depiction of meta-keywords in code

If you’ve ever had a business website, the concept of ‘keywords’ probably means something to you.

You might recall that they’ve got something to do with search engines. You’ll probably also remember that they’re important when it comes to determining how well your website shows up in Google’s search results. But, for a lot of folk, that’s about it.

Now that’s fine, in so far as it goes – because all of that remains true.

But the issue is that the whole concept of keywords has changed significantly over the last few years – and when I talk with web design clients about keywords, I’m often reminded that we might actually be talking about different things.

Back in the day

In the past, ‘keywords’ were used by website owners – be they business websites, community websites, blogs or whatever – to effectively tell Google (and the other search engines) what the particular website was about. This was necessary because, at the time, the search engines couldn’t really work out for themselves what a website was about, so they needed to be told. This would then allow Google to know which pages/websites were relevant when people searched the internet for something – long story short, it looked to match up what people were searching for (“search terms”) with website keywords.

Technically separate from the written content of a webpage, these keywords would be inserted into the non-visible ‘back-end’ of a webpage or website. Generally, humans who looked at the pages in question would never get to see these keywords, they were put there specifically for the benefit of the search engines.

Let’s take an example. Say I ran a personal training and fitness website in my home town of Watford.

If I’d done my homework, I would have had a think about how people looking for a personal trainer would search for it online. Maybe they’d search for “personal trainer watford”. Makes sense, right?

Or maybe they’d search for “fitness instructor in watford”. Also fair enough, but completely different words.

The long and the short of it was that people would try to think of all of the ways that people might choose to search for their business website, and then include a massive impenetrable list of keywords (meta-keywords, technically) into the non-visible back-end of their web pages.

There’s always someone who ruins things for everyone else

The problem was that this was effectively a bit of an ‘honour-system’ – you were expected to honestly represent what your website was about – and the whole concept was open to abuse.

There are plenty of unscrupulous people out there in the internet world, and it didn’t take long before people tried to use this whole approach as a way of unfairly pulling people towards their websites. After all, what stopped somebody who ran a dodgy, unregulated viagra delivery website from filling their meta-keywords with popular (and completely unrelated) search terms such as ‘BBC News’ or ‘Premiership Football’ just to try to get a bit of their search ‘action’?

Absoutely nothing, that’s what.

And that’s what happened. It became extraordinarily frustrating, all round – because the search engines couldn’t do their jobs properly and people kept ending up with completely irrelevant, inappropriate search results. In a way, it threatened the integrity of the whole system.

Google gets wise …

Predictably, it didn’t take long for Google and the other search engines to get wise to this. The honour system just didn’t work, because people couldn’t be trusted. Shame on us.

What it did do was necessitate a complete shake up in how the whole search system worked and, always looking for the silver lining, prompted some really rather cool new technology and approaches to dealing with the problem.

Google started to make regular updates to their algorithm (the logic that they use to determine how to generate search results), and the importance and relevance of meta-keywords declined very rapidly.

Today, there’s nothing stopping you including meta-keywords into a webpage, but you might as well not waste your time – they are all but completely ignored by all major search engines. But be warned, many of the the ‘old school’ techniques that really boiled down to attempts to trick the search engines and exploit your visitors will now attract a Google penalty – the equivalent of being struck off the internet.

It just plain ain’t worth it. 

How it works now

Well, that’s a bit of a moving feast – Google’s means of determining what websites are relevant to particular search terms changes periodically, and it is generally a closely guarded secret – all to minimise the type of exploitation that we saw with keywords back in the day.

However, there are some general guidelines which are clear, and in fact Google publishes advice to webmasters.

To be honest, I could dedicate an entire series of posts to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) but absorbing it can sometimes feel like drinking from a fire hydrant.

Some general, high level guidelines would be:

  • Relevance and authority – these are the two basic principles that Google is looking for. It needs to have a sufficient understanding of the content of your website in order to determine how relevant it is to searchers. It will then rank search results based on how authoritative (i.e. trustworthy) the website appears to be. Where your website falls in the grand scheme of relevance and authority will be determined by a myriad of factors, some of the most important of which are below.
  • Logical website design – the clearer and more logical your website is, the easier Google will find it. The easier it will be for Google’s automated systems to locate all of your great content. There are also technical guidelines about how pages are constructed – in particular, use of other ‘meta’ information, such as technical page titles, descriptions and headings – that help Google infer the meaning of your web pages and therefore enable it to determine relevance. This is one of the areas where a professional web designer comes into his or her own.
  • Well written content, for humans not search engines -also key to relevance is how well written the website content is. Just like us mere mortals, Google will get a lot more out of ‘crawling’ your web pages if the content is clearly written. The search engines are clever enough these days to be able to infer a great deal of context and meaning from the words we use.
  • Popularity and ‘shareability’ – the search engines have worked out that popular content is a pretty good indicator of quality content. OK, so that’s not always true (I’m thinking YouTube videos of cats here), but as a general principle, it holds out pretty well. This is one of the key ways that the search engines determine authority. In particular, if shed loads of other websites have created links to your site, and if boat loads of people have shared, ‘liked’ or ‘+1’d your content on social media, then this is a pretty good indication that you’re onto a good thing – and Google will reflect this, over time, in their search result rankings.

Wrapping up

I wanted to write this post because, in my experience, there are plenty of folk out there who have a good idea about the principles of search engine optimisation (SEO) as they were a few years ago. Things have moved on plenty in that time, and if you used some of the old school techniques now, you might end up with a Google penalty – and that’s the exact opposite of what you were trying to achieve.

But, dragging myself back onto the real subject at hand: Keywords are still very relevant, but in a different way – as I said above, the days of stuffing ‘meta-keywords’ into your webpages are long gone. But the principles of keywords – that is, an understanding of how your potential visitors would search for you – is still über-relevant today. It still makes perfect sense to construct your web content around the words that people use to search for products/services like yours.

The lesson for all of us is this: if your website contains useful, well-written, unique content – and doesn’t employ any underhanded tricks – you’re off to a great start.