June 7, 1999 -- Newsletter #31

By Joe Burns

June 7, 1999 -- Newsletter #31
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Greetings, Weekend Silicon Warriors...

Do you use Meta tags on your Web page? I do. I use them a great deal.

If you don't know already, Meta tags are special HTML that sits up between the head flags and allows you to embed words into your page that a search engine would use to index and, hopefully, return your page as part of a search. Yes, Meta flags do more than this, but it is for the search engine function that most people use them.

Meta tags have been around right from the beginning, and right from the beginning people have sought to misuse them. The misuse is most often in order to "trick" a search engine into listing their page before listing another.

When used correctly, Meta tags offer a series of keywords and a description of your site (yes, there are other Meta tags, but this is where the majority of the messing around occurs). A search engine, when it accepts and lists a site, uses those keywords to search rather than searching the entire text of the page. The idea is sound, but easily manipulated.

In the past, search engines listed search results in order of "best match" first. Let's say I searched for the word "dog." One page had the word two times, the next had it ten times. The page that had "dog" ten times would be listed first. It was a good way of doing it, in that the second page might have had more information about a dog than the first.

Well, as soon as this little chunk of information got out, people started going goofy in their Meta tags. If a page dealt with the Cleveland Browns football team, then the authors would set up a keyword Meta tag with the word "Browns" listed 1000 times. Really. Then "Cleveland" a thousand more, then "Cleveland Browns" yet another thousand times. The keyword Meta tag would be 2000 lines and easily longer than the page itself.

This actually worked for a short while until the search engines caught on that they were cataloguing 50K byte pages that barely read "Hello." If you pulled that trick today, you'd be denied listing in a search engine. They now look down on multiple keywording as spamming.

But that doesn't mean you can't use an absolute ton of different words... or words that don't pertain to you. Another pseudo-famous Meta tag trick is to put in keywords that are sure to be searched, but have nothing to do with your page. For example, pretend I have a page that lists my favorite band's members' photos. I submit that page to a search engine with the keywords CBS, Ford, HTML, Goodies, JavaScript, Yahoo, Pamela, Anderson.

I know the words have nothing to do with the page, but what I do know is that "Pamela Anderson" was one of the most searched strings of text last year. Now I have a little more luck in getting picked if someone searches for her name. And if I make my description a little vague, then the person who searched might be compelled to stop by my page, thinking it was devoted to Pam. See the logic?

The use of Meta tag keywords is now being tested in court. Yes, people are actually being sued over this. Since I've brought up Pam Anderson, let me now bring up Terri Welles. Welles is a former Playboy playmate who's being sued by Hef's gang of lawyers for using of the words "Playboy" and "Playmate" in her site's Meta tags. Playboy Magazine said the terms were registered trademarks and could not be used. Sound silly? It did to the court, too.

Hef lost.

The court ruled that Welles was using the terms as descriptive rather than as a blatant misuse in order to attract visitors. But it ain't over till it's over. Playboy's lawyers intend to keep fighting through the highest court in the land. They have the funds, I guess.

In another case, West Coast Video was sued because they used the term "MovieBuff" in their Meta tags. (They also created a site with that name.) "MovieBuff" is a registered trademark of Brookfield Communications, Inc., a California-based provider of entertainment news.

Initially, West Coast Video lost the right to use the term, but on appeal the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco overturned the ruling, noting that the use of "MovieBuff" did not create "initial interest confusion." That's a special section of trademark law that states using another's trademark to confuse the consumer and bring them to you is bad.

In the case of West Coast Video, the user would not be confused because when the page loaded they obviously would be in the West Coast Video, rather than the MovieBuff site.

Although this may look like a winner for Meta tag culprits, it's not. The wording of the ruling reads very loosely. I don't think you're going to be able to use trademarks in your Meta tags at will because the user won't be confused when they arrive at your page. A court is also going to take into consideration your intent. If you have a series of trademarks in your Meta tags, but no content relating to those keywords, then you might be in a bit of trouble.

So, does that mean that all you have to do is create a page of links to all of these trademark's home pages, then use the keyword? I doubt it. Again, that would smell fishy and would probably throw red flags.

West Coast Video solved the problem by taking the word "MovieBuff" out of their Meta tags.

But you know what? A space could have fixed all of this. A space.

The court also ruled that spelling is everything. "MovieBuff" is bad. "Movie Buff" is not. The space makes the words separate and thus not the same as the registered trademark.

I have no doubt that Internet Law will be fun to watch in the years to come.


And that's that. Thanks for reading.

Joe Burns, Ph.D.

And Remember: Have you ever heard the phrase, "His name is Mud." The insult was derived from the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth's broken leg, which he broke jumping from Lincoln's box to the stage of Ford's Theater. Samuel Mudd set Booth's leg and didn't realize until later who's leg it actually was. Mudd was taken away as a conspirator, a charge which was later overturned, but the poor moniker stuck.

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