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Meta-description: write your own or let Google sort it out?
daveshap




msg:3646177
 9:04 pm on May 9, 2008 (gmt 0)

Meta description tags supposedly have no ranking weight in the Google algorithm, and knowing this is it worthwhile to add meta descriptions onto your pages or let Google pick the best snippet based on the users query?

I think this is something that will become more important in the future if you believe that click through rates and other SERP stats will affect GOOG rankings, as you will want to 'optimize' the meta descriptions for maximum click throughs.

I have an opinion about this (think you should include it on higher level pages), but what do others think is the best way to handle meta descriptions?

 

tedster




msg:3646316
 1:38 am on May 10, 2008 (gmt 0)

I always write a meta description. Google will still use their own snippet for some query terms, if the snippet team's algo decides that the meta description isn't good enough for that query.

Another issue is this -- without a unique meta description in the page source, that url stands more of a chance of sliding out of the main index. So paradoxically, I think that there's MORE need for a meta description on the less important pages!

[edited by: tedster at 1:59 am (utc) on May 10, 2008]

HuskyPup




msg:3646321
 1:48 am on May 10, 2008 (gmt 0)

Meta description tags supposedly have no ranking weight in the Google algorithm

Question: Where did you learn that or were told?

[edited by: HuskyPup at 1:49 am (utc) on May 10, 2008]

tedster




msg:3646363
 3:13 am on May 10, 2008 (gmt 0)

Right here, for one. See this December 2007 post from Google's Susan Moskwa (from the Webmaster Tools team):

...it's still true that meta descriptions don't affect your ranking in search results.

[webmasterworld.com...]

Note that Susan said "it's still true". It's been this way for a long time, but for some reason the general webmaster community has been slow to let this information penetrate - even though it's been repeated by many Google reps in many venues. I see misinformation all over the web in this area. Maybe people just want to think their meta description can help them improve rankings and wishful thinking dies hard.

So one more time - the meta description can help a page get well indexed and not wrongly seen as a duplicate, and it can be shown as a snippet if the query terms make it a "clickable" description. But it has not been a Google ranking factor for a long time.

The important thing about daveshap's opening question is that the snippet team has done an incredibly good job in recent times. And to a large degree the public hasn't acknowledged this fact - except of course by clicking on more results ;) Snippets do not often read like "ransom notes" anymore, and they often include important sections of the page (when they don't just grab the top menu label, that is).

So it is a good question to consider - at least if you're only thinking about Google and not other search engines and directories. The snippet team's current algo often does a great job of putting a good description under your page title in the SERP. So should you just default to that, or should you suggest your own snippet, via the meta description element?

daveshap




msg:3646405
 4:51 am on May 10, 2008 (gmt 0)

Actually the more I think about it, the more I agree that it's more important on the lower level pages.

Higher level pages are more likely to attract a broader keyword set and therefore by excluding a meta description you are allowing Google to highlight the term that the user searched on, increasing perceived relevancy. This ensures that if Google returns the page in the SERPS, the keyword will appear in the meta description, which may not have been the case if you had not included it in the meta description. Although you would think that if Google could return a snippet with the keyword they would default to that instead of the meta description.

In addition to what Tedster mentioned regarding indexing issues, with deeper pages that are more specific and targeted, the keyword set is narrower and more defined, and you can likely do a sufficient job describing the page within the meta description to satisfy the large majority of search queries for which that page may show up in the SERPS.

I see good points for both arguments.

MLHmptn




msg:3646415
 5:21 am on May 10, 2008 (gmt 0)

Don't write a meta description only for Google...What about Yahoo and MSN?! They do use the meta desc tag for their ranking algorithm and as such you should too. Dont' live and die Google, if you do you'll die in the water when Google flips your boat.

CainIV




msg:3646436
 6:16 am on May 10, 2008 (gmt 0)

Unique handwritten meta descriptions where possible, or based on the first 152 characters of the post text, assuming that text is unique only to your website.

Google does not rank using meta description based on control tests I have performed, however, longer more obscure terms will be included when the page is on topic and a phrase in the meta description is topically matched to the page.

Asia_Expat




msg:3646447
 6:38 am on May 10, 2008 (gmt 0)

After spending almost 3 days solid, analysing the possibility of auto-generating unique metas on my forum threads, based on the first post text of each page... I came to the conclusion that it was near impossible to do, based on the existing software architecture... further, I decided it was not worth the substantial cost and time involved to created a hack that would accomplish it, noticing that Google seemed pretty good at getting a snippit from within the page somewhere.

