Every book about SEO says that the meta tags and meta description are worthless and not worth your time to optimize them as they give you no boost In SEO. There is a significant piece of information missing from this statement, and I think most SEOs do not fully understand the depth of this topic. Everyone just knows “it isn’t a rating factor”. It is far more complicated than that.
What is the Meta Description?
You remember back in the day, in 1998 we use to use those convenient meta tags at the top of our HTML documents to load up our website with keywords? Well most of you probably don’t remember it because a lot of you probably weren’t building websites back then, but allow me to teach you something. At the top of any HTML webpage, inside the <head> </head> sections of the website there is a tag called <meta name="xxxx" content="xxxx"> .
This section is called the meta section and the name=”xxx” attribute could be literally anything. The whole concept of the meta tag is that it is extra information not needed to render the page, but that might be needed for other purposes. Search engines started to identify with two meta tags, “description” and “keywords”. A typical heading of an HTML document used to look like this:
<title>This is a cool website</title>
<meta name="description" content="The Website to learn more about SEO, PPC, and other cool internet things.">
content goes here...
The keywords meta tag has been ignored recently and no longer helps with SEO, in fact it is proven to hurt your SEO ranking.
However, for a very long time we used to stuff as many keywords into these sections as possible and we ranked high in Google and other search engines (altavista, DogPile, AskJeeves) all we had to do was put the keywords we wanted to rank for in there and we were done. Wow, what simpler times those were and I miss them. However it is a good thing those days are gone, because it was too easy for spam sites and garbage sites to make their way above good websites. This technique was easy because customers didn’t see these keywords so we could put all sorts of weird things in the meta tags.
How is it Different Today?
Yes, today it is different, the <meta name=”keywords” content=”seo, google, website”> keyword tag is completely extinct, but the description tag is still there.
The Meta Description tag will however be used by Google when displaying your result to users. Take a look where your description shows up in search results.
Now it is true that Google sometimes goes rogue and will determine a different description to show up other than the one in your Meta Description, but an easy 95% of the time it will use your meta description. The fringe cases of using other parts of your website come when a user searches something really offbeat from what you intended the page to rank for, but Google believes it is a good fit. In these cases Google will take a snippet from another part of the website which is more keyword dense than your description. A good example of this is if you were to search in direct quotes a line from this article. Google will scour the web and determine that it is a sentence unique to my blog and it appears partway down the page, so the description is less relevant than showing the surrounding snippet of where your search term shows up. But for general search terms like the ones you do your keyword research on, it will almost always show your meta description.
How does it effect SEO?
Almost every SEO on the planet will tell you that the description meta tag is not a ranking factor in Google. This is somewhat true, but also somewhat inaccurate. I would call it an indirect ranking factor. Meaning that it effects your rank in Google, but not because of a simple ranking boost, but instead by positively effecting other ranking factors therefore ultimately increasing your rank.
The SEO effect is extremely important, but it is ultimately indirect ranking factor. One of the ranking factors that Google does put a significant amount of weight on is bounce rate and click-thru rate.
Bounce Rate: This is the percentage of people that visit your site (as a result of it showing up in a Google search) and then return to Google without visiting other pages on your site or spending significant amount of time there (estimations are 7-20 minutes).
Click Through Rate: This is the percentage of people that click your result when it is displayed to them. Google has estimations for what percentage of users it expects to click a link based on its position. If your site is clicked more often than expected, it will likely be moved up in the rankings as it appears to be a better result for that search query. If it receives less clicks than expected, then it may be moved down the rankings as it appears to Google to be a less relevant search result for that search query.
These are heavy weighting factors, and this is why your description is so important. As you remember, the description is read by almost every user on Google that searches that search term behind the title of the webpage. If you can capture someone’s attention through an amazing and relevant HTML description, then it is likely that your Click Through Rate (CTR) will be higher than expected, therefore moving you up in the rankings.
On the contrary if your description does not adequately describe the webpage then users might click through to your result, but find that it wasn’t what they expected, causing them to bounce back to Google and find another more relevant result. This increases bounce rate and ultimately hurts your rankings.
These two factors both rely on your meta description to do the heavy lifting. The best way to prevent a high bounce rate is to set the expectation before the user comes to the site. If they visit and leave then it only hurts you. Let me give you an example. Let’s say I search for “Best Tacos in Seattle”. I run a Sushi place in Seattle but I have a sushi called “Tuna Tacos” on the menu. Well if I write about selling tacos in my description, then it is possible that people expecting Mexican tacos will click through to my site only to find sushi tacos is all I sell. The intent of this searcher is to find Mexican tacos, so he will leave your site, negatively effecting your bounce rate. It would therefore be important to write in the description that I sell Tuna Tacos and while different than Mexican tacos, they are still very delicious.
Now if a reader reads my description and doesn’t want tuna tacos, they will know that you do not have them and not click through to your site. However, a visitor that is open to the idea of a non Mexican taco, will click through and have a higher chance of not-bouncing which keeps your bounce rate very low and keeps you showing up in the search results for this term.
This is a perfect example of why descriptions are so important to set the correct expectation to the visitor.
Yes, the Spicy Tuna Taco is a real thing on a real menu in Seattle. here is a picture I took of it last time I was there. Yes it is a real thing, but i do not have any affiliation with this restaurant other than giving them a lot of money for Tuna Tacos over the years.
The final way that your description matters is because when the keywords that a user searched show up in your description, then Google will bold the results. This means that more attention is given to your description. If the keyword shows up often and all together, you will get a nice noticeable line of bold in your description making it stand out and making it more likely to have a higher CTR. A description with no bolded words next to competitive sites who wrote their descriptions well and have bolded words in them are likely to win the clicks in this attention starved society we live in.
The description of your website does matter! It effects your bounce rate, click through rate, and the chance of having a more attention grabbing description in search results. While everyone is telling you that the description doesn’t matter, I would argue that it is one of the most important parts of your SEO strategy. Every writer on your staff should be aware of these facts so that they can write good descriptions.
Please let me know in the comments if you learned anything new. Also, if you have had Spicy Tuna Tacos, please tell me how they have changed your life! Just comment below, I read and reply to every comment.