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The Rise & Fall Of The Meta Keywords Tag

The Rise & Fall Of The Meta Keywords Tag

For those unaware, the meta keyword tag is a way to insert text into an HTML page that is not visible when the page is viewed through a browser. Some search engines have read the content of the tag and associated the words within it along with the page's regular 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 were offering 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 up 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. Experience with the tag has showed it to be a spam magnet. Some web site owners would insert misleading words about their pages or use excessive repetition of words in hopes 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, and 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. Now Inktomi remains the only one, with AltaVista having dropped its support in July, the company says.

"In the past site owners 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.
I have 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.

As for Inktomi, the search engine has no immediate plans to follow AltaVista'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'web search division.

Many are 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 represent time wasted worrying about a page element that a minority of crawlers supported -- and for those that did, an element that was assigned little if any ranking boost.

Indeed, the advice about the meta keywords tag for ages has been simple. For those running large web sites or short on time, don't worry about it. The stress and time involved in trying to craft a tag was 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 it or believe it to be useful, keep doing so. But I suspect it's just a waste of time, for most people.

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