The Meta Keywords Field – Should You Use It? Stuff It? Ignore It?

SEO spelled out in child's blocksOne of the most contentious subjects in SEO-land is the meta keywords field.

This field, made accessible to WordPress site managers either through SEO-friendly framework themes such as Thesis or SEO plugins, purports to give you a space to tell the search engines what keywords used in a search should lead to a specific page of content.

It sounds great, right? Keywords are what it’s all about, after all. Your prospects use them to find relevant information. SERPs (search engine results pages) are based on them. What could be more direct than simply telling the search engine ‘bots what keywords should be associated with your page?

Then the question becomes: How do you use them? What should you do with that meta keywords field, when you’re adding new content to your blog or website?

My short answer: Nothing. Leave it alone.

Here’s why I say that.

From Use to Abuse to Ignored: Why Search Engines Ignore Meta Keywords

Once upon a time, the meta keyword field was important. (Well, we think. It is SEO, and if anyone ever tells you they know exactly what factors rank in what order and how to game those factors to get your site to the top of the first page of SERPs, laugh politely and run like hell. Especially if they want your money.)

But then, the meta keyword field went from used to abused. Site owners — especially the spammy kind — began stuffing this field full of keywords. Dozens and dozens of them. And not just applicable keywords, or even arguably applicable keywords. They’d stuff keywords based on their competitors’ names in this field.

So users would type in the name of a business — say, Bob’s Oranges — and search for BO’s (hee) website. The user would click on the first link and — what’s this? It’s not Bob’s Oranges at all! It’s Sally’s Oranges! But because Sally’s Oranges’ website developer stuffed the home page’s meta keywords field with variations on “Bob’s Oranges,” and Bob’s Orange’s website didn’t have those tags, Sally’s site ranked first. For searches for Bob’s business. Because of the keyword tags.

Hardly fair. Totally game-y and unethical as hell.

At least from 2009, possibly before, the major search engines began deprecating their reliance on the meta keyword field. Google doesn’t use it at all for ranking sites.  Yahoo doesn’t use it for ranking purposes, either. Bing uses it only to identify spammers.

Note: the keywords meta tag is not completely ignored for all purposes. For instance, a unique keyword can and will still call a page up that has that keyword in the field. But Google’s ranking results will not be affected by those keywords. So if you and your competitor both have pages about a particular subject, and he uses the keyword whereas you don’t, the fact that you don’t have the keyword will not affect your page’s ranking compared to his page.

Why Ignore the Meta Keyword Tag?

If the search engines don’t look at the meta keyword tag for ranking purposes, then you might well ask, “Well, what’s the harm in using them, then? It might help, and it can’t hurt …”

Except that it can hurt.

First, go back to that warning I issued above: Anyone who says they know exactly how to game the search algorithm is misguided at best, or is just a flat-out lying con artist. The algorithm particulars are closely guarded secrets, and they change over time as engineers learn how spammers are gaming the system and craft new code to block those gaming attempts.

Remember this: the search engines do not care about you, the website owner. They care about the searcher, and only the searcher. Keep that in mind whenever you address optimization issues on your site, and you’ll avoid at least half the mistakes that can drive your site down the SERPs list.

And we know that the search engines don’t like keyword stuffing. The reason why is obvious: it’s a cheap, low-effort way to try to game the system. They want to give searchers the most useful, most reliable, most current information on the searcher’s subject of choice.

As we move farther away from the days of highly technical “tweak this, tweak that” approaches to SEO, the search engines get closer to that goal of ferreting out the best information available on the web for a specific set of keywords.

And that requires looking at the actual information on the page — not some random set of keywords stuffed into the meta keywords tag. Google’s even gone on record as stating that every other kind of text on your page is more important than the meta keywords tag content.

Now add to this the fact that search engines are committed to weeding out spam pages and the fact that to achieve this goal, one of the things they’re going to look at is the meta keywords tag. If that tag is stuffed with keywords, at some point the search engines will label the page spam. Or just “spammier than these other pages that aren’t carrying stuffed keyword tags.”

Either way, putting keywords in those tags will only hurt your page. It can’t really help.

Your Takeaway: Leave Meta Keywords Field Alone

I agree with Danny Sullivan on this point: the better practice is to not even bother.

Instead:

  • Put that time and attention towards crafting better content, and ensuring that your content delivers value on the keywords you’ve chosen for the page.
  • Tweak your <h2> and <h3> headings.
  • Make sure your earlier paragraphs deliver the keywords in a natural, “real language” way (read the content out loud to check yourself on this point).
  • Craft a short, solid meta description and custom title tag, if your actual headline doesn’t deliver the keywords naturally.
  • And ditch the meta keyword tag altogether.

What’s your take? Do you use the meta keywords field? Am I wrong? Make your case in the comments!

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  • http://getpaidtowriteonline.com/ Sharon Hurley Hall

    Very interesting, Annie. What I’m wondering is, if you have an old site, dating from the days when keywords were important, should you go back and delete all of that data?

  • http://www.IAmNickArmstrong.com/ Nick Armstrong

    @rappinhood:disqus – probably not… I’d say leave it in there, if they just ignore it. The worst case is that eventually they use it to figure out if you were keyword stuffing, but if you’re using Google Webmaster Tools, they’ll give you a warning if something seems off.

  • http://getpaidtowriteonline.com/ Sharon Hurley Hall

    I think I should be ok, then, Nick, because I haven’t noticed anything in Webmaster tools. I don’t think I ever overdid the keywords but my interpretation and Google’s may be different. :)

  • http://www.IAmNickArmstrong.com/ Nick Armstrong

    Yeah – their big message in that presentation (where they said they ignored Keywords) was that you can’t really do anything to royally screw up your SEO as long as you’re behaving honestly.

  • http://getpaidtowriteonline.com/ Sharon Hurley Hall

    In that case I should be fine. :)

  • Dino Hukic

    I am currently working on my SEO and I have always made sure to do as you have just stated. With time, my SEO improved. Search engines are becoming smarter and I think that people who try these tricks will end up hurting their site’s SEO, either now or in the the near future.

  • http://www.themarketingbit.com/ Shibbard

    It would seem that as long as one crafts a good post – not spammy – along with a good description it really shouldn’t matter if you do meta keywords or not.  Plus I think it is really darn difficult to understand what Google is or isn’t doing at any point in time.   If Google is placing emphasis on other parts of the posts, does that mean they’re taking off points for having meta keywords?  Really?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jbelonger Jeff Belonger

    Annie… good post. What’s sad is that I know some that call themselveS SEO experts and who give classes, tell you to still use Meta keywords field. One needs to keep up with teh changes, just as in social media.

    Sharon Hall below asked a question and I would love to hear your answer… SHould one go back and take these meta tags out from the past?  thanks

  • http://mysocialgameplan.com/about Jonathan Payne

    Great information for any webmaster or blogger!  Need to reassess my use of meta keywords now.

    *I told this to @NickArmstrong:disqus last week, so I’ll pass it along again.  DISQUS has a new update and the appearance of comments looks much better than older versions in my opinion.  Just a thought.  You could preview it on mine or Nick’s blog.

  • clarestweets

    It is so funny how we hear things especially about SEO and then stick with it even though the world (and the search engines) have moved on. Nothing beats great well targeted content! Nothing. Thanks for the reminder, Annie.  

  • Bhupesh Shah

    Excellent post! Focus on the customer and satisfying their requirements. Add value and don’t waste time paying tricks.

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