Let's talk about it.
We know what you're thinking, "I thought meta descriptions were an absolute must in order to have your site do well with SEO." And while that may still be true for some pages, Google's ever-changing algorithm has started to prove that the importance of perfectly optimized meta descriptions on all pages is certainly less than where it used to be.
So the short answer is: yes, meta descriptions matter and are still important for SEO, but carefully crafting a 160 character meta tag for every page of your site may not matter as much as we once thought.
Here's the (slightly longer) answer...
What are meta descriptions?
Let's start with the basics. What even is a meta description? A meta description is the snippet of text that gives a little preview of what a webpage's content may consist of. They appear under all search results and are used by both users and search engines to figure out the quality of a website and what value that page offers.
Searchers take to google when they are in need of something. A product, service, answer to a question- the user has a specific need when they take to Google. A page's meta description is what helps users decipher whether or not a webpage is going to satisfy that need. So, while meta descriptions are technically not a defined ranking factor in Google, they undeniably hold an impact on user experience (UX), which indirectly impacts search engine rankings.
Why does Google change meta descriptions?
Users aren't the only ones who take meta descriptions into account. Search engine crawlers also keep a close eye on meta tags when working to provide the most relevant search results possible for users. This means that the meta descriptions you write for your web page may look slightly or entirely different when displayed in search results. Don't panic when this happens, because it actually happens more often than not.
While the reasoning behind Google changing meta descriptions isn't completely revealed, Google's John Mueller mentioned a few key factors behind the switch.
One of those factors includes how well a meta description matches the search query that the user is looking for at that moment. This has a lot to do with search intent, or the need of the user that Google is trying to satisfy.
Here's an example
Let's say a user is looking for a specific fact about a certain breed of dog. Let's pretend that the answer to their question is found within an article online about what kinds of dogs are most popular. Since the article with the answer to their query is not necessarily centered around the singular fact about the breed of dog the user is searching for, chances are the meta description for that article wouldn't include the fact in it. Maybe it's a more broad meta description that summarizes what the whole article is about.
That's where Google would come in, and likely adjust the meta description to pull the answer to the user's question out of the content in the article and put it in the meta description. This way, the user doesn't scroll past the article thinking it can't satisfy their need, and instead is more likely to click on that article. The adjusting of the meta description here actually helps both the user and the website that posted the article, which is really a win-win in the digital world.
This is just one of many possible reasons Google may change a meta description.
- The web page does not have a meta description provided
- The meta description provided is of poor quality, or keyword stuffing
- The meta description is trying to adjust the meta description to better represent what is within the content of the web page
And likely, many more reasons due to Google's ever-changing algorithm and mind of its own. The bottom line: don't sweat it too much. Just continue to publish the best possible content out there, and you will be in good SEO shape long-term.
When is optimizing your meta descriptions important?
So, when does optimizing your meta descriptions matter? Generally, it's still in best practice to provide and optimize the majority of your site's meta descriptions. Especially for your main landing pages. We'd recommend taking a look at your pages with the best engagement, and making sure their meta descriptions include the following criteria:
- Aim for 140-160 characters
- Include important keywords, but don't keyword stuff
- Include a call to action when you can
- Be unique - corny, but true
- Ensure there are no duplicate meta descriptions on your website
For a full in-depth guide to crafting the best meta descriptions, check out our blog post here.
When is optimizing your meta descriptions less important?
As mentioned above, it's still best practice to ensure all pages on your website have meta descriptions. However, if your website has thousands of pages and hundreds of old blog posts with low engagement, your time may be better spent elsewhere.
Instead of focusing on having an optimized meta description for every single page on your site, focus on optimizing the content quality of your overall site. More often than not, Google will write its own meta description for your website. So why not take this as an opportunity to better your web page content and give Google more to work with when ranking your site in search engine results and writing your snippet?
This could look like refreshing the content on outdated pages, diving deeper into your search intent research and optimizing your content to better satisfy users’ needs, or simply creating more high-quality content on your newest blogs. The list goes on. The bottom line: Focus on high-quality content and providing the best UX possible. That will take you much farther in the SEO world than any technical optimization will long term.
Don't Discount Heading Tags
Another thing to keep in mind when optimizing your website is to not discount your heading tags. Heading tags (H1s, H2s, H3s) are often overlooked in their significance for quality UX. Breaking up your web pages with heading tags makes your content easier to read and understand, both for humans and search engines.
Heading tags help give web pages their structure, and can really guide users into finding what they're searching for. In recent months, SEOs and content creators have actually noticed Google replacing their provided meta descriptions with their H1s. While some may find the rewriting and replacing of their meta descriptions frustrating, our advice: take this as an opportunity.
Make sure that your site's content is broken up into appropriate heading tags, using H1s, H2s, and H3s so that your content is as easy to understand as possible. It just may boost your chances of getting a featured snippet in search engine results.
How to make meta descriptions work for you
So, how can you make meta descriptions work for your website? The answer, in short, is trial and error. In the world of SEO, the only constant is change. Rules, regulations, and best practices evolve every day, and Google's ever-changing algorithm is a beast of its own.
Trial and error is your best friend for successful Search Engine Optimization. If you notice Google changing your meta descriptions in search results, pay attention to the changes they've made, see what you can learn from it, and adjust moving forward. At the same time, if you see Google consistently displaying the meta description you've written, take that as some assurance that you're doing something right. At the end of the day, think of it as a learning opportunity, and a chance to work with Google's algorithm changes, rather than trying to push against it. And remember, high-quality content written for the user first is always best practice. You've got this!
Let's Work Together
If you're looking for professional assistance with SEO, web design, or digital marketing in general- we've got you covered. At Eternity, we live for the everchanging thrills of the rollercoaster that is Google's algorithm, and we're always eager to help businesses thrive through all of its ups and downs. Get in touch today, we can’t wait to work together.
It’s also worth mentioning that if any of this piques your interest, we’re hiring! We look forward to hearing from you.
Onward & upward!