SAN MATEO (06/12/2000) - Metatags -- used to embed hidden information into the source code of HTML pages -- play a major organizational role in most corporate Web sites. Several key search engines, such as AltaVista Co., use them as part of their page-ranking algorithms, and more and more knowledge management applications are using meta data to categorize and index content.
For large sites, manually creating and maintaining metatag information can quickly become time-consuming and tedious, the equivalent of testing by hand for broken links in HTML pages. Watchfire Metabot 3.0 automates much of the drudgery. The software uses a spreadsheet metaphor to ease the insertion and maintenance of meta-tags across an entire site. Built-in FTP allows you to update pages via the Internet, a nice feature for organizations that do not host their sites internally or have desktop access to Web site content.
At US$495 for a single-user license, Metabot isn't necessarily a bargain, especially for organizations with a large passel of Web developers. But considering the potential savings in time that it can provide, it is well worth the investment.
Using Metabot, I was able to insert description and keyword metatags into all of the pages of a corporate Web site, more than 500 pages in all, in a matter of seconds.
To start, I pointed Metabot at a local hierarchy of HTML files on a staging Web server. The software automatically scanned the contents and created a project file that listed the Web pages and their metatags in spreadsheet format.
Each column in the spreadsheet represents a particular piece of meta data. For example, the Content-Type column allows you to specify a MIME type, such as text or audio, whereas the Copyright column allows you to provide a copyright notice for a particular page.
Metabot supports over 50 metatags, including HTTP-EQUIV and metatags with a NAME attribute. Context-sensitive help for each column header helps you keep them straight.
With Metabot 3.0, you can add meta data to a page by typing the information into a field. In addition, because some metatags are limited to predetermined values, Metabot provides drop-down menus of valid choices. For example, I could tell visiting search engine spiders whether to index a particular page by choosing an option from a menu.
To add metatag information to multiple pages, I simply copied and pasted the information into the appropriate spreadsheet cells. In keeping with the spreadsheet metaphor, standard find and replace commands are available as well.
Whereas the Metabot spreadsheet makes it easy to perform bulk updates, a new wizard in Version 3.0 allows you to manage metatag information in individual pages quite easily, leading you through each column in the spreadsheet. You can also use the wizard to spell-check the metatags used in an HTML file.
A keyword extraction option offers the ability to have Metabot automatically extract keywords that are specific to each page and insert them into a keyword tag. This is a great start, but I wish Watchfire would take keyword management a bit further, warning of keyword overuse, for example.
Once the metatags have been inserted or edited within the Meta-bot spreadsheet, all the affected pages can be updated at one time. For safekeeping, Metabot can also back up the original pages, instead of simply overwriting them. Metabot is very customizable. For example, I was able to create Meta Project files, which allowed me to apply metatag standards across projects and authors. This approach would be appropriate in a team environment.
For large Web sites, maintaining metatag standards is critical. Even minor variants in keywords, for example, could confuse some search engines, resulting in lower rankings in keyword searches.
Watchfire has also integrated reporting into the latest release of Metabot. An executive report provides a bird's-eye view of your site to see whether metatag standards are being enforced. A more detailed technical report provides a page-by-page summary of each metatag and its specific value. This makes it easy to spot any inconsistencies across pages.
My mileage varied using Meta-bot's metatag optimization techniques. The product doesn't apply artificial intelligence but relies strictly on page content, drawing optimization suggestions from the frequency with which a word appears, for example.
Nevertheless, Metabot is a worthwhile addition to any Web maintenance toolkit.
Organizations looking to maintain control over metatag usage and optimization would do well to consider this product.
Technical Analyst Todd Coopee (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Web site analysis tools for the InfoWorld Test Center.
THE BOTTOM LINE: VERY GOOD
Business Case: This Web development utility eliminates the drudgery behind creating and maintaining Web page meta data, allowing development staff to focus on design and content and also on improving strategies for search engine rankings.
Technology Case: Metabot makes quick and easy work of inserting and maintaining metatags across large Web sites, thanks to a handy spreadsheet interface. Good reporting tools help Web development teams keep metatags accurate and consistent.
+ Integrates with third-party HTML editors+ Good reporting facilities+ Intuitive user interfaceCons:
- A bit pricey
Platform(s): Windows 95, 98 and Windows NT; Windows 2000 certification forthcomingWatchfire, Kanata, Ontario; (888) 245-5550; www.watchfire.com.