The Search Engine Silver Bullet that Misfired
Way back when at the dawn of time, 1995, search engines were doing a really poor job of keeping up with the explosive growth and metamorphosis of the Web. There were several attempts to improve the quality of search results. One of these was the meta tag, a botched attempt to allow web site designers and business owners to describe their own sites.
Before describing why meta tags went wrong, I'll first answer the question that no doubt has most of you scratching your head: what are meta tags? Without getting into a discussion of etymology, "Meta" means "about." Meta tags store data, so it could be said that meta tags are "data about data."
In English, this means that meta tags describe the content or purpose of a Web page. A meta description is a description of the page. Meta keywords are a list of important words or topics covered in the page. The information stored in the meta tags does not actually appear in the page when you view it. Meta tags are invisible to the end user but are read and understood by search engines, browsers, and anything else that interprets a Web page.
So, what's wrong with meta tags? Meta tags work on a trust system with little to no repercussion against those who abuse meta tags. This led to some fairly common practices. People laced their meta keywords with popular, frequently searched phrases like "britney spears" and "american flag." They hoped that if their site just "accidentally" appeared in the search results, people would be overjoyed to stumble across a random site that has nothing to do with what they were searching for. Ostensibly, these anonymous Web surfers would be so ecstatic to find this site that they would be unable to help themselves and would go into a buying frenzy.
As a result of this type of abuse, some search engines just ignored meta tags. Other search engines dropped meta keyword support altogether. Now, several years later, only one major search engine supports meta keywords. This has led search engine guru Danny Sullivan to proclaim the end of the meta keywords era.
As much as I respect Danny Sullivan (I've been a paid subscriber to his site for years), I think he may be throwing the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. Sullivan is primarily concerned with how search engines work, offering news from the industry and tips about optimizing sites for best placement in the search engines. As such, the value he places on meta keywords directly corresponds to the usefulness of meta tags as they pertain to search engines. From this perspective, Sullivan is, of course, correct. Nevertheless, just because search engines don't favor sites with meta keywords, doesn't mean meta keywords are completely useless altogether.
Sites are organic, growing over time. The content of most sites goes though innumerable tweaks, revisions, and total rewrites. I know this because I maintain sites for hundreds of clients. I also know that there's a lot more to maintaining a site than just typesetting and formatting. As a client makes changes to their site, I have to be mindful of the effects their changes are going to have, whether on the site's usability, the time it takes the site to download, etc.
I also have to make sure the client isn't about to shoot themselves in the foot when it comes search engines. A few small textual changes to a site can make or break the site with the search engines. For instance, if a client changes each use of the word "car" to "auto," they will no longer come up in the search engines for "car." Sure, "auto" may sound better from a marketing perspective, but I would bet more people search for the word "car."
This is where meta tags in general, and meta keywords specifically, kick in. I've used the meta keywords as a reference point when maintaining a Web page. I check revisions against the meta keywords to make sure the content of the site is not diluted as perceived by the search engines. As far as I was concerned, it was a nice bonus meta keywords helped bolster the site in a few search engines.
Of course, I could store this information in another file somewhere or in a database. I could even make up my own tags and place the information right in the Web page. However, because of the popular misbelief that meta tags would make or break a site in the search engines, most Web page editing programs support meta tags. People with no knowledge of the technologies underlying a Web page can add, edit and view meta keywords.
So, though the industry has finally admitted what the industry has already known for years, that doesn't mean meta tags serve no purpose. No, they won't directly help your site get to the top of the search results. Nevertheless, they can be a useful tool for maintaining your site, which in turn helps in your search engine endeavors.