the information placed in the tags.

Why am I so high on the metatag?

  • First and foremost it is meta data. Meta data is my passion, and I have a hard time believing that meta data is important in one area and not in another. You are either in or out; there isn’t much room for middle ground.
  • They do allow you to load alternative words and phrases in the document that the primary user won’t see. The best example I can think of is the word "meta data" that has a multitude of spellings. You can place these different spellings in the keyword tag and not expose your visitors to the brand confusion.
  • Someday the search engines may return to the use of metatags and you will already have the plumbing in place. Nothing could be more challenging than returning after a year or so to try to add the meta data information.
  • Corporate intranets still utilize this framework and metatags still have a role in our intranets.
  • Provides utility to the Web development community by encouraging documentation. If nothing else, convincing the development community the importance of metatags will enable better internal documentation.
  • Conversion to XML’s RDF format can be automated and perhaps easing the transition to topic maps or ontologies.

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. (, 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:

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:

Sullivan, D. (2003). Death Of A Meta Tag. Retrieved July 6, 2003, from the World Wide Web:

Watchfire (2000) Metatags: They're not just for search engines anymore. June 17, 2001, from the World Wide Web:

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 or to learn more visit

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