Meta Keyword Blacklist for Search Engines

closePlease note: This post was published over a year ago, so please be aware that its content may not be quite so accurate anymore. Also, the format of the site has changed since it was published, so please excuse any formatting issues.

A client recently called us in a panic. She works at an OB/GYN office, and their website was showing up in Google when people searched for “Spokane abortion.” This was a problem because, “we don’t do abortions,” she told us adamantly. Her office is affiliated with a local Catholic health system, so they definitely don’t do abortions.

“Can’t you remove us from Google for that keyword?” she asked. We told her no and explained that, since abortions are related to pregnancy, Google is just trying to be helpful. Often times those associations are truly helpful, giving users results they may not have thought to search for on their own. But every once in a while, and in this case in particular, the association is a bad one. Our client was upset because several people had already called their office inquiring about abortions. She was upset that their office was being associated with something to which they were fundamentally opposed.

So what can be done about it? Our client wanted us to add a line to the website saying, in no uncertain terms, that they definitely do not perform abortions. We pointed out to her that the problem with this idea is that they would be adding the word “abortion” to their website, which would only strengthen their association with the term, as far as Google was concerned.

We’re all familiar with the keywords meta tag (which Google now ignores anyway), but I’ve never seen a meta tag for keywords that should be blacklisted. That is, keywords that search engines should not associate with your website.

The implementation of a keyword blacklist meta tag could work in exactly the same way the existing keyword meta tag currently works. The only difference is, of course, that you would only include words and phrases that you do not want search engines to associate with your site.

The benefits of such a tag are obvious, but what are the drawbacks?

Let’s say your company sells doughnuts and you’re sick of people coming to your site looking for bagels. So you set up a keyword blacklist for your site so that search engines won’t list you for the term, “bagel.” Search engines would specifically prevent you from showing up for that term. Now let’s say your business model changes, and you start to sell bagels. At this point, you would want search engines to bring up your site for searches that include “bagel,” but because your site has heretofore been specifically disassociated from the term, your site won’t show up in the rankings, and once they are, your site will be way behind.

Perhaps more devastating would be if your site got hacked and a keyword blacklist got added without your knowledge. Such an attack wouldn’t be limited to sites with an existing blacklist. Because a blacklist tag would (theoretically) become a web-standard, any site would be open to such an attack. Since the the meta tag doesn’t appear visually on the site, and since most people don’t check their front-end code on a regular basis (especially business owners who aren’t tech-savvy), by the time you realize what happened, it could be too late. To use our previous example of the doughnut company, a hacker could add “doughnut” to the site’s keyword blacklist, thereby removing the site for all searches for the company’s flagship product. Yikes!

A few of ideas on how to prevent such an attack:

  • Have a strong password and check your code often. Both good ideas anyway, but kind of annoying for business owners whose time is already in high demand, and nearly impossible for those who don’t know what to look for.
  • Search engines could include a form on their sites that would allow business owners to tell the search engine, “hey, I used to blacklist this keyword, but now I don’t want to do that anymore.” This would speed up the process of getting sites associated with previously blacklisted terms, but it’s still open to unwanted tweaking (for example, a competitor could easily tell Google that the doughnut company now wants to be known for bagels).
  • Perhaps the best solution would be for each search engine to give site owners the option to maintain a keyword blacklist for each domain. Site owners would prove ownership of the site (Google already has a process for this), and then log in and maintain their keyword blacklist. The primary downsides to this are that business owners would have to maintain multiple keyword blacklists at multiple search engines, and the process is still susceptible to hackers (although for some of us, if our Google accounts got hacked, we’d have bigger things to worry about).

I haven’t decided whether or not I think a keyword blacklist is a good idea or not, although I lean toward not. To me, it seems that such a feature is limited in its usefulness, and most business owners probably wouldn’t use this. Moreover, in my opinion, the potential for malicious abuse outweighs the benefits.

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