You’ve spent time writing catchy meta descriptions for your web pages, but you notice Google isn’t displaying them on the results page. Why is that? More importantly, what snippets of text is Google displaying instead and is it helping your site rank higher?

These are all valid questions we have asked ourselves when we discovered that major search engine Google is being a Meta Description puppet master, so we’ll try answering them in this post.

But first: what is the Meta Description tag? It’s a summary of a page’s content that helps users understand what information they’ll find on that page. For site owners, this is the snippet of text displayed by search engines on the results page. Meta descriptions are basically short “advertisements” that are meant to determine web users to click on your pages in the search results, rather than your competitors’ pages. This means it needs to sell.

The Google Meta Description puppet master

Some believe that once they have added meta descriptions for their web pages, search engines will pull those default meta tags and display them in the search results page. However, that’s not always the case as things have become more complex.

Google evaluates your default meta description but if it finds more keyword relevance in one of your page’s content, then it won’t use your custom meta description.

Our little experiment

For example, in the Google results for “domain names”, Google is displaying the following result for 123-reg.co.uk, which is our default meta description.

Now let’s do a little experiment and see what happens if we take a phrase from the domains landing page, one that’s not included in the meta description, and search on Google for that?

So, we ran a search on Google using this phrase:

… and this is what Google returned for our 123-reg domain names page:

Hm, that’s weird. As you can see, our default meta description is nowhere to be found and it’s now been replaced by the phrase we searched for along with some other on-page text.

This is not a singular case. It happens with any other site so here’s another example for you. We’ve done the same thing with the SEOMoz site.

This is the meta description displayed by Google when searching for “seo moz”:

Now run a search on Google using an onsite non-meta description term…

… and watch the default meta description disappear!

This can also happen with page titles, no matter how well-formulated or clear they are. According to Google, titles can change in search results to show their relevance to the user’s search query. The title tag you set for a web page is static, which means that it remains the same regardless of the users’ search queries.

However, Google can change the titles depending on the search query in order to show users results that are highly relevant to what they are looking for. So, the alternative title not only helps users find what they are searching for but also site owners by providing a title that is tailored to the users’ query which can increase the chances of click through.

So, what does this all mean?

For us, this has resulted in an increase in organic traffic and in time spent on site as well as a lower bounce rate. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense – when the descriptions on search engine results are personalised to a user’s search query, these are more relevant. If they’re more relevant you’d expect all of these improvements.

This change is in line with Google’s efforts to prioritise high quality and unique content over more traditional search engine optimisation techniques. Bottom line, Google is actually trying to help by providing accurate descriptions for websites that are good but run by people who don’t have the know-how to fiddle with meta data.

It seems doubtful Google will want to kill off meta data completely. A well-written, targeted description should really have the edge over a description picked out by an algorithm. On the other hand, what you need to understand is that every piece of content on your website needs to be well-written and unique because, from now on, it might just be your opening sales pitch.

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One Response

  • Rich

    While this shows us that the meta description tag isn’t always displayed for certain search queries, it doesn’t dig into the SEO value of the meta description.

    Which, my personal thoughts are they hold negligible value – they’re for aesthetics purposes only, at least in major search engines like Google & Bing. They’re potentially helpful for meta search engines and some smaller searches, but they’re mostly for display.

    That said, this doesn’t mean that they won’t help improve the CTR for searches where they’re displayed. I’d imagine that if the description’s wording caught the eye of the right searcher at the right time, it might get some clickthroughs from the SERPs that might not have happened based on the page title alone.

    May 10, 2013 at 5:31 pm