December 12, 2007
By Jill Whalen
I have just read your article on "How To Create a Meta Description Tag for Search Engine Optimization" that was written in 2004. [Admin Note: Nov. 2011 that article has been updated.] I found it very helpful. I am relatively new to the SEO scene and still finding my way around. I work for a travel company and we have just relaunched our website. If possible I would like to know whether this article still holds true today.
I have written all my meta tags for our major pages yet the description that Google shows is not always (if ever) what I have written. Now, working for a travel agency we obviously rely on our description to entice our visitors to come to us, say for example on a specific accommodation. But if a keyword is put in, the description sometimes does not make any sense (e.g., it uses the alt tags in the photos).
My question is whether there is a way to make sure a certain description comes up? I look forward to your other articles.
Wow! Has it really been that long since that article was updated? Seems like just last year! Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I just read through it again and did some checks on Google and Yahoo to see if anything has changed. For the most part, a lot of what I found is similar to what I noticed 3 years ago, but there are some differences in how the Meta description tag is displayed. It's important to note that the search engines are always playing around with what they display as the descriptions for any given URL in the search engine results pages (SERPs), so you may see something other than what I see. In fact, I believe that Google has an entire "snippet team" devoted to this!
In this economic climate, can you afford to put your
SEO on the back burner?
Sign up for a website review NOW.
Jill Whalen will provide you with the top 10
areas that might be costing you targeted website visitors.
Below is what I found to be happening in the SERPs as of today, in terms of what they show for descriptions and snippets:
1. Unlike 3 years ago, today Google will default to your Meta description information when you search for a page by URL such as www.example.com. Yahoo does the same, which was also true for them in 2004. But of course, not many people other than the site owners themselves search using a page's URL.
2. Google will often default to the Meta description information, even if the searched-upon keywords do not appear within it, which they weren't doing as much back in 2004.
3. Yahoo will also default to the Meta description info; however, they tend to take just the first part of the Meta description and then add a snippet of text from the visible page copy that happens to have the searched-upon keywords within it.
4. Google does not (at this time) seem to give any weighting to pages when the keyword queried is used only in the Meta description tag and nowhere else. I say "at this time" because I know in the past I have seen them show pages that have the keyword only in the Meta description, and I wouldn't be surprised if this is something they turn on and off at various times. If/when they do show pages that have the phrase only in the Meta description tag, it would tell us that they give some bit of weighting to words in that tag. If they don't show it, then there would be no weighting attached to the words in the Meta description tag.
5. If the page has no Meta description tag, Google appears to display a description that is almost always the start of a sentence that happens to contain the keyword phrase as opposed to a snippet grabbed from the middle of a sentence. This is interesting, as they often used to just grab the first instance of the keyword phrase, which didn't always make for a nice snippet. Grabbing the start of a sentence definitely makes the SERP itself look nicer and I commend Google for displaying things this way currently. If the page is listed in DMOZ and lacks both the description and "NoODP" Meta tags, Google will also sometimes display the DMOZ description for a page.
6. If the page has no description Meta tag and is in Yahoo's directory, Yahoo will default to using their directory description, unless the "NoYdir" Meta tag is placed on the page (see article referenced in #5). If it's a short description, they will also add some snippets of text from the page. This can look jumbled at times, in my opinion.
7. If the page has no description Meta tag and is not in Yahoo's directory, Yahoo will take a snippet from text on the page that contains the keywords (or some of the keywords) in the query. Unlike Google, they do not take the snippet from the start of a sentence, making their SERPs look not quite as nice as Google's. Those are pretty much the highlights of what I found. It's easy enough to test this for yourself if you're so inclined. Simply do some searches at the engines and review the SERPs, the source code on the page, and the words on the page. Don't forget that results will depend on whether the page has a DMOZ (dmoz.org) or Yahoo directory listing (dir.yahoo.com).
In terms of what this means as you're optimizing your pages, it's clear that it's worthwhile to create a unique and compelling Meta description for each page of your site, as that will provide you with the most control over what your potential audience sees in the SERPs. Barring that, as long as you have well-written content on the page that naturally uses your keyword phrases, you still have a good chance of having a decent description show up -- at least in Google.