SEO 101: Use Your HEAD, Part IV: Meta Keywords

In the strange and confusing world of META tags, there are two that every online marketer knows about, even if what they think they know is wrong. The two tags in question are:

  1. Meta Keywords, and
  2. Meta Description.

Over the years these two tags have been used and abused, and to this day the amount of bad advice I see regarding their use is astounding! The problem is that unlike other tags that may be ignored if used improperly, your ignorance or misunderstanding of these two tags can have serious consequences to your positioning within search engines. 

Back in the early days of search engines, long before Google was even a twinkle in some programmer’s eye, search engines were primitive, unsophisticated critters. They gobbled up everything they came across and spewed out results that were chronically overwhelming to ordinary human beings. In those early days of the World Wide Web (and I’m talking about the early to mid-1990s, here) Yahoo and other “directories” were far more useful to your typical non-geek user because directories organized long lists of web addresses categorically. Directories brought order out of the chaos. Unfortunately, the price for that order was that getting listed in them was slow because humans had to manually add, edit and update these listings.

Something had to change. Then the use of META tags came along.

The original idea for META tags was a good one, intended to solve a legitimate problem just as the original idea about browser cookies was a good idea intended to make your web surfing experience easier and more enjoyable. Unfortunately, in both cases people behaving badly by abusing these elegant tools have made things more difficult for the rest of us who just want to get along. Here’s what I mean.

In the case of the META Keywords tag, the original idea was similar to what you see being done with “tag clouds” today. The keywords tag was intended to provide a concentration of words relating core concepts, ideas or issues contained within a given web page. And for a while the system worked well. If you had a web site selling widgets, your META Keywords tag would contain words related to your business and the products you were selling. The search engines would then use this as the primary data for your site when someone ran a search.

Then someone figured out that the number-one word used in search engines was “sex”. From there, people started adding META Keywords loaded with the word sex repeated 500 times or more! If not that, they would misrepresent the contents of their page or site in some other way, using words related to popular performers instead of relevant words and phrases. In short, these miscreants abused a simple and elegant system, breaking it in the process.

In retaliation to these abuses, search engines, which gather their data via automated processes, developed new, smarter algorithms to double check whether the keywords used in the META tags were relevant to the rest of the site. They also began enforcing limits on how many times a word could be used before they would either ignore the additional repetitions, or whether excesses would be countered by excluding offenders from the search engines listings altogether.

Today, the META Keywords tag is a battered and disheveled shadow of what it once was. Google ignores it. Yahoo and Ask do not, but neither to they completely trust that what is entered in your Keywords tag is meaningful.

So, here’s how you should use the META Keywords tag:

  1. 1. Keep your key words and phrases limited, but not too limited. Try not to use more than 15 or so words or phrases per page. If you are using only five or fewer, you need to go back to the drawing board.
  2. Keep it relevant. The words contained in your META Keywords tag should appear at least once, and preferably several times elsewhere in the web page.
  3. Organize your words and phrases according to importance. Don’t alphabetize your keywords. Put the most important words first, and least important words last.
  4. Include the name of your company, product or organization on every page! (Ever hear of “branding”???)
  5. Make the content of the Keywords tag on each page unique. If the words and phrases truly reflect the contents of each page accurately, this should not be a problem.
  6. Don’t repeat any single word more than three times!For example, if you are selling widgets you may be tempted to list every kind of widget you make (steel widgets, iron widgets, chocolate widgets…). That’s ok, to a point. Just make sure that no single word appears more than three times in the Keywords tag for any give page, whether it is alone or as part of a phrase.

Follow these simple guidelines, and remember to include your key words and phrases in other parts of your web pages (the TITLE tag, H1, H2 and Paragraph content, not to mention link text). Do this, and I guarantee that you will see positive results!

Next time, why a well written META Description is crucial to search engine optimization…


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