The world of search engine optimization is constantly evolving, making SEO a continuous process of tweaking and adapting strategies. While you might feel like this creates an endless list of things to do, I’m going to take something off your digital marketing docket: using the meta keywords tag.
This article will explain how meta tag keywords work and why shifts in algorithms mean they’re no longer a ranking factor. I’ll also outline the difference between a metadata keyword and the meta tags you need to worry about — meta elements like page titles and descriptions.
What Are Meta Keywords?
Meta keywords were common in the late 1990s and told search engines what your website was about. SEO was simpler in those days — web developers could plug into a keywords meta tag and use those meta keywords to rank a website in search engine results pages (SERPs).
Here’s what a meta keyword tag looks like in HTML code:
<meta name="keywords" content="Insert Keyword, Insert Keyword, Insert Keyword">
Does The Meta Keyword Tag Help SEO?
Simply put: Not anymore. For awhile, meta keyword tags were considered a very valuable part of SEO data, but over time, people started to abuse the system, and Google had to step in. In 2009, Google explained their position on meta keywords:
“Our web search (the well-known search at Google.com that hundreds of millions of people use each day) disregards the keywords meta tag completely. They simply don’t have any effect in our search ranking at present.”Google Search Central Blog
While the keywords meta tag is no longer a ranking signal, be sure to use other meta tags: the title tag and meta description. These meta tags help identify and describe your page to Google and potential site visitors, especially on SERPs. While Google is an advanced search engine, it’s not a human being, and it still has to be told what your website offers for users. An effective page title and description could mean the difference between quality traffic for you, or one of your compeititors.
I should also be clear that a meta keyword is distinct from broad and long-tail keywords only in its placement. You should continue to conduct thorough keyword research and incorporate your target keywords into your website content and page title as part of your on-page SEO — just don’t add them to the meta keywords tag.
Meta Keywords Tags: The Backstory
Why are SEO specialists no longer focused on the meta keywords element?
Before Google became the search giant it is today, other search engines like Infoseek and AltaVista (now Yahoo) helped users navigate the internet. The introduction of HTML 4 meant the meta element was machine-readable. The platforms encouraged web developers to use meta keywords to optimize search results. At the time, all it took to rank was to plug a list of keywords into the head section of an HTML document. Talk about a “set it and forget it” approach!
However, some site owners took advantage of this simple approach to web ranking, taking the opportunity to stuff irrelevant keywords into the meta keywords element to get low-quality pages to appear in any search engine results. The spammy meta keyword content included misleading and excessive query terms, all designed to trick crawlers into returning irrelevant pages to search queries.
The result was a lot of low-value content appearing in SERPs. By 1997, search platforms reacted accordingly, and major platforms began dropping support for meta keywords and considering over-optimization as a spam signal. Major search engines started emphasizing links pointing back to a page’s content from other websites (backlinking) to measure its value and relevance to a specific query.
But, it wasn’t until Google’s very own Danny Sullivan publicly stated that meta tag keywords had no SEO value that this practice faded away, and a more pronounced shift toward backlink value took place.
Meta Keywords and SEO Strategies Today
None of the major search engines use meta keywords to measure a page’s relevance for rank, so you can confidently spend your resources on other optimization tactics. Still, it’s helpful to know how meta keywords and search engine optimization fit together in today’s complex digital marketing landscape.
- Search engines. Some smaller search engines hint that they actively use the meta keywords element, such as Russian search engine Yandex and Chinese platform Baidu (for English pages). Bing may use them as a sign of possible spamming, but as a general rule, they disregard the meta keywords tag.
- Internal site search. The meta keywords element isn’t helpful to external search engines, but it’s sometimes used to power internal search. Similarly, you can use meta keywords for internal reference purposes to track the keywords a web page is targeting. However, keep in mind that a competitor can view these keywords by taking a look at your source code.
- Competitive research. While a competitor can see the meta keywords element in your HTML code, you can flip those tables and do the same. The meta keywords tag is useful for competitive research if you find sites using them. If you once used meta keywords on your site and no longer need them, consider removing them from your web pages.
SEO Strategies to Focus on Instead of Meta Keywords
Now that I’ve taken using the meta keywords tag off your optimization checklist, there are several impactful strategies where you should direct your energy, for example:
- Technical optimization. Does your page load quickly? Is it optimized for mobile? Are you offering a great user experience? Is Google indexing your site correctly? These issues are an example of technical shortcomings that influence how your page ranks, so make sure your website is working well before moving into other aspects of SEO.
- Well-targeted keywords. Keywords are still an essential part of SEO, just not in your meta keywords tag. Use a few well-targeted keywords in your headers and throughout your content to send the right signals to search engines like Google and be found by people searching for what you provide.
- Great content. Google crawlers are more intelligent than ever and can differentiate between high-value content written for readers and low-value content written to game the ranking system. Write for your audience, not for SEO. Then, optimize your content if you intend to use organic traffic as a distribution channel.
- Featured snippets. You can boost your click-through rate if you’re able to land this prime spot in SERPs. While Google algorithms choose featured snippets from page-one content, you can increase your chance of being selected by writing high-quality articles that include a relevant query and specifically answer a question that warrants a featured snippet. Pleasing Google, and a user, all with a little bit of beautiful content? That’s award-winning to me!
- Backlinks. High-quality backlinks increase your domain and page authority and can boost your site’s overall search performance. Link building is a long-term process but securing links from reputable pages to your site content helps to improve your rank by association.
- Awareness of SEO trends. If there’s one thing meta keywords have shown us, it’s that SEO practices never stay the same. Monitor Google algorithm updates and user trends, and adapt your digital marketing strategies accordingly.
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