Should the Meta Keywords tag finally be laid to rest?

The much abused and unpopular Keywords meta tag, abandoned by the majority of ethical SEO companies, received something of a resurgence in optimisation tactics over the last year when Bing engineers publicly announced that they still paid consideration to the tag. But as Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land revealed last week, Bing are only analysing the tag to determine if you’re a likely spammer, and adjust your ranking accordingly, for the worse.

Meta What?

Meta tags, for those that don’t know, are semantic tags designed to give the machines of the web structured information about the page they’re reading. Human visitors are never exposed to directly to the content of these tags. In the early days of optimising websites the keywords tag was a way of indicating to spiders what a web page was about. Partly because they went unseen, and partly because of the relative weight they had for first generation search engines, like Alta Vista, the meta tag was routinely abused, over-stuffed with keyword variants in an attempt to game the search engines.

The decline of the keyword tag began with the launch of Google (and other modern search engines) in 1998, who paid no attention to the content of these tags to determine what a page was about and how to rank its importance.

The Bing difference

So for almost a decade the keyword tag has had a steady decline, to the point where it was almost considered dead when Bing engineers declared that they use the tag as a signal when calculating a page’s rank. Over a similar time frame Yahoo announced that they were abandoning their homegrown technology and using the Bing engine to calculate their search results. So, whilst still only holding a minor share in the search industry, the inner workings of Bing are still important.

With so much uncertainty over the use of the tag, and the inherent risks to your ranking in using it incorrectly, Sullivan contacted senior Bing product manager Duane Forrester for some answers. The result of their correspondence is the admission, on behalf of Bing, that they mainly monitor the tag as a spam signal. That is if they find a keyword tag stuffed full of spam whilst spidering your site, and your page has evidence of other blackhat tactics Bing are going to consider you a spammer and downgrade your ranking accordingly. Sullivan’s summarising remarks are good advice for the use of the Keyword tag going forward:

“Be safe, be smart, save your time. Don’t use it.”

The Ensemble Dashboard

In certain circumstances we still use a keywords field in the dashboard for some of our key products, such as our Ecommerce platform and Content Management System, mainly as a means for our clients to categorise what a given page or product is about, but which we also map to the keywords meta tag. We rely on the fact that we mainly use this information for internal content classification to keep the content clean, useful and non-spammy. As such when outputted into the template it should still conform to best practices and continue to be safe to do so.

Following these latest announcements we may review if we still display these keywords within the template, or if we use it purely for internal house keeping tasks. Watch this space.