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Google Uses Meta Tags Sparingly, But Should You? (Enough Already, Part 2)

By Andrew Goodman, 9/16/2002

My recent editorial about metatags generated some
helpful reader responses. My basic point still holds.
Metadata as currently
structured, in the context of a non-ideal world, is open
to spam and deception,
and most search engines give meta tags very little
weight. The
overworked site owner would probably find it a relief to
simply
stop using meta keywords and possibly
descriptions entirely.



There were some cloudy parts to the argument that
I'd like to clear up, though.



The first is to reaffirm the utter usefulness of
emerging metadata standards in the contexts where they're
likely to thrive.
Information science professionals and company knowledge
management mavens
reminded me of how vital it is to classify information,
at least in contexts
where the classifications may be expected to be
relatively free of spoofing.
Corporate intranets and libraries (though some may think
to the contrary)
are more likely contexts for what Jurgen Hagermas calls
communicative action (in which interlocutors are
motivated by 'an orientation
towards mutual understanding'). Much more so than the
public Internet, which, as
we know, is a marketplace open to all forms of strategic
action, in which
participants are often motivated by a desire to get their
own
way.



Another reason to continue to use tags even in the
context of the free-for-all public Internet is for site
search. Well-tagged
pages might not help you rank well in search engines, but
once visitors *do*
find your site, they may then search its pages, and the
more structured data you
can provide to the site search tool, the more likely it
is that your visitor
will find the exact pages they're looking for. Summary
descriptions are always
an aid to navigation; they're just time consuming to
write. I tend to think that
pages that contain hard-working content merit good
description tags.
Unfortunately, there is also a lot of bad content or
non-content out there
masquerading as content. If a site can barely produce a
coherent sentence on its
visible pages, then it would probably take longer to
write each
page description than it took to create the page.



Corporate portals might also want to tag their
public pages in a way similar to the way they tag their
private pages - not
necessarily so "the public" can find them on Google, but
so employees and
partners can find *all* relevant documents, including
those which are
openly available to the public.



But the general state of consumer Internet research
will probably not be improved a whole lot through the use
of these tags. Search
engines discovered in the early days that if you fail to
develop schemes and
technologies for taming the chaos of the net, it'll look
a lot more like a
gigantic landfill that overwhelms a bushel or two of good
apples. In a
context where the creation, distribution and
dissemination of pages can be
done at nearly zero cost, the outlaws can make themselves
seem orders
of magnitude "bigger" than the sincere participants, even
if they may be in the
minority.



Without good countermeasures (like discriminating,
smart, customizable research tools and search indexes),
the Internet would be
like "two billion channels and nothing on."



In such a context, search engines *cannot* take
meta tags too seriously. They must come up with clever
methods of ranking
content, and weeding out the bad stuff. They will never
finally succeed, at
least in this particular realm. In spite of its stellar
reputation, we can see
that Google's index has its share of link farm spam,
keyword spam, and so on. If
somebody makes $50 in affiliate fees every time a visitor
to their web site
signs up for an American Express card, there is no
downside to deceiving Google
to get the site's pages ranked high for the relevant
keywords in order to
generate free traffic. So that's what many web site
operators continue to do. As
consumers, we have to cheer for the search engines and
their ability to weed
this crap out.



Google doesn't completely ignore meta tags as I
claimed. They may give a very low weight to keyword tags
(we'll never know
how much). More importantly, the index will grab a
description meta tag as a
"fall-through" if a site's home page doesn't contain much
if any usable
text, nor alt tags on images. Another thing Google does
in some cases is to use
the description written by a human editor at the Open
Directory ( href="http://www.dmoz.org">http://www.dmoz.org), if
the site is listed
there.



Human oversight combined with a smarter way of
ranking which web pages matter most to the searcher give
us pretty good search
results most of the time, even if the humans at the major
Internet directories
aren't perfect, and even if every ranking method can be
"cracked" to some extent
by strategic participants in the ongoing quest for free
search engine
referrals.



Given the wide open nature of the medium, it's
unlikely that there can be any sort of fixed taxonomy
that
classifies things "just right." Nor can there ever be any
guarantee of
sincerity on the part of those who



For all of the overworked web site owners who
just want to get on with the business of producing great
content or selling
great products, I hope you'll someday feel less compelled
to bother with
those those pesky keyword and description meta tags.



The very short summary to my point remains: if
you're thinking corporate portal or library, think
taxonomy; if you're thinking
about creating a large Internet search index, think
noncooperative game
theory. No, that doesn't mean run out and spam the
engines! It simply means that
the engines can't put too much emphasis on ranking
methods that are too wide
open to spam. If the engines don't pay much attention to
meta tags, they
might be a waste of your time.


Andrew Goodman is Editor-at-Large of Traffick.com and the author of "Winning Results with Google Adwords". 

 

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