Metal nanoparticles offer the possibility of improved light trapping in solar cells, but careful design is required to maximise scattering and minimise parasitic absorption across the wavelength range of interest. We present an analysis of the broadband scattering and absorption characteristics of spherical metal nanoparticles, optimized for either crystalline silicon (c-Si) or amorphous silicon (a-Si:H) solar cells. A random two-dimensional array of optimally sized Ag spheres can scatter over 97% of the AM1.5 spectrum from 400 to 1100 nm. Larger particles are required for c-Si devices than a-Si:H due to the increased spectral range, with optimum particle sizes ranging from 60 nm for a-Si:H to 116 nm for c-Si. Positioning the particles at the rear of the solar cell decreases absorption losses because these principally occur at short wavelengths. Increasing the refractive index of the surrounding medium beyond the optimum value, which is 1.0 for a-Si:H and 1.6 for c-Si, shifts absorption to longer wavelengths and decreases scattering at short wavelengths. Ag nanoparticles scatter more of the solar spectrum than Au, Cu or Al nanoparticles. Of these other metals, Al can only be considered for a-Si:H applications due to high absorption in the near-infrared, whereas Au and Cu can only be considered for the rear of c-Si devices due to high absorption in the ultraviolet (UV) and visible. In general, we demonstrate the importance of considering the broadband optical properties of metal nanoparticles for photovoltaic applications. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.