Your keywords are showing: the meta-keywords tag and why you should not be using it

Websavers Inc

This is one of those topics that simply does not want to die. The use of meta-keywords in search engine optimization and where it stands with search engines. If you’re looking for the quick advice: never use the meta-keywords tag on your website. Lets visit the topic in a bit more detail.

Quick history of the meta-keywords tag

Meta tags are bits of metadata that describe your website. There are a number of tags, the more popular being the meta-keywords and the meta-description tags. The meta-keywords tag was made popular in 1995 when the search engines AltaVista and InfoSeek encouraged webmasters to use it. There was a best practice behind it – it was meant to tell search engines the keywords that each page was suppose to be about. It was used extremely aggressively by SEOs back in the 90s and even early 2000s as a primary way to try to rank websites. SEO back then had a huge emphasis on this tag.

Around 1998, when new search engines (including Google) came to the market the meta-keywords tag started to fizzle out. This is because Google did not support the meta-keywords tag. That is, they knew webmasters used keyword stuffing (see image below) in the meta-keywords tag and therefore didn’t use it as a ranking signal. Many people placed irrelevant keywords, or even competitors’ brands, over and over in the meta tag to try to increase their rank – especially back when link analysis wasn’t very popular. Sounds great, but why do I recommend not using them?

Why you should not use the meta-keywords tag

Google does not support them. This has been stated over and over again yet I know many people (and even huge companies like that offer SEO services that promote the use of meta-keywords as a way to increase rankings. This frustrates me because it’s just ignorant. Here is a blog post from 2009 where Matt Cutts discusses Google’s view on the meta-keywords tag. There have been even more since then.

Bing uses meta-keywords tags as a spam signal. I suspect they have found a correlation between spammy websites and the use of meta-keywords. Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land touched on this in this blog post back in October 2011. It stemmed from the fact that Bing announced that they do use meta-keywords tag information as a ranking signal back in summer of 2011, which caused some commotion in the SEO world. Turns out they use them as signals – but mainly as spam signals.

They give away your keywords to competitors. This might not matter to a lot of people, and frankly it doesn’t matter much to me either, but I know some SEOs that would sacrifice their loved ones before giving away low competition and high volume keywords. There are gems of keywords in any industry or niche that good keyword research will find that are much easier to rank for with decent search volume. You could get away without any competition on these terms if you’re careful enough, but if you decide to list them in your meta-keywords tag you’re simply giving them away to competitors.

A good example of this is a website I run, Cash for Gold Headquarters. I compete on the main higher-volume keywords in the industry – cash for gold, sell gold, selling gold, etc. most of which after a few months I rank in the top three. However, I found a nice keyword – where to sell gold – that had a decent volume and that none of the other main competitors were targeting. I had first place rankings within a month for that keyword and an easy extra 6-10 visits per day from it. These are the types of keywords you risk giving away if you list them in a meta-keywords tag (or I suppose if you blog about them on your personal blog).

If you’re still stubborn, use them right

It’s not the end of the world if you use the meta-keywords tag. There are a lot of WordPress SEO plugins that will add this meta tag based on the categories or tags of your posts for example. A few relevant keywords isn’t necessarily going to make or break anything – just make sure that you are not trying to abuse the tag as there may be some issues with Bing from it.

Here’s what I mean by an obvious spammed and keyword-stuffed meta-keywords tag:

Don’t do this. Don’t think it’s okay. Don’t tell others it’s okay. Don’t think that this is what SEOs do. This is an extreme example, obviously, but people get carried away when they think that the meta-keywords tag will help their rankings.

Hopefully this helped shed some light on the use of meta-keywords. Have any meta-keywords horror stories? I’d love to hear them.

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Adam Bate

Adam is a former owner of Websavers Inc. He departed in 2014 to focus his time on online marketing. Adam currently owns and operates a business-to-business SEO agency.

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