Keyword Metatags Revisited

By Eric Goldman

For years, I’ve been saying that keyword metatags are technologically irrelevant and therefore should be legally irrelevant. My conclusion was heavily based on the research of Danny Sullivan, a guru on this topic. Recently, Danny updated his research about how search engines treat keyword metatags. According to Danny:

* Google and Microsoft ignore keyword metatags completely for purpose of displaying search results

* Yahoo and Ask use keyword metatags for retrieval. This means that these engines index the words in the keyword metatags and will show the page as a search result if there is a keyword match.

As far as I can tell, this is the same as 2002, when both Google and MSN ignored keyword metatags and Inktomi (part of Yahoo) and Teoma (part of Ask) publicly acknowledged that they indexed keyword metatags.

Even though Yahoo and Ask display search results based on keyword metatags, there is no evidence that the terms in keyword metatags get any special weight in the ranking algorithms. Thus, “metatag stuffing” should have no meaningful effect on the site’s ranking for the stuffed term. In other words, put in “Britney Spears” as many times as you want in the keyword metatags, and you’re probably still going to get no more credit than if you put the term into the keyword metatags once. Further, putting a term into the keyword metatags should have no greater effect on Yahoo/Ask search results than if the term is visibly displayed on the page.

So why put a term into the keyword metatags at all? According to Danny, keyword metatags are an appropriate place to put synonyms or common typographical errors of search terms that would be appropriate for the page–that way, the synonym or misspelling isn’t displayed on the page, but it will still be indexed in Yahoo and Ask. But Danny concludes that these benefits aren’t worth much. He says: “it’s not worth the time fretting about it.”

So, from a legal standpoint, do keyword metatags matter? Given that they are ignored by Google and Microsoft, which collectively comprise the vast majority of searches, I think the answer should be clearly no. But even if we focus on their indexing at the minority of searches taking place at Yahoo and Ask, I still think the legal consequences should be zero. The keyword metatags only have a technological effect if they contain trademarked terms that aren’t shown on the rest of the page (otherwise, the page will be indexed on the term anyway), but if these terms are contained only in the keyword metatag, the chance of good search results placement on the trademark is very, very low. So as a practical matter, terms in the keyword metatags are still effectively irrelevant as a way to draw consumers searching for the trademark. Accordingly, I think they should be legally irrelevant as well.

At minimum, I think it’s irresponsible (in an ethical sense, if not from an RPC sense) for a plaintiff’s lawyer to go into court claiming that keyword metatags support trademark infringement without informing the judge of the likely technological irrelevance of the keyword metatag. As far as I can recall, no judge has yet opined on the legal consequence of irrelevant metatags, but I remain unclear how many judges are being educated about how keyword metatags work (or don’t work). I am reasonably confident that if judges were informed about the technological consequences of keyword metatags, the many ridiculous keyword metatag precedents would get reversed.