Death of a Meta Tag

Traffick.com‘s Andrew Goodman wrote recently in an essay about meta tags, “If somebody would just declare the end of the metatag era, full stop, it would make it easier on everyone.”

I’m happy to oblige, at least in the case of the meta keywords tag. Now supported by only one major crawler-based search engine, Inktomi, the value of adding meta keywords tags to pages seems little worth the time. In my opinion, the meta keywords tag is dead, dead, dead. Like Andrew, I say good riddance!

The Rise and Fall of the Meta Keywords Tag

For those unaware, the meta keyword tag is a way to insert text into an HTML page that’s not visible when the page is viewed with a browser. Some search engines read the content of the tag and associated its words along with the page’s body copy.

The first major crawler-based search engines to use the meta keywords tag were Infoseek and AltaVista. It’s unclear which one provided support first, but both offered it in early 1996. When Inktomi launched in mid-1996 through the HotBot search engine, it also provided support for the tag. Lycos did the same in mid-1997, taking support to four out of the seven major crawlers at the time (Excite, WebCrawler, and Northern Light did not provide support).

The ascendancy of the tag did not last after 1997. It’s been shown to be a spam magnet. Some Web site owners inserted misleading words about their pages or used excessive repetition of words in hope of tricking the crawlers about relevancy. For this reason, Excite (which also owned WebCrawler) resisted added support. Lycos quietly dropped its support of the tag in 1998. Newer search engines, such as Google and FAST, never added support at all.

After Infoseek (Go.com) closed in 2000, the meta keywords tag was left with only two major supporters: AltaVista and Inktomi. Inktomi remains the sole survivor, with AltaVista having dropped its support in July, the company says.

“In the past we have indexed the meta keywords tag but have found that the high incidence of keyword repetition and spam made it an unreliable indication of site content and quality. We do continue to look at this issue, and may re-include them if the perceived quality improves over time,” said Jon Glick, AltaVista’s director of Internet search.

Inktomi has no immediate plans to follow AltaVista’s lead.

“The meta keywords value is just one of many factors in our ranking equation, and we’ve never given too much weight to it. That said, we will continue to use it as long as our relevance modeling shows that it adds value,” said Ken Norton, director of product marketing for Inktomi’s Web search division.

I’m certainly not crying over the decline of the meta keywords tag. It’s always been a confusing issue for site owners. Should I use commas between words in the tag or not? How many times can I repeat a word on the page without getting banned? If I don’t list a term in the tag, does that mean my page won’t show up? Those are common questions consistently raised over the years, and they represent time wasted worrying about a page element a minority of crawlers supported. To those that did, the element was assigned little if any ranking boost.

My advice about the meta keywords tag has long been simple. For those running large Web sites, or who are short on time, don’t worry about it. The stress and time involved in trying to craft a tag is not worth it, in terms of the minor benefit it might bring. It is far more important for site owners to instead concentrate on creating good title tags for their pages, a key page element that has consistently shown it can help with ranking across all major crawlers.

Now I can make my advice about the meta keywords tag even easier. Just don’t use the tag at all! Obviously, if you personally find or believe it to be useful, keep doing so. For most, it’s just a waste of time.

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