Time for another edition of the SEO Tips series, today we will be discussing META Descriptions. If you are not familiar with META Tags, you really should read SEO Tips – Meta Tags before you continue.
META descriptions are short (less than 160 characters) pieces of text that are used to briefly describe the content of a page. This text is sometimes displayed on in the search engine results page (SERP) below the page title and link. It’s important to note I said sometimes. Exactly how Google uses this text is not entirely clear. As with many things, the message Google gives us regarding its use of the META description is conflicting. In a Google Webmaster blog entry, they state the following:
“…it’s worth noting that while accurate meta descriptions can improve click through, they won’t affect your ranking within search results.”
However, in a more recent Webmaster video, Matt Cutts, the head of the Google spam team says something that leads us to believe the META descriptions do affect rankings:
“We are a little more likely to sometimes use the meta description, but we don’t use it all the time; if we think it’s useful to the query, ya know – don’t make the same meta description on every single page just as a cookie cutter”
Of course, in typical Google fashion, Matt does not give us a clue as to what they think would be “useful to the query”. However, we can always count on one thing when it comes to Google and the other search engines – they want their search results to be as accurate and reliable for their users as possible. Based on that, it seems reasonable that if a description you include on your page is determined to be useful to a searcher, something that will help them determine which result has the most likely chance of being correct, Google would probably consider it “useful.”
So what happens when Google does not consider your META description to be “useful?” Good question. It creates what’s called a “snippet”, using text gathered from the pages – and comments – that it feels may help a searcher decide whether or not to click. The cool thing (from a geek perspective at least) is that the snippet is built dynamically depending on the words used within the search query.
The images below show three different search results for the same page; the first used words contained within the META description, the second contained words in the headline and in the top of the post, and the last contained words from throughout the content. As you can see – the snippets Google displayed vary quite a bit.
In the first result, Google displayed the META description – as we would expect it to do. In the second, Google ignored the META description and instead chose to grab the entire contents of the opening H2 tag and most of the first sentence from the article. In the last result, Google worked pretty hard to build what it thought was a useful snippet, selecting chunks of text from the META description, the content and from a comment. Are the snippets a better representation of what the page contains? In this case, I don’t think so. But Google wants its results to display as many of the words in the query as possible.
How do you ensure that your description is used most often? Do you homework, determine what keywords your prospective readers are searching for and include the best of them in both your content and in your META description.
Next time we’ll discuss how to link to your home page.