Practical Ecommerce

Search-engine Success: Don’t Forget Description Tags

The description tags in search engine snippets have improved in recent years. Years ago, many search results would include snippets in the top results that were just plain nonsense. However, search today usually returns more quality snippets even in deeper results. Part of this may be due to improvements to the search engines themselves, but a large element of improved snippets is also due to superior description tags. Because the competition has improved, this observation only serves to highlight the need for quality description tags to be a part of your search marketing plan.

What’s a Snippet?

Let’s review the relationship between the description tag and search engine snippets. In many cases, Google and other search engines will pull content from the meta description of a given web page to use as the snippet, the brief description of a search result just beneath the link. Google sometimes pulls the snippet from Dmoz.org, a directory that Google trusts, especially when no meta description tag is included. Search engines can also pull the first textual content on a given page for the snippet. There is no way to completely control this, but the best way to manage what is displayed in the snippets for your website is to create accurate, unique meta descriptions for each page within the site.

The description tag has little or no effect on search engine results. Good descriptions aren’t likely to up your rankings. So, why should we care about search engine snippets at all? Because getting in top search engine results is only half the game; it does a website no good to be on page one of search results if no one clicks on that result. A good snippet encourages click-through to your website while a bad or nonexistent snippet (see Google shopping results for “Elvis t-shirt” below) discourages that action.

Google shopping results for Elvis t-shirt.

Google shopping results for Elvis t-shirt.

In the graphic above, which result would you click? Which result would you tend to avoid?

Focus on Meta Descriptions

Descriptions aren’t complicated. They live in the meta description tag in the head of a web page and should be brief enough to show up in their entirety as a search engine snippet. Generally, they should be one or two sentences, reflecting focused keywords and, most importantly, a call to action. Remember, because the description tag does little to improve the actual search results for the page, the use of defined keywords is secondary in terms of getting users to click on a search-results snippet. Accurate keywords certainly are a positive, but the focus should be placed on getting users to click on your search result, as opposed to the sole objective of incorporating keywords. Reiterate the theme of the page in your snippet and ask the searcher to click through. It’s more old-school marketing than science; but it can make all the difference.

The Importance of Click-throughs

While the meta description is only one of many important entities in a well-rounded search marketing campaign, the importance shouldn’t be overlooked. A top search engine result does no good if no one clicks through to your site. As description tags continue to improve across the Internet, so too does the competition’s use of them. Finding a way to entice searchers to click on your result, versus those surrounding it, is key. When writing meta descriptions, think of what can you say in one or two brief sentences to both reinforce the focus of the page and persuade the searcher to click through. Find a positive, accurate call to action, embed relevant keywords, and you’ll be well on your way.

Jeff Muendel

Jeff Muendel

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Comments ( 3 )

  1. Bartley Wilson September 8, 2009 Reply

    This is a good article. I have a real case study to demonstrate that Google has not used or needed META Keywords for seven years now.

    Let me repeat this: META Tags for Keywords or a Description are NOT necessary in order to show up on page one of Google.

    Proof in the pudding: Danny Sullivan wrote about this in 2002 stating that Google no longer uses META Keywords tag.

    Verify it yourself. Google: cincinnati REOs and you’ll find my customer on page one, toward the bottom of the page. Look for: MyCincinnatiForeclosures.com

    Sniff the source and you will see NO metas, NO keywords yet the site ranks on page one out of 4.5 million references in Google’s database.

    Learning the Google Rule of 3 is important if you plan on seeing yourself at the top of the SEO food chain.

    — Bart

  2. Jared Brickman September 8, 2009 Reply

    Ahhh SEO voodoo. I’ve read so much stuff that says meta descriptions DO up your rank. What makes you say they don’t?

  3. Rob Willox December 20, 2012 Reply

    Hi Jared – Last October 2009, Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team, confirmed, in a Q&A session that Google does not use the keywords tag as a factor in their search algorithm.

    That was not really news as it has been known for a long time but he also confirmed that the description tag is also not a factor when ranking pages in search page results (serps).

    But, he also confirmed that when appropriate or relevant they will and do include content from the description tag below the page title in results pages.

    And, it is important from a conversion perspective and blogged a couple of time back in 2010 about using it in that context: http://blog.web-media.co.uk/search-engine-optimisation/google-doesnt-use-description-tag-for-ranking/ & http://blog.web-media.co.uk/search-engine-optimisation/using-description-tag-creatively-to-boost-conversion/