Natural Search Blog

Why avoiding meta keywords tag may be best

Around a year ago, Danny Sullivan did some great research on the Meta Keywords tag to determine which search engines are using it. He found indication that Google and Microsoft Live Search ignore it for keyword ranking (retrieval) purposes, while Yahoo! and Ask are apparently using it. With Google having the bulk of the search marketshare, and Yahoo possibly only using the tag to a limited degree, it would seem rather extraneous to continue using it for search optimization.


Although his research was really pretty definitive in my mind, there are so many search marketers that have some sort of nostalgic devotion to the tag and who continue to obsess over it and insist upon using it. There is a sort of mentality that “if it might help, then I’m damn well going to use it.” (See this recent thread at WebMasterWorld where quite a few express this viewpoint.)

However, I see some compelling reasons to avoid using it altogether…

Yahoo may be using it only as a “signal of last resort” — if they can’t find content matching a keyword search through other, preferable signals such as visible page body text, they might only then fall back on meta keyword content. As such, the keywords tag may not provide any sort of additional ranking weight, but may only be worthwhile when no other pages or visible text content matches terms. In this case, if you already have the terms in the visible text of the page, it’s just not necessary to have it in the Meta Keywords tag – your page likely won’t rank any better than it already does.

Google may still be using the content as I’ve outlined previously (see this article on the Resurrection of the Keyword Meta Tag), though not as a keyword ranking factor. It may be used by them as a negative ranking factor used to assess a page’s quality or to detect spam and “over-optimized” pages. For instance, they may be checking the tag to insure it represents text actually found on the page and that it’s not too crammed-up with terms. Pages with unrelated words in the meta keyword content or which are stuffed too much might be singled out for lower quality scores or penalizations.

If I’m correct, then the meta keywords tag can’t really help your natural search optimization, but it could easily hurt it. I’ve seen so many cases where people have placed all identical meta keywords tags throughout their site, or included words not found on the page, or over-stuffed the tags — since so many people do this wrong, it’s better just to leave it off entirely. It’s just not worth it.

9 comments for Why avoiding meta keywords tag may be best »

  1. MyAvatars 0.2

    But as you say, this is only speculation. Maybe Google or Yahoo do use it more than you, or even Danny Sullivan, think. When used in the correct way — i.e. the tag should only include keywords that are relevant to the page, and that are found on the page, and every page should have unique meta keywords — then I think it is a good idea to use it. If it’s done right, it can’t hurt, and it might just help!

    Comment by Neil Street — 9/17/2008 @ 7:11 am

  2. MyAvatars 0.2

    I totally agree. We only use keywords in the tag that match keywords in the content. And then we limit it to just a few words. I think over used keywords are a spam indicator.

    Comment by Link Builder — 9/17/2008 @ 4:16 pm

  3. MyAvatars 0.2

    This is something I have given a lot of thought to lately. Most people I have talked to about this feel that the meta keyword tag is dead and they don’t use it. They feel that anymore it just helps your competition establish what terms you are targeting.

    I continue to use meta keywords on website home pages, but have recently stopped putting the emphasis on internal pages and I have not seen nay negative impacts from this practice in the major search engines.

    Comment by Mike Wilton — 10/2/2008 @ 10:40 am

  4. MyAvatars 0.2

    All true and agreeable. When a Client asks me if they should use META tags my answer is affirmative: The META KEYWORDS will make them think about page content that must be represented by no more than 10 keywords 3 of which are most important, and the rest can also be some mis-spellings.

    Comment by Sante — 10/8/2008 @ 1:28 am

  5. MyAvatars 0.2

    because of the nature of our site, i have really no option but to use meta tags on product detail pages but i will certainly be reviewing meta keyword use on individual pages, which up til now, have been pretty much the same for each of the pages on our site.

    Comment by digitalfrog — 10/9/2008 @ 2:59 pm

  6. MyAvatars 0.2

    Agreed. As I’ve explained to my developers, “I use the meta keywords tag for my own amusement.” I only add a few words that are actually on the page. Mostly as I’m checking off content.

    Comment by Robert — 10/10/2008 @ 12:17 am

  7. MyAvatars 0.2

    I found this post and the links included quite interesting, especially Danny Sullivan’s research.
    What surprised me the most is the use of the keyword tag in the very post where he tells us it’s useless to harmful.
    I’ve checked other sites of webmasters claiming the same and I see them USING keywords. WHY, if they are potentially dangerous. And why should it work for mispellings? I am quite sure that Google has a way of telling which keywords look spammy and which not. So why would they avoid using it?

    Comment by Thomas Gaida — 10/15/2008 @ 8:07 am

  8. MyAvatars 0.2

    Thomas, as you can see from Danny’s research, the keywords tag can have a mildly beneficial effect in a couple of search engines, thought it seems unnecessary for words already found on the page.

    As such, many experienced SEOs may recommend against using it because people are more likely to shoot themselves in the foot than get it right — it could help if you know what you’re doing, but the risk if you don’t is greater than the potentially marginal benefit.

    That’s why I generally recommend against using it.

    Comment by Chris Silver Smith — 11/5/2008 @ 1:26 pm

  9. MyAvatars 0.2

    Those of you in the comments saying “why not use them if they match our content?”

    You’ve answered your own question — you already have them in your content, why would you display them in a meta tag too? Stop duplicating and stop wasting time with this worthless practice. Focus on your content instead.

    Comment by Charlie — 1/6/2010 @ 1:03 pm

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