Day 1 Week 1 of any SEO training and I guarantee you hear the “importance of meta descriptions” at some point or another. Everyone loves to talk about meta descriptions. I even wrote a chapter in my book about meta descriptions. But it’s time to set the record straight on how search engines utilize (or don’t utilize) the meta description within the SERPs.
Now, one common misconception that’s been floating around the inner-tubes over the last few years is this:
When Google displays your page / snippet in the search engines, it uses the meta description as the snippet description.
While this used to be a cold hard fact, it started to become less and less true. I mean, Google has always done their own thing when it comes to SERP descriptions, but it was fairly standard to see them using the meta description. In 2016, its fair to say that (a lot of the) time, Google doesn’t use a site’s meta description in the search engines.
The SEO meta description rule book has been thrown out the window. Even the rules on character /pixel length doesn’t really apply anymore. We regularly see meta descriptions range anywhere from 20 characters all the way up to 400 characters.
In regards to the SERP / search snippet, you’ll find today that:
- Google will use the whole meta description
- Google will use a partial meta description
- Google will use the first few sentences from the content (sometimes including the H tag) including
- Google will use content from within the post
- Google will use user generated content
- Google will use a combination of content from within the page separated by the … (ellipsis) character
Google on meta descriptions:
Google’s generation of page titles and descriptions (or “snippets”) is completely automated and takes into account both the content of a page as well as references to it that appear on the web. The goal of the snippet and title is to best represent and describe each result and explain how it relates to the user’s query.
Moz on meta descriptions:
Use the general rule that if the page is targeting between one and three heavily searched terms or phrases, go with a meta description that hits those users performing that search. If the page is targeting long-tail traffic (three or more keywords)—for example, with hundreds of articles or blog entries, or even a huge product catalog—it can sometimes be wiser to let the engines extract the relevant text, themselves. The reason is simple: When engines pull, they always display the keywords and surrounding phrases that the user has searched for.
Here are a few examples of how Google chooses to use whatever content they see fit within their search / SERP snippet description. These SERP descriptions vary from query to query, even for the exact same page.
Example 1: Same page ranked for 2 separate keywords. Google uses meta descriptions in one snippet, but not the other for the same exact page.
Example 2: Same page ranked for 2 separate keywords. Google completely ignores the meta description for the same page, in 2 separate snippets.
Example 3: Same page ranked for 2 separate keywords. Google uses meta description in 1 instance, even though its 287 characters.
Example 4: Same page ranked #1 for 3 separate keywords. Google uses 50% of the meta description and 50% of the content in one instance, and completely ignores it in 2 other instances. In short, same page ranked #1 on Google for 3 separate keywords, that all have a separate meta description.
Example 5: Same page ranked for 2 separate keywords. Google says yes to the meta description in one instance, and no in the other.
Example 6: Same page ranked for 2 separate keywords. Google totally ignores the meta description in both instances.
Example 7: Same page ranked for 2 separate keywords. Again, the same page ranked #1 for 2 separate keywords and Google completely ignores the meta description.
Observation: Google’s “Standard Index”
Over the last few years I’ve observed what I like to call Google’s “standard index.” You can get a glimpse inside Google’s standard index by using a site search operator site:example.com and retrieving a domains index. I’ve found that 90%+ of the time Google exclusively uses the meta description in search snippets when it is present and within its guidelines.
Here is an example from site:jackthreads.com. I’m using this as an example because I also used it as an example above (example #2) when I illustrated that Google completely ignored the meta description for the same page in 2 separate instances. When you grab the index of this domain, Google tells a different story. As I said, they almost exclusively use the meta description when we do a site:
As you can see, 7 out of 7 search snippets use the meta description (full or partial) and as deep as I dug, almost none of the snippets were taken from the content.
The same holds true for other domains that I checked including Moz, New York Times, and Buzz Feed. Again, there are many exceptions to this “rule” and it can definitely be thrown off if you make your descriptions too long / short / spammy or “keyword rich.”
I spoke with Bill Slawski of SEO by the Sea about this, and while he said it wasn’t a matter of more than one index he did say:
It’s not a matter of more than one index, but rather a decision on Google’s part as to show a snippet from a meta description, or from content on a page. When a meta description doesn’t contain the query term used in a search, the search engine won’t show the meta description, but will instead will try to show content from the page that contains the query term.
He also referenced this nifty patent to support his findings.
I know this already dude, what’s your point?
If you’ve been around the proverbial SEO block a few times you either know this already or have slowly been realizing Google is gradually moving away from using meta descriptions in the search results. You’ve probably known this for years and are seeing the gradual change. That said, there are a few takeaways from this.
First off, continue to write great meta descriptions. Tons of apps / websites other than Google still use them for tons of reasons. The same goes for OGP / Twitter card descriptions and other structured data title and descriptions. Even if Google / Facebook chooses not to use them, some other website might try to fetch it and when that time comes you want to keep it there.
Google also still uses them, they just don’t use them exclusively like they used to. Google makes tons of changes to their algorithm, in this top secret leaked PDF from the senate judiciary committee, Eric Shmidt of Google laid down the law on just how much Google makes changes throughout a given year:
To give you a sense of the scale of the changes that Google considers, in 2010 we conducted 13,311 precision evaluations to see whether proposed algorithm changes improved the quality of its search results, 8,157 side by side experiments where it presented two sets of search results to a panel of human testers and had the evaluators rank which set of results was better, and 2,800 click evaluations to see how a small sample of real-life Google users responded to the change. Ultimately, the process resulted in 516 changes that were determined to be useful to users based on the data and, therefore, were made to Google’s algorithm.
Lastly, don’t forget about other search engines and apps. If anything, meta data is being used by search engines now more than ever. It may not be a cold hard line the way it used to be, but they are still a vital part of any SEO strategy. Peace out!