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Learn the Difference Between Keywords and Tags
What Are Tags?
Keywords vs. Tags
Most article publishing websites and blogs like Hubpages let you tag your posts and articles with descriptive labels like "rugby" and "Australia."
And you've probably heard that you get traffic by using keywords, the words and phrases people type in to search the web with Google or other search engines.
But what is the difference between tags and keywords? They're not the same thing, and they do not work the same way. Unfortunately, many article publishing sites conflate the two.
Tags: An On-Site Filing System
Different websites have different "tagging" systems. These are labels you give your posts, short phrases such as "product review" and "cameras" and "digital cameras" and "Pentax."
On many sites, tags are open-ended: you can invent whatever tags you like, including custom tags that apply to a series of articles so that you can find them in a hurry. (E.G. on my mythology blog, I might have a tag called "cranky goddesses." It's an arbitrary in-house grouping, not something anyone would search for.)
Tags for an article are listed in the sidebar on some websites, or, for blog posts, at the top or bottom of the post. These tags link to what are called "tag pages," an index of all pages sharing those tags. Those "tag pages" link to other pages with the tags.
[UPDATE AUGUST 2014]: Hubpages used to let us tag our articles. However, it's now dropped tags altogether, for reasons I'll explain below.
Keywords: A Search Engine's Way of Classifying Webpages
Search engines see the web in terms of keywords, the words and phrases their users type in to look for things on the web. Search engines match these searches up to the keywords under which they have filed each webpages.
How do search engines decide what keywords to file each webpage under?
Every second of every day, search engine robots are crawling from one link to the next and examining all the text on each page they encounter. Is this a webpage on "box terriers"? Or is it a webpage on "shoe boxes"? Is it a "box terrier t-shirts and gifts" store, or is it a site with information on box terriers?
Search engines look at all parts of each webpage, from titles and URL, to images and clickable links, to decide what keywords each page is relevant for. They even look at which links point to and from a page, and check to see what keywords the pages at the other ends of these links are relevant for.
How search engines treat tags
So what about tags? Do search engines look at tags, a site's in-house filing system, to help determine keywords?
The answer is sometimes, but not very much. Here's why.
Once upon a time, site owners told search engines about in-house tags by embedding a special, invisible HTML code, the "META keywords tag" into their webpages. It looked something like this:
<META name="keywords" contents="brownie recipe,dessert,brownies,low calorie brownies">
In the 90s, search engines would actually trust the META keywords tag to help them decide what a page was about. But then everyone figured out that they could game the system by "stuffing" this tag with popular search phrases. Search engines stopped listening: it was like the boy crying wolf. "You claim your webpage is about 'squirrel humor,'" Google would sniff, "but I'll be the judge of that! Let's see just how many humorous squirrel pictures and jokes I can actually find on this webpage."
So search engines stopped trusting the META keywords tag, and nowadays sites like Hubpages don't even bother to fill them in.
But what about blog tags, Tumblr tags, or the like? Do search engines pay any attention to those?
Answer: sometimes. To search engines, they're just text links, no different from this link buried midway through the article. They're treated as a little less important, since they're in the sidebar.
However, on sites like Hubpages, there's a catch. Google penalizes sites with too much "shallow" content (whatever that means), and websites like Hubpages are afraid of tags pages full of nothing but links incurring a "shallow content" penalty. So Hubpages first hid its tag pages from search engines, and later, lest Google think it was doing something fishy, it ditched them.
Other sites use tags, however. Also, many social media sites have adopted Twitter's practice of tagging posts with hashtags (tags marked with a # in front), so I think tags will still have a role to play for the foreseeable future.
Google Recognizes Tags
How to Use Tags
This means tags won't help you with keyword SEO -- at least not directly.
Instead, tags are mostly useful as a navigation system for your visitors:
- They help users identify what your page is about and search for similar articles.
- They are used by some websites to fill in the "Related Articles" in the sidebar.
- On some sites, the on-site search box uses tags to help it find posts related to user searches
- On social media sites using #hashtags, clicking on a #tag will pull up other posts using the same #tag. This is how users find other content that might be interesting to them.
Google takes user-created tags with huge piles of salt. However, there is one way in which tags are still slightly useful for SEO purposes, and have some influence on how search engines determine the keywords for your article.
On many sites, the "Related Content" links and #hashtags are visible to search engines. One of the ways that search engines decide how "relevant" your page is to a particular keyword is to examine links pointing to and from your page. If your page links to related content, and receives links from related content, it may rank better for a keyword relevant to that content.
Notice that in this case, the actual text of the tag is NOT what the search engine cares about. The tag could say "Flipspittle." But if it links to a page about bald eagles, and your page is about bald eagles, well, score one more relevance point for "bald eagles" searches.
Flipspittle notwithstanding, you want to use tags that are:
- Relevant to your topic
- Broad ("brownie recipes") rather than so narrow ("low-calorie gluten-free brownies") that no other articles share that tag
You want to avoid "orphan" tags used by no other pages on your site. Also, don't use ten different variants of the same tag ("box terriers, box terrier puppies, box terrier photos, box terrier gifts", etc). This doesn't help. Just go with "box terriers," which should hook your article up with plenty of "box terrier" hubs.
On a site with multiple users, it's a good idea to click on your tags and make sure that what comes up really does seem to be relevant and related to your topic, at least somewhat.
How to use keywords
I've already written an article on how to research, choose and use good keywords for search engine optimization, so with apologies, let me send you there.