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Search Engine Optimization News.

Are keyword meta tags important any longer?

Are keyword meta tags important any longer?

Keyword meta tags have historically been a big focus of Internet marketers. In the past, they were very important to obtaining high search engine rankings. Based on some in depth research and analysis I recently performed, it is now my opinion that the use of keyword meta tags have little impact the search engine rankings of a web site. Now that Yahoo has bought Inktomi search engine keyword meta tags have a place when optimizing for Yahoo. When Optimizing for Yahoo the use of keyword rich content has become even more important. Let me explain further.

Internet Locator Tools 
To effectively market your web site, it is important to have a detailed understanding of the tools used by Internet users to find products, services, information and items of interest on the Internet. Additionally, it is essential to understand how these tools work to truly understand any impact that the keyword meta tags, hidden text, body text content or any other component of your web site may have effected Internet user visits to the web site.

One of the central themes on the Internet I have been noticing is the belief that search engines and directories are the primary tool used by Internet users to find web sites, products, services or information on the Internet. Internet marketers often place too much emphasis on these two tools and in most cases do not even make a fair distinction between them. As I will discuss below, search engines and directories work in dramatically different ways to assist Internet users. 

The methods used by Internet users are numerous and include the following: (Note: this is not an exhaustive list of tools used by Internet users to find web sites)

  • Links from other web sites or portals

  • Email newsletters

  • Newsgroup references

  • Print Media Ads

  • Television Ads

  • Radio Ads

  • Internet Banner Advertisements

  • Word-of-Mouth

  • Other Traditional Advertising

  • Search Engines 

  • Directories

The following statistics provide a better example of the methods used to find web sites. 

"How do you find out about new WWW pages/sites?" 2000
Books 27.6%
Friends  64.7%
Hyperlinks  88.3%
Search Engines 84.8%
Directories 58 %
Usenet 30.4%
Print Media 62.6%
Signs & TV 68 %
Other 29 %

 One of the most interesting results of this survey is that hyperlinks are the most utilized tool. You can’t ignore the power of reciprocal links. Learn more at http://www.visionmasters.com/marketing_tools_reclinks.htm 

The other result to note is the importance of the directories. 

I want to explain a little further the difference between search engines and directories. There is a lot of confusion over the differences between the two and the terms are used interchangeably even though they are quite different. 

Search Engines
A search engine is a program designed to search a database of web pages. Many search engines maintain web sites that allow you to utilize their search engine program to search their database. Robotic spiders that index web pages create these databases. The spiders automatically “crawl” the Internet through links and by submissions of web pages to the search engine. The spiders will return to an indexed site on a regular basis to look for changes. Robotic spiders are used to ensure maximum coverage and indexing of the Internet.

Many of the search engines supplement their results from the spider-created database of web pages with directory (defined below) results. The following is a list of the major search engines and where applicable, the supplemental directory they use: 

Search Engine Service Directory Supplement
Alta Vista DMOZ,
Yahoo/Inktomi Yahoo Directory
MSM Looksmart
Google  DMOZ

Note that some of the search engines will also supplement their results with other search engine results. Supplemental results are usually shown as a second option and require the user to make a choice to review the supplemental results after reviewing the primary results. This makes the probability of a supplemental result being selected by an Internet user much lower.

Search Engine Ranking Methodology
Search engines use many variables to index web pages. The important thing to remember is that not every search engine uses the same variables or weights the variables with the same level of importance. In this report, it is not possible to cover every detail of every search engine to explain how it ranks and indexes web pages. There are some variables, that because of their wide use and heavy weighting across many of the search engines, make them more important in ranking any given web site. Most of the search engines closely guard the methods they use to rank and index web sites. The best way to determine what the ranking variables are and the important of each is through experience in designing and developing web sites to attain high search engine rankings. My knowledge of these variables and the method in which they work has been attained through years of experience and research. 

I will summarize some of the more important variables and then provide a rough estimation of which variables are most important. For the major search engines, I will outline the primary variables they use. The following is a listing, in order of importance, of the primary variables used by search engines to rank web sites:

  • Link Popularity – hyperlinks from other web sites.

