The keywords and phrases you use in your Meta description tag don’t affect your page’s ranking in the search engines (for the most part), but this tag can still come in handy in your overall SEO campaigns.
What Is the Meta Description Tag?
The Meta description tag is a snippet of HTML code that belongs inside the <Head> </Head> section of a Web page. It usually is placed after the Title tag and before the Meta keywords tag, although the order is not important.
The proper syntax for this HTML tag is: <META NAME=”Description” CONTENT=”Your descriptive sentence or two goes here.”>
I used to believe that the purpose of the Meta description tag was twofold: to help the page rank highly for the words that were contained within it, as well as to provide a nice description in the search engine results pages (SERPs). However, today it appears that, similar to the Meta keywords tag, the information you place in this tag is *not* given any weight in the ranking algorithms of Google, and only a tiny amount of weight in Yahoo’s.
In other words, whether you use your important keyword phrases in your Meta description tag or not, it won’t affect the position of your page in the SERPs for the words that are important to you. In fact, you could easily leave it out altogether.
But should you?
Well, if you’re already happy with the “snippets” of text that the search engines post from your page in any given search query, then there’s no reason to have a Meta description tag on your pages. However, it’s important to note that the snippet the engines use will vary, depending on what the searcher typed into the engine.
Let’s take a step back and look at what the search engines show in the SERPs. It can get a little bit confusing, but if you try out your own searches in the various engines, you’ll have a better idea of what I’m talking about. The search engines are constantly changing this sort of thing, plus they all behave in slightly different ways, as you’ll see in my examples.
At Google, if you search for a site by URL like this: http://www.highrankings.com, the snippet you see is the first instance of text on the page. Interestingly enough, on my home page, an image alt attribute tag is the first instance of words “on the page,” and that’s what shows up as part of my “snippet” for this particular search. (The image is a clickable image, so this jibes with my other theory of Google indexing the words in the alt attributes of clickable images. See this forum thread from Dec. 2003.)
For this type of search, Yahoo displays the Meta description info. It’s important to note that generally the only people searching using URLs are site owners trying to see if their pages are indexed. Therefore, you shouldn’t worry too much about what you see under those circumstances.
So let’s try something that a real person might search for when looking for what I have to offer — how about “SEO copy”?
In Google, my Nitty-gritty handbook page shows up second in the results with the following snippet:
“… techniques: Search engine optimization (SEO) consultants who need to edit the existing copy of their clients’ sites as a matter of course. …”
Not the best of snippets, to say the least.
In this case, I don’t have the phrase “SEO copy” in my Meta description tag, nor is it anywhere on the page as a complete phrase. Because of this, Google has simply found instances where the word SEO and the word copy were near each other, and used the surrounding text as the snippet.
Now, if I felt that “SEO copy” was a viable keyword phrase that people might be searching on, I may want to adjust my page accordingly so that the phrase appeared in my Meta description tag as well as somewhere in the body text. Again, this is not because it would help it to rank highly, but because I would receive a more suitable description that was more in tune with what the searcher was looking for. One can surmise that they might be more inclined to click on my listing in that case.
Let’s look at Yahoo for the same phrase. They’ve ranked the page at #3, and used the following snippet:
“Learn SEO copywriting with Jill Whalen’s special report — The Nitty-gritty of Writing for the Search Engines.”
Now that’s a good snippet! Well, guess what? That’s my Meta description tag for that page. Even though the exact phrase wasn’t in the tag, and neither was the word “copy,” Yahoo still chose to display it for this search query. I’m guessing this is because that phrase is actually nowhere on the page, other than in the Title tag. So with Yahoo, having a decent Meta description tag was very worthwhile in this instance.
I also recently discovered that when I tested a nonsense word in the Meta description tag of a page (with the word not appearing elsewhere on the page), Google did not find it. But when I added the word to the visible text copy on the page, Google would bring up the test page when the nonsense word was searched for. Not only that, but it displayed that part of the Meta description tag where the nonsense word appeared.
In Yahoo, my nonsense-word test page was found, even if the word appeared only in the Meta description tag and nowhere else on the page. Interestingly enough, however, Yahoo didn’t display the part of the tag where the word was placed. They displayed only the beginning of the description, and cut it off after about 45 words. I purposely placed my nonsense word deep into my description tag to see if it would get picked up. In this case, the word appeared as the last of 138 words in the tag. I’ll probably add even more words at some point to see if there’s any cutoff point where Yahoo will stop indexing.
I also tested a few searches at Teoma and MSN. Each engine is slightly different in how they display the Meta description tag. Teoma seems to find the words in the tag, but doesn’t necessarily display them. When I searched for a unique sampling of text from one of my tags, Teoma found the page, but chose to display the first sentence on the page instead. Not surprisingly, the current MSN search worked the same as Yahoo. However, MSN’s search technology preview (which is the new engine they’re working on) behaved similarly to Google on all tests regarding Meta descriptions.
My new recommendation for this tag is not to worry too much about it. If you have some great call-to-action statements utilizing your keyword phrases on your Web pages, they will probably show up in your snippets at the engines. But since it’s easy enough to create a compelling sentence or 2 that incorporates your main keyword phrases, you might as well do this for your Meta descriptions.
Certainly, the more control you have over your listing in the SERPs, the more clickthroughs you should see. If your Meta description tags can help with that, then it’s certainly worth the time to create compelling, keyword-rich ones.