Subtitled: The (continued) Importance of Meta Tags
With the recent proclamation by Google that “meta tags don’t matter”, there is a need for some constraint. Meta tags do matter, folks. They are important! Google knows this… they never actually said meta tags don’t matter. They said something about meta tags, which was quite nuanced, and important, and needs to be understood. But they did not say meta tags don’t matter!
Meta tags are important. They are the method of publishing data that is not rendered visibly by the user’s web browser. There is a whole set of meta tags available to webmasters. The recent Google announcement applied to ONE of the meta tags in the set… the meta keywords tag. Nothing else. Just that one. They said that one didn’t matter to Google. Almost.
So let’s cut through some of the hype out there in Internet news land. Google did not say meta tags don’t matter - they simply said they do not use the meta keywords tag for ranking. That’s it.
But even the meta keywords tag is still important folks! There are more search engines than just Google, and hopefully more to come. We have to keep in mind, especially when dealing with Google, that web publishers define the web, not Google. Google (and the others) make use of what we publish, to create search engines. If we publish junk in the meta keywords tag, for example, a search engine is likely to ignore it (as Google says it does). But if we publish good, clean meta information in a meta tag? Search engines would be foolish not to use it. We might not be there today because of spammy marketers trying to exploit ranking factors, but we shouldn’t let that distract us from proper course of web publishing.
Take this announcement as a signal to properly use your meta tags. If you don’t use them properly, search engines will start to ignore them (thus further limiting our options for communicating invisibly with web services like search engines). Put a few highly-relevant and appropriate keywords into your meta keywords tag, as a matter of course. Microsoft says Bing still uses them. Perhaps Bing knows when to trust them, and when to ignore them. Perhaps Bing is better than Google at one or two specific things, but it shouldn’t really matter to webmasters — it’s an option for them to read them or ignore them. But we should publish them. Should we agonize over them? Spend priority resources getting them “perfect”? No.
So why did Google announce this, and why now? Because Google gets involved as a third party to lawsuits involving trademark terms placed into the keywords meta tag (and title, and description, and page content, etc). The courts have struggled to interpret claims that trademarks (brand names) placed in meta data, where they are invisible to the web surfer, represent interference or infringement of rights. If the stuffed brand names are invisible to users, they can’t be considered confusing to the consumer. But if they influence search rankings, then yes, they can help competitors appear in place of the brand names they hide in their meta tags, and meta stuffing can be seen as infringing or interfering. But… and this is a big but…. someone needs to determine (in the courts, as part of discovery, if they impact search and how they impact search. Understand? The lawsuit gets extended to Google, as lawyers subpoena Google for information on how its algorithm works. Ouch. Google hates that.
So Google came out and stated publicly that meta keywords do not influence rankings. Period. That’s all they said.
My advice? Same as last week and last year. Keep using as many meta tags as is important to your web publishing, including the keywords meta tag. Don’t spend a lot of time crafting seo-optimized keywords meta tags…. just use a few highly relevant, meaningful keywords that might support a classification of your page content according to its intent (a diatribe on why I hate Google should be tagged Google, for example, and maybe john andrews, but not “digital marketing firms in Seattle Washington“).
Don’t be fooled…. if meta information carries value, Google will use it. Today, Google says they don’t use the keywords meta tag for ranking. Do they use it for trust? Do they use it for quality scores? Do they use it for other purposes that may influence indexing or relevance, not directly related to ranking? We don’t know. No one asked those questions. No one asked if they look at the keywords meta tag to see if it keyword stuffed, as a measure of webmaster spammy-ness or quality. All we know is, today, Google says they don’t use them for ranking.
Matt Cutts, in a follow-up video statement, said they don’t use the keywords meta tag for “anything”, but the language was not carefully-crafted and casual, so I don’t accept that as a clarifying statement. It still needs follow-up. After all, if Bing actually was using them safely, but Google found them too spammy to trust, wouldn’t it be helpful to Google (e.g. harmful to Bing) if everyone stopped using the keywords meta tag? I know a few search industry figure heads will latch on to that as a sign of “conspiracy thinking” but we can ignore those hyperbolic talking heads… it’s not a conspiracy, it’s competitive webmastering. There is no reason to make linear assumptions if we can play safely while minimizing risk of things changing over time.
I hope that helps clarify some of the hype around keywords meta tag and SEO. This post was prompted by questions from my audience, this concise opinion that almost hit the mark, and an article from Search Engine Land that, for me, exemplifies much of what is wrong with the search marketing media (inaccurate inflammatory title, overly-casual treatment of the topic, wandering back and forth between conclusions “it’s useful” vs. “it’s not useful”, and over-reliance on anecdotal evidence obtained with limited tests. Webmaster world has a more rational discussion, touching on several possibilities while considering past and current experiences… of course still including the typical absolutisms expected from old timers. Scan that thread to get a good feel for webmaster sentiment, and make your own judgment.