  • Body Text Content (Body Tag) - is a component of the HTML code that contains the actual text that is visible on the page to a browser.

           aNumber of keywords/phrases in proportion to total text on the page
           b.  Placement on the page (First 200 characters given heavier weight)
           c.  Bold or Un-bold text

  • Title – a component of the HTML code that is designated as the title of the page and is displayed in a search engine or directory search result to describe a web site or web page to an Internet user. 

  • Human Directory Editor Review Status. 

  • The degree of agreement between the title tag, page body text content (body tag), keyword meta tag and the meta tag description used when the page is crawled by the spider. 

  • Text keywords and phrases in hyperlinks. 

  • Meta Tag Description – a component of the HTML code designated as a brief description of the page content and is displayed in a search engine or directory search result to describe a web site or web page to an Internet user. 

  • Meta Tag Keywords - a component of the HTML code that is designated as the words or phrases that may be used by Internet users to find the content of the web site. Is not displayed in a search result. 

  • Alternate Text Tag – descriptions of pictures in HTML code that are displayed will show in lieu of images or that may pop-up when scrolled over in some browsers. 

  • The degree of agreement between keywords provided in the keyword meta tag and the words on the page.

Keyword Meta Tags – The primary reason that keyword meta tags are not one of the more important ranking variables is that they are not widely used by many of the major search engines. 

The following search engines are the only major ones that utilize keyword meta tags to rank web pages:

  • Infoseek Spider (supplemental to Go Directory)

  • Inktomi 

The following search engines ignore keyword meta tags completely:

  • Excite

  • Google

  • FAST

  • Lycos spiders

  • Web Crawler

  • Direct Hit

The AltaVista search engine reads keyword meta tags but does not factor them into ranking web pages. The HotBot search engine reads keyword meta tags but only for supplemental results. 

For Infoseek (Go) and Inktomi the keyword meta tags are used but are not the primary means used to rank web pages. Infoseek uses all of the following to rank web pages. Based on my experience and research, I have listed what I believe to be their order of importance in ranking web sites:

  1. Keywords in the title tag and at the beginning of the body tag text.

  2. High frequency of keywords in the body tag text

  3. Keyword meta tags

  4. Link popularity

Inktomi does not independently operate a web site where you can use their database to search web pages. Instead, they provide their results to a number of other search engines and directories (“partners”). In most cases, these results are secondary results, making them less relevant and less likely to attain customers then if they were primary results. This means that for many of the search engines and directories that use Inktomi the Internet user must make a decision to view the supplemental results after viewing the main results. Additionally, Inktomi allows the partner that is using its results to control the weight of the different major ranking variables making the ranking results from Inktomi different from partner to partner. 

Hidden Text – Hidden text is not one of the ranking variables listed above because it is effectively the same as body text content. The only difference between hidden text and normal body text is that it is hidden from the view of the Internet user because it is the same color as the background. However, it is not invisible to the spider because it is reading the text directly from the HTML code. Hidden text was previously used a great deal by web developers to easily add keywords and phrases to a page without having to let the Internet user see the list. The list of keywords and phrases can be aesthetically unpleasing. This tool was useful for allowing web developers to give the search engine spider a better idea of the content of the web site without having to show the Internet user this long list of words. 

Over time, some web developers misused this tool to try and fool the search engine spiders by including keywords and phrases that did not relate in any way to the web site. Use of hidden text in this manner is now viewed as SPAM by many of the search engines and directory supplemental results including Alta Vista, Infoseek (Go), Lycos, HotBot, Inktomi and Northern Light.  In order to prevent misuse of this technique, these search engines and directories will either refuse to index this text or the entire page it is on, downgrade a web site for using this technique by removing it from the index or significantly lowering its ranking. Thus, the use of hidden text is actually much more likely to lower a web sites search engine ranking then raise it. 