However, I acknowledge this is still likely causing me supp issues... but I think it a better use of my time and money to develop better incoming links, than spend it on rewriting code every 6 months as the forum software gets security updates (overwriting the modifications).

flanok




msg:3646527
 8:57 am on May 10, 2008 (gmt 0)

I have a large site, that does not generate meta desriptions based on the fact that google will pick out the bit that relates to that search and ceate a description for me.

But reading this thread has got me thinking, this was a mistake.

SITE COMMAND
Whenever I do a site command i see my pages listed, but within the desciption area is the same content. (the menu of the site).

In better words when you look at my pages without a search term to relate to, google just uses the first content it finds on my site, in this case the words within the menu.

So that has got me thinking, that when google spiders my site, without any search term in mind, it cannot pick out a relevant search term to desriibe the site, it just uses the first thing it sees, the first thing it sees is the same as thousands of other pages, meaning many pages are probably devalued or like what was said, a possible drop from serps.

(I am only talking meta tags here, not content, links etc)

After all after 10 months of work, I now have 5000 pages, with the same description, even though the titles are different.

This may explain one of the reasons only 400 pages being directly listed, even though the count figure on the top of google registers 4200. (of course I know there may be more reasons)

So I think the picking out a description for a search only route, is a benefit to the searcher but may effect rankings if the page is not listed in the first place.

My pages that have a good pr, will remain listed and will be used in serps, but for those pages deep in my site, without any PR or external links, I now believe these need a description tag, to help google decide these pages are different from every other page on my site.

My opinion only

Mark

potentialgeek




msg:3646536
 9:28 am on May 10, 2008 (gmt 0)

I stopped writing Meta Descriptions several months ago.

Google, to a great extent, diminished their value. Because it places so much emphasis on Title tags, now almost everyone puts the words they would have had in the Description in the Title. So you get very descriptive Title tags full of hot keywords.

In turn this makes it harder to write Descriptions which aren't repetitive and/or redundant. So I stopped doing them, especially after Google started applying new phrase-based spam penalties for blanket-targeting of similar words and phrases.

Good descriptive titles stand on their own. They need no support (Descriptions). You can fit a lot into 65 characters.

There is a Supplemental search results issue which Tedster mentioned, but I don't know if there's a problem when all your page titles are unique. (Mine are.)

Google's decision to minimize or discount the Descriptions in its main algo for ranking at the same time it places so much importance on Title tags for SERPs also led me to stop writing them, too.

The final reason was most of the pages I'd written Descriptions for were not Landing Pages; therefore their Descriptions were not seen in Search Result Pages; thus nobody was reading them!

I understand but haven't tested different Descriptions to see if they get different Click-Through Rates. I may do that one day. I only write Descriptions now (and only sometimes) for Landing Pages for which I know visitors may have read Descriptions. But personally I doubt most visitors read anything besides the Title tag. That's the anchor text in Google. That's what everyone sees.

Is there an online study, Tedster, of search results which shows how many people bother to read Descriptions/snippets instead of just the Titles?

What CTR percentage improvements have you been able to get through refining your Descriptions?

p/g

ChicagoFan67




msg:3649582
 10:37 am on May 14, 2008 (gmt 0)

I'm sorry, in spite of what has been said earlier in this thread, I have to ask this question as it appears that every time I mess with one of the meta tags I either go up or down - sometimes very dramatically!

Can constant tampering with the meta description adversely impact on a pages ranking?

Once every 3 months or so when adding a new product to my homepage, I'll sometimes also add the product to my meta description in the belief that it will generate more interest.

A recent slide in ranking for a primary keyword coincides with a switch of product titles in the meta description. Google shows the new product title in the snippet but has yet to update the cached homepage with the new content. Is it at all possible that Google deems the new title in the meta description as irrelevent because it has yet to properly index the page and acknowledge the new content?

kjerringrad




msg:3649648
 12:03 pm on May 14, 2008 (gmt 0)

I use meta description too, and that is because I can show a snippet (whenever G does not generate one) that is "selling". With a "selling" description, it is easier to get the user, even if you are not ranking in the first spot.

pageoneresults




msg:3649659
 12:35 pm on May 14, 2008 (gmt 0)

Meta description tags supposedly have no ranking weight in the Google algorithm.

Supposedly, yes.

Knowing this is it worthwhile to add meta descriptions onto your pages or let Google pick the best snippet based on the users query?

Google themselves recommend that you make use of the meta description element. See below for more information.

I think this is something that will become more important in the future if you believe that click through rates and other SERP stats will affect GOOG rankings, as you will want to 'optimize' the meta descriptions for maximum click throughs.

For me, meta descriptions are the second most important factor after the <title> element.

I have an opinion about this (think you should include it on higher level pages), but what do others think is the best way to handle meta descriptions?

