Why Meta Descriptions Are Not Obsolete

Google announced way back in September 2009 that meta descriptions would no longer figure into its search algorithms. Black hat and gray hat web designers had been abusing these meta tags for years to grab search results for more keywords than they rightfully deserved, and so Google, recognizing that these tags couldn’t be relied upon to connect searchers with the most relevant online content, stopped looking at them.

Thinking that meta descriptions were no longer important for SEO, some site owners let them slide. Unfortunately for them, meta descriptions still are important for SEO, even if they are ignored by search algorithms.

Meta description basics

First, a quick primer for those who aren’t sure what a meta description is: In the HTML code behind almost any web page, the second element (after the DOCTYPE) is the <head> element. (To see what I’m talking about quickly and easily, press Ctrl+U [Option+Command+U on a Mac] right now and you can look at the raw code behind this page.)

The <head> element — everything from <head> to </head> — holds a lot of information that doesn’t appear directly on the web page: directions (for the browser) to style sheets, analytics tracking scripts, and a number of other goodies.

One of the things you’ll find often is metadata, marked by the <meta> tag. Metadata is data about data — in this case, it’s information about what is on that particular page. It can include the author’s name, the date the page was last altered, and a lot else.

Our focus, though, is on the description element. The meta description gives you around 150 characters to describe what is on the web page itself. This particular page’s meta description, written by the lovely and talented Sharmin Kent (if you’re reading it on the Relevance blog, anyway), looks like this:

<meta name=“description” content=“Meta descriptions are no longer used by Google's search algorithms, but they're still important to users and to SEO.”>

(Note that if you’re using XHTML on your site, you should properly close this tag by adding a slash before the last angle bracket.)

Meta descriptions then and now

In the distant past (digitally speaking), search engine algorithms would use that description to help decide what a page was really about, and that would work well if everyone was honest and forthright with what they put there. But, of course, it was abused. Instead of a description, some page developers would cram in popular keywords in hopes of better search results. So Google, at least, stopped using meta tags.

But that isn’t entirely true.

Google stopped using meta descriptions for the search algorithms, but they are still used. (And there is some evidence that Google does look for the existence of a meta tag as a qualitative indicator.) Meta descriptions can appear in the SERPs themselves, right below the link results. This means that, even though the search engine doesn’t read the description, the human searchers do.

These descriptions, then, are still an important part of SEO, but they should be written for people, not for robots. Meta descriptions give you a tweet-sized space to convince a web user to click your link instead of one of the others in their search results. Without a meta description, you leave it to the search engine to decide what kind of blurb to show in the search results.

Take a look at the following image. It shows one of our recent blog posts that was republished on Business 2 Community. B2C pulls the blog content programmatically and doesn’t use the original blog post’s meta description. In the first result, then, what appears is the first 165 characters of the post itself.

The second result is the original post from relevance.com. Below the link and URL is the meta description embedded in that post’s <head> element. It contains content that doesn’t even appear in the post itself but gives the searcher more exacting, focused information about what they’ll find at the other end of that link.

The majority of SEO efforts focus on convincing the search engines that your site has good content. Meta descriptions help convince people that your site has good content. A well-thought-out meta description not only entices searchers to click your link but draws in the right people — those who read your description and decide that you have the information they are really looking for.

After all, getting people to come to your website can help you only so much; getting customers to your website should be the ultimate goal. Meta descriptions can help you do this.

The future of meta descriptions

HTML 5 offers what might be thought of as the next generation of meta descriptions. Using rich snippets and HTML 5, you can define types of data on your page, giving search engines the ability to answer users’ questions more directly from the SERPs themselves. Most webmasters aren’t ready to implement rich snippets, though — especially on existing web pages — so “old-fashioned” meta descriptions won’t be disappearing any time soon.

What about you? Do you include a meta description on every page? If so, do you write the description yourself or create it programmatically?

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