When discussing keywords and content optimization best practices, clients will invariably ask about meta keywords. Sorry, guys, but meta keywords have been dead to the major US search engines as ranking signals for nearly three years now. Google was the first to denounce meta keywords, then Yahoo! and Bing.
Once upon a time when the Internet was young and search algorithms hadn’t evolved independent methods to determine relevance and context, meta keywords allowed site owners to specify the keywords their content was relevant for. In the example above, the Chicago Public Library’s homepage uses a wide variety of keywords in its meta keywords tag, highlighted in yellow.
Unfortunately, meta keywords were visible only as a signal to search engines. Humans never see meta keywords unless they enjoy staring at source code, which is not typical consumer behavior. Spammers everywhere rejoiced at the ability to stuff popular keywords into a page to improve its rankings without the human visitors ever seeing that nasty cruft behind the scenes. Consequently, meta keywords were short-lived as a search engine ranking signal and quickly became nothing more than a spam signal.
That’s right. If abused, the meta keyword tag can act as an indicator that the page is of low quality, which in turn can trigger algorithmic penalties. In other words, the meta keywords that were stuffed full to bursting in the page’s code to improve rankings can actually harm a page’s rankings.
Today, meta keywords live on in the minds of marketers because the paradigm makes sense to them. Who better than the site owner to know what a site should rank for, right? Unfortunately, most people have skewed ideas about which keywords they should legitimately be earning rankings for.
If you’re dead set on using meta keywords, be very careful to follow best practices. First, it’s absolutely fine not to have a meta keywords tag in your templates. In fact, it’s the safest option. If you need meta keyword tags, maybe because your internal site search relies on them as a relevance signal, then take care to use only the few keywords that are uniquely relevant to that page.
If you’ve started your content optimization with keyword research and a keyword map, the keywords identified in that process will work perfectly in the meta keyword tags. Just keep in mind that anyone can view a page’s source code at any time to learn which keywords you’re targeting. Do you really want to hand them the fruit of all your keyword research labor right there in the meta keywords tag?
Jill Kocher is a seasoned SEO professional and all-around technogeek. By day, she manages Resource Interactive’s SEO practice here in Chicago and serves as contributing editor at Practical eCommerce. By night, Jill landscapes her home in the far northern suburbs of Chicagoland while enjoying a glass of wine and thinking about SEO some more. Family discussion centers primarily around SEO, analytics, social media, mobile apps, android, iOS, how-was-your-day and cats.