W3 Meta Data

Table of Contents

Meta data

Note. The W3C Resource Description Framework (see [RDF10]) became a W3C Recommendation in February 1999. RDF allows authors to specify machine-readable metadata about HTML documents and other network-accessible resources.

HTML lets authors specify meta data — information about a document rather than document content — in a variety of ways.

For example, to specify the author of a document, one may use the META element as follows:

The META element specifies a property (here “Author”) and assigns a value to it (here “Dave Raggett”).

This specification does not define a set of legal meta data properties. The meaning of a property and the set of legal values for that property should be defined in a reference lexicon called a profile. For example, a profile designed to help search engines index documents might define properties such as “author”, “copyright”, “keywords”, etc.

Specifying meta data

In general, specifying meta data involves two steps:

Declaring a property and a value for that property. This may be done in two ways:
From within a document, via the META element.
From outside a document, by linking to meta data via the LINK element (see the section on link types).
Referring to a profile where the property and its legal values are defined. To designate a profile, use the profile attribute of the HEAD element.

Note that since a profile is defined for the HEAD element, the same profile applies to all META and LINK elements in the document head.

User agents are not required to support meta data mechanisms. For those that choose to support meta data, this specification does not define how meta data should be interpreted.

The META element

Start tag: required, End tag: forbidden

Attribute definitions

For the following attributes, the permitted values and their interpretation are profile dependent:

name = name [CS]
This attribute identifies a property name. This specification does not list legal values for this attribute.
content = cdata [CS]
This attribute specifies a property’s value. This specification does not list legal values for this attribute.
scheme = cdata [CS]
This attribute names a scheme to be used to interpret the property’s value (see the section on profiles for details).
http-equiv = name [CI]
This attribute may be used in place of the name attribute. HTTP servers use this attribute to gather information for HTTP response message headers.

Attributes defined elsewhere

lang (language information), dir (text direction)

The META element can be used to identify properties of a document (e.g., author, expiration date, a list of key words, etc.) and assign values to those properties. This specification does not define a normative set of properties.

Each META element specifies a property/value pair. The name attribute identifies the property and the content attribute specifies the property’s value.

For example, the following declaration sets a value for the Author property:

The lang attribute can be used with META to specify the language for the value of the content attribute. This enables speech synthesizers to apply language dependent pronunciation rules.

In this example, the author’s name is declared to be French:

Note. The META element is a generic mechanism for specifying meta data. However, some HTML elements and attributes already handle certain pieces of meta data and may be used by authors instead of META to specify those pieces: the TITLE element, the ADDRESS element, the INS and DEL elements, the title attribute, and the cite attribute.

Note. When a property specified by a META element takes a value that is a URI, some authors prefer to specify the meta data via the LINK element. Thus, the following meta data declaration:

might also be written:

META and HTTP headers

The http-equiv attribute can be used in place of the name attribute and has a special significance when documents are retrieved via the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). HTTP servers may use the property name specified by the http-equiv attribute to create an [RFC822]-style header in the HTTP response. Please see the HTTP specification ([RFC2616]) for details on valid HTTP headers.

The following sample META declaration:

will result in the HTTP header:

Expires: Tue, 20 Aug 1996 14:25:27 GMT

This can be used by caches to determine when to fetch a fresh copy of the associated document.

Note. Some user agents support the use of META to refresh the current page after a specified number of seconds, with the option of replacing it by a different URI. Authors should not use this technique to forward users to different pages, as this makes the page inaccessible to some users. Instead, automatic page forwarding should be done using server-side redirects.
META and search engines

A common use for META is to specify keywords that a search engine may use to improve the quality of search results. When several META elements provide language-dependent information about a document, search engines may filter on the lang attribute to display search results using the language preferences of the user. For example,

<-- For speakers of US English -->

<-- For speakers of British English -->

<-- For speakers of French -->

The effectiveness of search engines can also be increased by using the LINK element to specify links to translations of the document in other languages, links to versions of the document in other media (e.g., PDF), and, when the document is part of a collection, links to an appropriate starting point for browsing the collection.

Further help is provided in the section on helping search engines index your Web site.


The Platform for Internet Content Selection (PICS, specified in [PICS]) is an infrastructure for associating labels (meta data) with Internet content. Originally designed to help parents and teachers control what children can access on the Internet, it also facilitates other uses for labels, including code signing, privacy, and intellectual property rights management.

This example illustrates how one can use a META declaration to include a PICS 1.1 label:

… document title …

META and default information

The META element may be used to specify the default information for a document in the following instances:

The default scripting language.
The default style sheet language.
The document character encoding.

The following example specifies the character encoding for a document as being ISO-8859-5

Meta data profiles

The profile attribute of the HEAD specifies the location of a meta data profile. The value of the profile attribute is a URI. User agents may use this URI in two ways:

As a globally unique name. User agents may be able to recognize the name (without actually retrieving the profile) and perform some activity based on known conventions for that profile. For instance, search engines could provide an interface for searching through catalogs of HTML documents, where these documents all use the same profile for representing catalog entries.
As a link. User agents may dereference the URI and perform some activity based on the actual definitions within the profile (e.g., authorize the usage of the profile within the current HTML document). This specification does not define formats for profiles.

This example refers to a hypothetical profile that defines useful properties for document indexing. The properties defined by this profile — including “author”, “copyright”, “keywords”, and “date” — have their values set by subsequent META declarations.

How to complete Memorandum cover sheets

As this specification is being written, it is common practice to use the date formats described in [RFC2616], section 3.3. As these formats are relatively hard to process, we recommend that authors use the [ISO8601] date format. For more information, see the sections on the INS and DEL elements.

The scheme attribute allows authors to provide user agents more context for the correct interpretation of meta data. At times, such additional information may be critical, as when meta data may be specified in different formats. For example, an author might specify a date in the (ambiguous) format “10-9-97”; does this mean 9 October 1997 or 10 September 1997? The scheme attribute value “Month-Day-Year” would disambiguate this date value.

At other times, the scheme attribute may provide helpful but non-critical information to user agents.

For example, the following scheme declaration may help a user agent determine that the value of the “identifier” property is an ISBN code number:

Values for the scheme attribute depend on the property name and the associated profile.

Note. One sample profile is the Dublin Core (see [DCORE]). This profile defines a set of recommended properties for electronic bibliographic descriptions, and is intended to promote interoperability among disparate description models.

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