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Are meta descriptions a good or bad idea?

 6:10 am on Jan 27, 2009 (gmt 0)

Last year I read a post in Matt Cutts' blog that mentioned another post from Webmaster Central blog which encouraged the use meta description tags. The idea is to use the meta descriptions as snippets that Google would use in the place of excerpts in Google search results.



It seemed like a good idea but according to this interview, Matt Mullenweg tried adding automatic meta descriptions from blog post excerpts in Wordpress.com, but dropped it after a while because his traffic plunged.

He mentions that when you do not use meta descriptions, Google uses a better snippet taken from the pages.


So, after all, is it a good or a bad idea to add meta description tags to the pages? Could it be a bad idea only for blogs, but not for other types of content, or could it be that Matt Mullenweg reached the wrong conclusion?

Anybody could share positive or bad experiences, or reasoning to reach a conclusion about when meta description tags are good, or methods to reach that conclusion for each site?



 8:19 am on Jan 27, 2009 (gmt 0)

automatic meta descriptions from blog post excerpts

There's no way to tell what the quality of those excerpts were, or whether there was repetition in the sentence constructs with only keywords substituted and a filter was triggered.

Using a well constructed custom meta description for each page (or post) is a good thing, but auto-generating them might not be.


 9:49 am on Jan 27, 2009 (gmt 0)

I didn't think the Meta Description has any direct effect on ranking these days? Wouldn't it be more a case of poor auto-generated descriptions leading to a lower serp click through rate, which may then cause rankings to drop?

(It's interesting that Matt Cutts doesn't actually use the meta description on his blog at all by the way.)

creative craig

 9:52 am on Jan 27, 2009 (gmt 0)

I would have to echo what the last have said - I think your problem lies in them being auto-generated.

I always write my Meta description tags and take a little time to ensure they are well written.


 10:39 am on Jan 27, 2009 (gmt 0)

I also agree. I think it can be quite easy for SEO's to spot auto generated tags which would have an impact.

With all tags if I don't write them or personally verify them they don't go on.


 5:40 pm on Jan 27, 2009 (gmt 0)

Marcia, Matt Mullenweg mentions that the meta descriptions were set to a excerpt of the post. If this is not a well constructed meta description, what else should it be?

Bones, meta descriptions do not affect ranking. What they may affect is the user choice of search engine results that he will click. If the page snippet looks interesting and relevant to his search, the user clicks on that search result link. Otherwise he moves on to the next.

Matt Cutts doesn't use the meta descriptions because he uses Wordpress without any enhancements to set meta descriptions, just like Wordpress.com blogs.

The issue here is whether Google generated snippets are better than meta descriptions provided in the pages, regardless if it was generated automatically from the page content or was a human editor to edit the meta descriptions manually?

The main difference is that meta descriptions are fixed, and Google generated snippet depends of what the user searched for. What is the best thing to do: set the meta descriptions or not?


 5:47 pm on Jan 27, 2009 (gmt 0)

Just do a site:example.com search, set your results to 100 and then peruse the listings. Do they look good to you? Do they read well? No duplication? Proper punctuation, formatting, etc. If so, then you are fine.

If you see a lot of repetition of navigational elements such as breadcrumb trails, etc., then you have challenges. That meta description is almost a surefire way of ensuring a clean snippet being shown for your documents.

That is the litmus test for me. site:example.com searches are rather revealing in this instance. I've seen documents that all had the same darn snippet. Ya, 100's of pages with the same snippet. That cannot be good, it really can't. Okay, so Google is going to generate the snippet based on the query. Now I have to trust that Google is going to extract the proper information and in a format that is readable.

I was just reading a Blog Post this morning that said META Tags are as dead as AltaVista. Heh! Can you believe that? Bummer, that shattered my entire world. And here I was developing a few thousand META Keywords Tags for a new site launch. ;)


 6:44 pm on Jan 27, 2009 (gmt 0)

The issue here is whether Google generated snippets are better than meta descriptions provided in the pages, regardless if it was generated automatically from the page content or was a human editor to edit the meta descriptions manually?

Take a look for yourself and decide. To really get a good feel for this go to your analytics and look at the entrance key words for say your home page. Try searching each of those terms and take a good look at the snippets that get presented; you will see a mix of your meta description (provided you have one), and other ones (seemingly) of randomly grabbed text.

Just because you have a meta description doesn’t mean Google is going to present that as the snippet no matter what key words were searched. If the meta description is the most appropriate, then that gets presented. However, all sorts of other text gets grabbed depending on the key word, and often it does not present very well as the snippet.

For our site, the meta description always presents as the best (provided we wrote a good one). So, for the percent of time the meta description does get used, why not take the opportunity of writing a nice, unique, informative one that gives you the best chance for a click. Google is giving you a nice chunk of real estate with that snippet, use it to your advantage to the extent you can.


