When the commercial Internet was still in its infancy in the mid-1990s, META tags provided one way for services such as AltaVista, Infoseek and Yahoo to classify and categorize data. There were three commonly used META tags: author, description and keywords. These tags allowed programmers to know what to expect from a page or site so that they could list it in a comprehensive database (what we know today as search engines). It wouldn't take long before meta tags were being used to drive website traffic in unethical ways.
Savvy, and often unscrupulous, webmasters quickly discovered that by manipulating these META tags, their sites and pages would begin to rank higher, resulting in more traffic. Through carefully chosen keywords and blatant repetition, webmasters and their marketing teams would stuff the META tags with as many instances of relevant keywords as they could find. This is the origin of the term "keyword stuffing."
Google Leads the Search Engine Fight Against Spam
These tactics presented a challenge to nascent search engines, which were beginning to derive significant advertising dollars from search marketers and thus had a very compelling interest in making search results relevant and blocking spam tactics such as keyword stuffing.
This effort was led by Google. Though a latecomer to the search engine business, Google is widely recognized as the leader in search engine quality. Since its launch in 1999, the company - founded by Stanford PhD students Larry Page and Sergey Brin - has used advanced algorithms and the relationships of pages and networks to each other to determine rankings. The sophistication of those algorithms lessened the ability of individual webmasters to "game" the system.
Early on, Google dramatically curbed the influence of META tags on the ranking process. While they continue to use the description tag to populate the search result listing (the two lines of text under most search engine listings), the META keywords tag is not used in the web search by Google. For that matter, most major search engines such as Bing and Ask disregard the keywords tag, as well.
Google Sets the Record Straight
On September 21, 2009, Matt Cutts of Google's Search Quality Team announced in an official blog post that they do not use the keyword mega tag for their web search. In an effort to put many questions to rest, he posted a video statement clearly explaining that "Google does not use the keywords META tag in our web search."
What About the Future?
Many search engine marketing consultants still advise clients to use the keywords tag, on the basis that someday, this data will have value. Not likely. According to Google, "It's possible that Google could use this information in the future, but it's unlikely. Google has ignored the keywords META tag for years and currently we see no need to change that policy."
In the span of about fifteen years, META data has gone from being the supreme ranking factor to one that is all but ignored by Google and other search engines - especially the keywords META tag. It is ironic that the use of keywords can only hurt a website these days: the website is broadcasting marketing tactics (which keywords are targeted) to competitors, with no benefit in return.