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Simply put, meta elements are used to define metadata about an HTML or XHTML web page. Meta tags and meta elements can be used to specify keywords, page description or other information that’s not spelled out in the other head elements and attributes. Search engine spiders read metatags and use them to help a search engine categorize pages properly.
In the 90s, metatags figured heavily into search engine optimization, but as search engine robots became more sophisticated, they’ve had less effect on search engine results. Black-hat SEO marketers began to use keyword stuffing and other tricks to get around or exploit search engine ranking algorithms, and metatags continued to be downplayed in importance.
The official word from Google is that they no longer observe HTML keyword or meta tag elements for page ranking and indexing. They do, however, use meta tag elements in site links, and inbound links play more heavily into search engine results now. The description attribute for metatags is still supported by search engines (unlike the keyword attribute), giving a concise rundown of the content on a page.