They should be generated for each and every page of the site where applicable. They should contain words and phrases used in the <title>, <h>, and other elements of the page. I prefer a IPW (Inverted Pyramid Writing) approach for meta descriptions.

Meta description tags supposedly have no ranking weight in the Google algorithm

Question: Where did you learn that or were told?

Right here, for one. See this December 2007 post from Google's Susan Moskwa (from the Webmaster Tools team):
...it's still true that meta descriptions don't affect your ranking in search results. Note that Susan said "it's still true". It's been this way for a long time, but for some reason the general webmaster community has been slow to let this information penetrate - even though it's been repeated by many Google reps in many venues.

I'm one of those that still hasn't allowed the penetration to take place. :)

I've seen Google Reps make many statements that I felt or knew were not true or not 100% truthful, let's put it that way. They won't ever put themselves in a position where something is "not true". Their guidelines have enough "white space" between the lines to interpret a variety of things.

I see misinformation all over the web in this area. Maybe people just want to think their meta description can help them improve rankings and wishful thinking dies hard.

I've not given up hope on Yahoo!, MSN or Ask yet. And, I'm not 100% convinced that Google ignores the meta description when weighing all the factors on a page. See below...

Snippets do not often read like "ransom notes" anymore, and they often include important sections of the page (when they don't just grab the top menu label, that is).

Hehehe, I'm still seeing quite a bit of "menu" snippets. I think they've got a bit more work to do there. Actually, the website designers need to get on the ball and drop the 3,000 lines of code that follow the <body> element and precede the first real content on the page.

A similar algorithm identifies potentially problematic meta description tags. While these pointers won't directly help you rank better (i.e. pages with <title> length x aren't moved to the top of the search results), they may help your site display better titles and snippets in search results, and this can increase visitor traffic.

Ya see, they always leave a bit of room for different interpretation. In the above case "won't directly help you rank better". Okay, if they won't "directly" help you rank better, will they "indirectly" help? We'll never get a confirming answer to that either.

Why does Google care about meta descriptions?
We want snippets to accurately represent the web result. We frequently prefer to display meta descriptions of pages (when available) because it gives users a clear idea of the URL's content. This directs them to good results faster and reduces the click-and-backtrack behavior that frustrates visitors and inflates web traffic metrics. Keep in mind that meta descriptions comprised of long strings of keywords don't achieve this goal and are less likely to be displayed in place of a regular, non-meta description, snippet. And it's worth noting that while accurate meta descriptions can improve clickthrough, they won't affect your ranking within search results.

Improve snippets with a meta description makeover
[googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com...]

I just get mixed signals from the above quote. The emphasis is mine. They've got to look at that data before determining that it is relevant, correct? Now why wouldn't it be weighed into the total equation "indirectly"?

Am I being hard headed this morning? :)

potentialgeek




msg:3649711
 2:12 pm on May 14, 2008 (gmt 0)

The Google rep's statement is somewhat misleading. Because it didn't distinguish between Description meta tags Google (in my experience) uses for indexing if not ranking. Indexing, in my opinion, is the beginning of ranking, if not a form of ranking.

If I put text in the Description tag that is not on the page elsewhere, I still get traffic on multi-word search strings which includes the text from the Description tag. Can't say Google still does this but you can try it yourself easily enough and see.

Like I said, I don't write the tags much anymore. I put all the important words and phrases on page and still see good SERPs and CTR. Well-written titles get good CTR.

p/g

supafresh




msg:3649729
 2:33 pm on May 14, 2008 (gmt 0)

I had until recently a page that ranked #1 for loads of keyword variations with no meta description. google created its own meta description for each keyword from my on page content. It wasnt penalized at all it did quite well.

I will still write my own meta descriptions as google doesnt alway take an optimal snippet.

SeoCatfish




msg:3650073
 7:56 pm on May 14, 2008 (gmt 0)

Before they did away with the supplemental tag, it was my observation that the easiest way to get a good number of pages out of supplemental was to add unique Meta descriptions to those pages (that previously had none). This was very effective in freeing pages from supplemental results and I still believe that it does the same thing today. If your page isn't important enough for a unique meta description, how important should you expect Google to think it is?

BradleyT




msg:3650096
 8:18 pm on May 14, 2008 (gmt 0)

We had super spammy meta descriptions and were ranking for terms only appearing in the description and after I cleaned them up 3 months ago we stopped ranking for those terms.

Not super competitive terms but ones that brought in decent amounts of converting traffic.

Tahder




msg:3650127
 8:43 pm on May 14, 2008 (gmt 0)

I believe there is weight to a unique quality meta description.

