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Can Meta tags such as the keyword tag bring high rankings to my site?

By Jill Whalen
Posted Friday, September 17, 2004

If you had to give up one meta tag, the meta keyword tag would be the one to give up.

Now that we've covered the all-important title tag and meta description tag, it's time to move on to the very misunderstood and abused meta tag, the meta keyword tag.

Everyone knows that to obtain high search engine rankings all you have to do is put the keywords that you want to rank high with into your meta tags, right? Not even close! If it were that simple, I'd certainly be out of work. How many of you reading this column have obsessed over meta tags such as the keyword tag? How many of you have tried putting every relevant keyword you could think of into this meta tag, only to have your site continue to be nearly invisible in the search engines? How many of you couldn't decide if you should put commas between the keywords? Spaces? No commas? ALL CAPS? Plurals?

What Does This Meta Tag Look Like?

This meta tag is usually placed beneath the title and meta description tags in the <HEAD></HEAD> section of your pages' HTML code, like this:

<META NAME="DESCRIPTION" CONTENT="Your keyword rich marketing sales-pitch meta description goes here">
<META NAME="KEYWORDS" CONTENT="your keywords,go here,separated by a comma,but not a space">

If this meta tag were a child, it would be put into a foster home due to all the abuse it has received over the years! Once upon a time, in the prehistoric days of the Internet (1995?), meta keyword tags were a great little tool for the search engines to use to help them determine how to rank sites in their search results. When the engines' databases were small, this meta tag was a quick, easy method to help decide which keywords might be important on a site.

However, as always happens with anything this simple, people began to abuse it. People (spammers) began to put keywords into the meta tag that had nothing to do with the content of their site. Because they knew lots of people were searching with the keyword "sex," for instance, they'd put that word in their meta tags a number of times to bring visitors to their site, even though their site had nothing to do with sex! Personally, I don't quite understand that logic, because it brings in untargeted visitors But apparently the goal was to bring in traffic, period.

Over time, less and less weight was given to poor abused meta tags, and more and more weight was given to the actual content of the pages. Today the meta keyword tag is quietly living in its foster home and is fairly irrelevant to getting a page ranked high. If you were pressed for time and had to give up one meta tag, this would be the one to give up. To be sure, some engines still do index the words within these meta tags, but it appears that they use them as a minor supplement to the text in the body copy and title tags of your Web pages.

Should I Bother With Meta Keyword Tags?

Since the search engines use a wide variety of factors to determine site rankings, optimizing a page to rank high is a cumulative effort. You should use everything available to you that the engines might give some weight, and therefore you should certainly use meta tags (including the meta keyword tag), along with every other legitimate, acceptable technique available. At best, it may help boost your site a bit in those engines that still read them. At worst, it won't hurt your rankings (unless you brazenly keyword stuff them). I still use these meta tags on clients' Web sites, but don't bother with them on my own sites.

What Should I Put in these Meta Tags?

First let's recap what needs to be done before you attempt to create meta keyword tags (ideally these things should be done before the Web site is ever created):

* Choose your relevant keywords.
* Write the site's content based on these keywords.
* Create a title tag using the same keywords.
* Create a meta description tag as a marketing sentence, also based on these keywords.

Once you do the above things properly, putting together your meta keyword tag is a very simple procedure.

I usually begin putting the keywords I used in the title of my page in the meta keyword tag. The first words in any tag are assumed to be given more weight, so these are most important. Then I go through each paragraph of text on the page and take any important phrases that might be used in the copy and paste them into the meta keyword tag. I usually separate the phrases with a comma and no space. This is simply a personal preference. Using no commas at all in this tag is basically the same thing, since most engines appear to treat commas as a space. After I get every important word or phrase from the text on the page, I add some common misspellings of some of these same words. I know for a fact that in the past, this could bring some traffic from some engines, most notably AltaVista.
What About Keyword Repetition?

Another common abuse of meta keyword tags was -- and still is -- the repetition of words. Spammers found that if they repeated keywords enough times in this meta tag, the search engines would "think" they were relevant to the page and perhaps give it a high ranking for those keywords. Because of this abuse, too much repetition will now hurt you rather than help you. Never insert the same word twice in a row in this tag, even if you're using different variations. (Plurals, ALL CAPS, different tenses, etc.) You can use the same word in different phrases, but never use that word more than three or four times within the tag, even if you're using different variations of it.

That's about all there is to it! If everyone treated these meta tags with the type of respect they deserve and only put relevant keywords into it, perhaps we could get it out of its foster home and back to its rightful place in the family of meta tags!

About the Author
Contact Jill Whalen by e-mail at

Jill Whalen of High Rankings is an internationally recognized search engine optimization consultant and host of the free weekly High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter.

She specializes in search engine optimization, SEO consultations and seminars. Jill's handbook, "The Nitty-gritty of Writing for the Search Engines" teaches business owners how and where to place relevant keyword phrases on their Web sites so that they make sense to users and gain high rankings in the major search engines.


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