Body Text Content – Body text content is an extremely important factor for ranking web pages. The content is given so much weight because that is what most Internet users are going to a web site to find: CONTENT. A recent article by Internet Marketer, Tom Dahm pointed out that:

"...we can’t stress it enough: the three most important factors in search engine (including directories) rank are: content, content, content."

The search engines will rank web pages based on the ratio of keywords/phrases to total text on the page. All other ranking variables being equal, the higher this ratio the higher the web page will rank. 

The unique thing about body text content is that it is used by every search engine and directory to rank web sites and web pages in one way or another. Its wide use and acceptance is what makes it such an important and powerful tool. Not only do all of the search engines use it but it, is given a heavier weight then most other variables. Additionally, variables 5 and 10 from the list of variables above depend on body text content keywords and phrases in order to become effective themselves.

Link Popularity – Link popularity has recently become the most important ranking variable on the Internet. Link popularity is simply defined as the number of text hyperlinks from other web sites that a given web site has pointed at it. Some search engines give more weight to links from web sites that have high traffic rates. All other ranking variables being equal, a search engine that utilizes link popularity will rank the web site with the most links from the most trafficked web sites the highest. 

Link popularity has become a major ranking variable because it is assumed that if a significant number of other web sites are directing their Internet users to a given web site then it is likely a quality web site. This a form of free editor review for the search engines. Additionally, it is more difficult for web developers to tailor characteristics of web sites for the purpose of better rankings from link popularity as they can do for the other ranking variables. The following major search engines use link popularity as an important ranking variable: 

  • AltaVista

  • Yahoo/Inktomi

  • MSN

  • FAST 

  • Google (Extremely heavy weighting – close to 100%) 

  • Inktomi

At Visionmasters we have come to understand the great importance of reciprocal links.  This importance has led us to offer a reciprocal linking service that works to quickly boost the ranking of a web site and drive significant click through traffic.  To learn more http://www.visionmasters.com/services_IM_reclinks.htm 

A directory is a database that focuses on listing web sites by individual categories, a quasi table of contents. Most directories maintain a web site that allows Internet users to search their database of web sites. A search engine lists pages, where a Directory (such as Looksmart or The Open Directory Project (DMOZ)) lists websites. Directories of sites are NOT search engines. The table of contents is edited by human editors that review submitted web sites. A search on a directory looks for matches only in the descriptions and titles submitted. Human editors are used to ensure that the description and title correspond to the content (body text and other content) of the web site.

Just like search engines, directories will often supplement their database results. They do so with search engine results. The following is a list of major directories and, where applicable, the search engines they use to supplement their results:

Directory Service Search Engine Supplement
Google DMOZ (Open Directory)
DMOZ (Open Directory)   
LookSmart Inktomi
Yahoo  Inktomi
MSN  Inktomi
Netscape  Google
Lycos  FAST, Direct Hit
AOL  Google

Directories are very powerful ranking tools on the Internet. Many Internet users do not even realize they are using a directory to find web sites. For example, DMOZ (open directory project) feeds over 100 search engines and web sites as supplemental or primary results. DMOZ is used as the primary results for many major directory sites such as AOL Search, Lycos and Netscape Search. 

Directory Ranking Methodology
Directories rank sites using very different methods then search engines. Not every directory uses exactly the same variables or weights each variable the same. However, the methodologies used by the directories are in much more agreement than the search engines. I will not explain in great detail about every variable used by every directory. There may be issues in this case that require that level of detail, and they will be addressed on an individual basis. 

It is important to note that none of the major directories (listed above) utilize keyword meta tags at all for indexing or ranking web sites. 

Directories create their table of contents by having human editors review the web sites, the title and the description and then placing it an a category. For example, www.TexMexToGo.com is listed under:

Home: Cooking: World Cuisines: Latin American: Mexican 

in the DMOZ open directory project. The sites are ranked on a search of this database based on (1) the words and phrases in the Title, (2) based on the words in the Description and, (3) in alphabetical order according to their Title. 

In conclusion, keyword meta tags have very little impact if any on rankings in most search engines and if not done properly can actually have a negative impact on the rankings.  They have no impact on directory rankings.

Jay Mock
Director of Internet Marketing

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