Do not use the meta keywords tag. Many people still think of this as a quick fix for SEO. It's not. Google no longer uses it. Yahoo is perhaps the only search engine that still uses the meta keywords tag but places very little weight on it. By placing this tag on a web page, the primary beneficiary is your competition. How so? The meta keywords tag gives your competitors a nicely formatted list of your important keywords. Don't believe me? Try the free keyword research tool at the end of this article.

Most people agree that this tag is useless (read Danny Sullivan's 2002 Death of a Meta Tag article). I'll take it a step further and argue that it's hazardous. I know many people won't agree with me, but here's my argument:

Search engines used to rely heavily on the meta keywords tag to guess which keywords were relevant on a web page. Now search engines are sophisticated enough to examine the actual keywords in the body of a web page. Major search engines place little, if any, value in the meta keywords tag. There is more risk than reward in using the meta keywords tag because your competitors can view the meta keywords tag and can steal your keywords.

What do I mean by "steal" your keywords? By placing the meta keywords tag on a page, you are, in effect, giving your competitors a list of your important keywords. They can then use these keywords and buy PPC ads or optimize their own site for your important keywords. Why give them this sort of business intelligence? Having invested time and money on exhaustive keyword research to identify the important keyword phrases to use for your own SEO and PPC efforts, why on earth would you make a list of your high value keywords public?

Perhaps a concrete example will help illustrate the point. I was playing with the keyword tool, entering domains of other search engine marketing firms to see if they were using the meta keywords tag, and, if so, what keywords they included. Plugging one site into the tool, I noticed the keyword phrase "targeted traffic" in the meta keywords tag. Looking at the site's home page and even viewing the source, that phrase is only in the meta keywords. Nowhere else. This is what people do - they just stick their important keywords into the tags. You don't have to study the title tag, study the meta description tag, see what alt text is "behind" the images, examine the content of the page, look at the links, etc. In other words, you don't have to take the time to think like a search engine or reverse engineer a competing site. Your competitors give you all of their important keywords in their meta keywords tag. I've never thought of "targeted traffic" as a keyword to optimize for or to buy with PPC ads. Perhaps I'll run some PPC ads and see if it's a valuable phrase for SEO. Point is, I'd never have thought of it if it wasn't in a competitor's meta keywords tag.

Here is our meta keywords advice: do not use the meta keywords tag. Instead, make sure the title of your web page has your important keywords and that those keywords are repeated in the body of your web page. If you want to, create a meta description tag. The search engines do use that meta tag, but it's not essential for SEO.

Creating good content is essential. Each page should have useful content and include your important keywords. Don't try to stuff all of your important keywords onto a single page. Create pages around a theme, a small collection of keyword phrases. For instance, target 1-3 keyword phrases per page. Write a title that incorporates those keyword phrases. If the title seems awkward from the point of view of your audience (site visitors not the search engines), scale back the number of phrases and try again. If you choose to write a meta description tag, it should reinforce the keywords already in the title tag. The body of the page should then include those important keyword phrases. Again, though, the content of the page should be written for your site visitors and not seem awkward.

Since many web sites do still use the meta keywords tag, we have developed a free keyword research tool that will analyze the meta keywords of your competition. Use the tool to see what keywords your competitors are embedding in their meta keywords tags and then research these keywords using other freely available tools. When I begin work for a new client, I ask them for a list of their competitors' web sites. I plug those into the tool and it gives me an instant list of keywords. That's only the beginning, a starting point for further keyword research. These companies have spent hours upon hours performing keyword research. I can take 30 seconds, scrape their meta keywords tags and have solid keyword ideas for PPC ads to create or SEO work to perform for a client. That, coupled with the fact that Google doesn't use the meta keywords tag, convinces me that it's downright silly to use them.

As time goes on, I expect online businesses to become a bit more savvy regarding meta tags and this tool will no longer provide a quick start. In the meantime, use the free keyword tool and crush your competition!

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
October 31, 2005

Richard Ball founded Apogee Web Consulting LLC, a full service search engine marketing firm, to help businesses succeed on the internet. Apogee Web Consulting provides strategic internet marketing services including pay per click advertising, search engine optimization and shopping search engine submission. All search engine marketing services begin with a foundation of keyword research and web log analysis. Use the company's free search engine marketing tools.

Prior to starting Apogee Web Consulting, Richard was a software developer for America Online. He has a degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT.

Search Engine Guide > Richard Ball > Meta Keywords Advice