 8:18 pm on Jan 27, 2009 (gmt 0)

Let's get real simple:

In the search results, your page <title> element is your attention-grabber, and the meta-description (or Google's auto-generated snippet) is your 'sales pitch' -- It is the text that convinces the searcher to click through to your site after the <title> has attracted their attention.

If Google's snippets look good and are acceptable to you, fine. Otherwise, use <meta name="robots" content="nosnippet"> on your page(s), and write a carefully-crafted and attractive description that accurately describes the page and that will be effective in drawing traffic.

Be aware that the "nosnippet" option also invokes Google's "nocache" option, as described in their Webmaster Help robots section... Not sure why they do this, but they do.

Letting any software (yours, Google's, or anyone else's) automatically generate a meta description (or a snippet) for a page in a highly-competitive marketing area seems like folly to me, especially in the case of forum posts or blogs, where anyone could post *anything* and cause your page to rank for the words they post...



 8:46 pm on Jan 27, 2009 (gmt 0)

jdMorgan beat me to it. But I can add this. Imagine you are writing an AdWords ad. One that instructs the user that this is the site that matches their query, and compels them to click through. That's the function a meta description should have.

Why overlook the opportunity to speak directly to the potential visitor? It's an opportunity to present your best argument of why they should click through and visit.


 10:25 pm on Jan 27, 2009 (gmt 0)

I totally agree with the AdWords analogy. I also agree that the title is the "Advertising" and the description is the "Marketing." Here is what this site offers; here is why you should visit.

Still, I don't think some of the general statements in this thread are necessarily based on enough research. To suggest that "META Tags are as dead as AltaVista" is a little too flippant. I also don't think you can base your site's coding/tags on only one blogger's experience.

Where are the large studies of using tags? And not using them?

If we can't find any, we should do our own testing. Tedster did some. I still have to find time to do the same.

There was a recent discussion on this topic in this forum but I forget the URL.

Most of the common ideas about use or not of Descriptions was formed before two Google Algo Updates: 1) the 950 penalty; and, 2) CTR for ranking.

The 950 considers all aspects of a page, according to the patent, including tags to detect spam. Therefore, if, for instance, your page is thin, and has very similar, or, worse, identical Keywords and Descriptions to the Title, it looks like overoptimization that leads to the penalty. (In which case you're obviously better off without the tag.)

Click-Through Rate *may* be considered by Google for ranking, based on some Google patent/rep comments, as noted on WW previously. Therefore if your Description increases your CTR *and* the bounce rate doesn't go through the roof, that tag could improve your rankings *indirectly.* (It's not the tag per se that boosts ranking; it's the *effect* of the tag on the dynamics of the Algo.)



 12:02 am on Jan 28, 2009 (gmt 0)

Where are the large studies of using tags? And not using them?

Hopefully they will never get published. That way everyone can continue down the path of "not caring" and one day it will dawn on them. ;)

Why even bother? I mean, a quick search is all I need to tell me that the element is of "high value". Not just mediocre, but high value. Ya, I'll jump the fence and make that bold statement. And I'm surely not going to strip 1,000 META Descriptions from pages just to test the theory.

I look at it this way, you have all these HTML Elements and Attributes available to you as an Author. There are best practices for each of those. If you take your pages and break them down to the most minute level of semantics, I think you've covered "every" on page base there is. You can't force things. And, there is a natural way to do things. There are certain elements that apply in some instances and not in others. Its knowing when to use them and how to use them to get the most bang for your buck.

Again, I'm a firm believer that the META Description Element is in the Top 10 factors of a page performing well in the SERPs. You can't tell me otherwise either. I ain't goin' for it. And don't even try to post links to the Google Blog! The line spacing over there is at about 200%. ;)

creative craig

 12:37 pm on Jan 28, 2009 (gmt 0)

Still, I don't think some of the general statements in this thread are necessarily based on enough research

I am sure most of the comments here are based on personal research. At the end of the day, thats the best kind :)


 12:44 pm on Jan 28, 2009 (gmt 0)

And anyway, the full quote that was referencing was:
I was just reading a Blog Post this morning that said META Tags are as dead as AltaVista. Heh! Can you believe that? Bummer, that shattered my entire world.

In which I detect an ever-so-slight note of sarcasm

Added- To actually remain on topic, when we re-wrote all our metas to be descriptive with a call to action, CTR went up, and CONVERSION RATE went up slightly too (as did bounce rate, so proportionally more people either bought or left, with less proportionately [but more absolutely] browsing further).

If your page is being returned for a search term that does not fit your description, EITHER your description need re-writting OR your page needs more focus (IMHO, YMMV).

[edited by: Shaddows at 12:50 pm (utc) on Jan. 28, 2009]

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