Meta Keywords

SEO Whiteboard Chart
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There are few aspects of website design that I find are more misunderstood then Meta tags - specifically the Meta Keywords tag. I routinely speak to business owners or website managers who ask me about Meta Keywords in reference to improving their sites search engines rankings. Typically, they ask me how they can add some keywords to the site to "jump up in Google".

When I hear these requests, I realize that I am speaking to someone who, at some point in the past, has discussed SEO (search engine optimization) with someone.

Unfortunately, this information about meta keywords impacting SEO is woefully outdated.

The History Of Keywords

Meta keywords were originally developed during the early days of the Web to help search engines identify and categorize content based on user-described phrases. First-generation search engines struggled to parse the content of web pages on their own, so  including meta keywords that listed what a page was about offered a logical way to promote serendipitous knowledge discovery and help search engines rank pages for the "correct terms."

Many shady Web developers, however, used keywords to spam search engines with popular search terms that had nothing to do with the page - this is why I used the phase "correct terms" loosely in that last paragraph. This practice of using inappropriate keywords was called "keyword stuffing" and it became pretty rampant across the Web and diluted the value of using keywords for ranking purposes.

Because of this, search engines eventually stopped using meta keywords for anything at all - yet the false impression of meta keyword being used for SEO remains, which I why I continue to have these conversations with clients.

Keywords vs. Search Engine Optimization

Keywords aren't actually visible on the page.

Instead, they appear in the head section of an HTML file, so browsers and spiders will see them but humans never will. It is data that is passed to browsers and bots, but not meant for human visitors to a site. 

Modern approaches to SEO  rely on a number of factors, one of which is words and phrases already natively included in the content. So instead of putting keywords in the head of an HTML document, these terms should be interspersed naturally within the body of the document—that is, the part that humans actually see. Content marketing techniques that seed articles with phrases that vary the central logical keyword of the article are using SEO to promote higher search ranks. In summary, if a page should rank for certain keywords and terms, those terms should be contained in the text of the page itself.

Keyword stuffing can still be a problem, of course. Websites that try to overdo it by adding a phrase over and over on a page are still keyword stuffing, just in a different way. This is a bad practice. Website content should be written for people to read, not search engines. If you author text that is enjoyable and useful for people to consume, search engines will recognize that and rank the site accordingly.

Also be aware that not every possible variation of a keyword needs to be on your page. Search engines do a wonderful job of understanding synonyms and rankings sites by content topic and not just black-and-white keywords.

Modern Use Cases for Keywords

Even though search engines no longer use meta keywords as a ranking signal, this meta tag is still used on many sites today. One common use case harnesses the meta keywords as a way to remind developers of the core concepts targeted within the page as well as any alternate phrases that might be correlated, or words or phrases that might serve as a hook for cross-linking articles on the same site.

Another use may be to identify pages through tagging to support the more efficient technical discovery of content by site administrators and developers.

Just remember, there's no benefit to using meta keywords to reinforce your SEO terms - so if you speak to an SEO "specialist" that tells you they need to work with you on your meta keywords in order to improve your rankings, realize that you should seek out someone else to work with for your digital marketing needs!

Writing Meta Keywords

The meta keywords are placed in the head of your HTML. They're placed in the content argument of the name descriptor called keywords. Within the quote marks defining the argument, list all keywords. Separate multiple keywords with a comma, but don't use any other additional punctuation. Don't repeat phrases.

Traditionally, the keywords appeared in descending order of importance, so the most significant keyword appeared first on the list. That rule no longer applies now that most search engines disregard meta keywords, but the practice may be a good signal to other developers in a team-based coding environment.

A one-line webpage that uses five meta keywords would look like this:


   <meta charset="UTF-8">
   <meta name="description" content="Keyword Demo">
   <meta name="keywords" content="meta,keyword,demo,sample html,test">
   <meta name="author" content="Jane Doe">
   <meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0">

<p>Award-winning content goes here!</p>


Although the use of meta keywords has evolved over time, they're an essential part of the HTML standard and can continue to be used without fear of depreciation. 

Original article by Jennifer Krynin. Edited by Jerey Girard on 9/8/17