At least G Webmastertools represents it

excerpt

"""
We've noticed some issues that may negatively impact your site's performance in our search results pages. These issues won't necessarily prevent your site from being crawled and indexed, but addressing them may improve your site's performance in search results, and may encourage users to click on links to your site. More information.

Meta description issues Pages
Duplicate meta descriptions 0
Long meta descriptions 0
Short meta descriptions 4
"""

Thanks
T

pageoneresults




msg:3650140
 8:54 pm on May 14, 2008 (gmt 0)

Welcome to WebmasterWorld Tahder! Or, should I say, its nice to see you come out of lurking mode. And, a great topic to do so. :)

We've noticed some issues that may negatively impact your site's performance in our search results pages. These issues won't necessarily prevent your site from being crawled and indexed, but addressing them may improve your site's performance in search results, and may encourage users to click on links to your site. More information.

Sheesh, here we go again, emphasis mine. Just how much "white space" do you see between those lines? I guess it all depends on how much "line-height" you are seeing. ;)

I think we have enough quotes above from Google to logically deduct that the meta description is being use as a factor in the overall scoring of a page.

Hissingsid




msg:3650158
 9:18 pm on May 14, 2008 (gmt 0)

I hand write meta descriptions. I try and do them so that when you read them with the title they are like an extended Adwords ad. I include keywords, promise and call to action. Google, in most cases uses these.

We have discussed elsewhere a site that ranks for a "phrase" which is only in the description. The phrase could be used in anchor text but I can't find it, however I can find it in a few scraper directories that scrape the title, description and URL (could even be from SERPS). This then gets crawled by googlebot and I guess could help ranking.

On balance I would suggest that it is best to write your own meta description and try to make it out compete the competition so more folks, scanning SERPS, are more likely to click your link than the one above you.

Cheers

Sid

tedster




msg:3650191
 9:38 pm on May 14, 2008 (gmt 0)

Possible "indirect" effects of the description meta tag:

1. The algo may improve ranking for urls that get more traffic - and a good meta tag may improve your clicks from the SERPs.

2. The algo may register frequency of page changes, and tweaking anything "too frequently" might raise a flag.

tambre




msg:3650561
 6:02 am on May 15, 2008 (gmt 0)

so google doesn't take descriptions into account when they're doing placement/ranking. but, what about writing it because it's important for your potential clients/users/reader/whoever to see a really catchy, really good description of what your site is about?

yeah, google might be good at doing snippets based off user query, but i'm not leaving a machine up to writing my catch phrase, my call-to-action, to bring in my clients.

the description tag and your title tag are the first things people could see when they're looking for your site, i feel that the best description is going to be written by a person that can get a good feel for what that page is about and then write a CTA based off that feeling, that knowledge, they get from the content.

netmeg




msg:3650843
 1:59 pm on May 15, 2008 (gmt 0)

what about writing it because it's important for your potential clients/users/reader/whoever to see a really catchy, really good description of what your site is about?

That's exactly why I do it, and tell my clients to do it. How else are you going to stand out on a page of ten or twenty or a hundred search results?

ChicagoFan67




msg:3652935
 7:53 am on May 18, 2008 (gmt 0)

2. The algo may register frequency of page changes, and tweaking anything "too frequently" might raise a flag.

Around about June/July last year, I had two internal gallery pages to which I changed the meta descriptions (yes, to make them more competitive!) and google refused to update the page in the index for atleast a good 3 months. This compared with an average refresh rate of 1-3 weeks for most other similar pages on the site. It wasn't until after a deep crawl that the changes to these two pages were finally displayed.

I'm not sure frequency was a factor here, but perhaps has more to do with the fact that no other changes had been made to the pages since their intitial upload.

Lovejoy




msg:3653046
 1:18 pm on May 18, 2008 (gmt 0)

I always use meta tags, and I take what Google says with a pound of salt. I've noted that the simple change from singular to plural in a Meta Tag can take me from eight to third in a search term the very next time my page is indexed. I've seen this happen on nearly every change I've made to my meta tags, including those changes made to tags within the last year. Personally I think Google reads everything at the top of the page, meta tags included.

One very high ranking old page I have with no meta tags, Google is using my Circa 1999 description on DMOZ, so you guys might want to check that angle as well ;~)))

Lovejoy

bwelford




msg:3653650
 2:36 pm on May 19, 2008 (gmt 0)

Without question, Google uses the Meta tag Description as a possible source of content for its snippet. Since the snippet is 155 characters and spaces, make your Description that length to maximize the chance of it being used. One exception is in blogs, where Google sometimes precedes the snippet with a date it generates for the post. In this case, you have 138 characters and spaces to work with.

To confirm all of this, you should be checking your website in the Google Webmaster Tools website. It will tell you whether you have duplicate Descriptions, and also whether they are too short.

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