In the heyday of search engine optimization, about 10 years ago, the Meta keyword and Meta description tags were the indisputable ring leaders in a mixed bag of search engine optimization techniques. In those days Yahoo was the dominant player in search followed by AltaVista. In both cases, a Web page’s ranking was determined largely by on-page factors such as body text, Title tags and certain HTML tags including Meta and ALT tags.
When Google entered the search landscape back in September 1998 (in beta) the concept of backlinks was new to most SEOs. In fact, we were still submitting websites to search engines by hand in those days via submission forms and it wasn’t always free (and still isn’t, if you’re Yahoo).
Eight years later, it’s hard to believe that was ever the case. Link placement has completely superseded the need to hand submit to the search engines. It has also overshadowed Meta keyword and description tags as the most important component of SEO after the Title tag.
Since search engines, Google in particular, place a lot of relevancy on solid inbound links and overall keyword relevancy of a website (e.g., thematic relevancy) rather than focusing just on a particular web page, the value of Meta tags has come under fire. So, are Meta keyword and description tags necessary when practicing good SEO?
The short answer is, yes.
Google uses the Meta description tag as the default description for your site’s search listing in their search results page if you are not listed in The Open Directory. Thus, this is a rare opportunity for you to “control” how your website is represented in Google and also promote your company or product using the language you want.
Also, if you do not have a Meta description tag or an Open Directory listing, Google will take the first text it finds on your website. If your site is mainly image-based or has a lot of code on the page, this text may be the first string of words in your navigation bar or privacy information, etc. If you have no text at all on your home page, Google will not display any description for your site in its search results, and you should avoid this.
Meta keywords are important because they help reinforce the content on a specific page. Meta keywords should be unique to each page of your website, never contain duplicate terms (keyword stuffing) and they should absolutely mimic the general content of the page. The Meta keywords tag should be no more than 160 characters long (syntax and specific recommendations for each tag will be addressed in the next post). Meta tags are also a useful way for boosting keyword relevancy when a page has very little text (e.g., with an image-heavy page or one that is in Flash).
It is important to remember that Meta tags are just one component of a good Search Engine Optimization strategy. When used in conjunction with things like frequent content updates, backlink building and search-engine friendly web site structure, Meta tags can help you achieve good search engine ranking.