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Wait, Meta Descriptions DO Affect Search Results?

In the tangled jungle of factors that affect your website’s search ranking, it’s nice when you come cross something you don’t have to optimize. The longstanding opinion in the SEO community, confirmed by Google itself, was that your meta description is of those rare non-factors.

Neil Patel challenges that conventional wisdom in a recent op ed, claiming that your meta description is a major factor in your rankings, albeit an indirect one.

For those of us who don’t spend all our time geeking on Internet marketing, let’s start off by defining our terms. Your meta description is one of a set of “meta tags” stuck onto your website much like file labels. There are several meta tags that convey different information, but the most important is the meta description. This 156-character (or shorter) blurb simply says what a given web page is about. Most likely, your web developer threw together this description years ago and it hasn’t been updated, or even thought of, since.

Users don’t see a meta description anywhere on the screen when they view your site, but search engines index the description and may show it in search results, which is where Neil’s startling claim comes from.

The Hypothesis

Neil isn’t saying that years of SEO theory are wrong, nor is he saying that Google is a liar: the company has specifically stated that meta descriptions are not factored into its search algorithm, and Neil takes them at their word. So then why does he think meta descriptions still matter?

As Neil says, meta descriptions affect click-through rate (CTR). That’s because Google (and most search engines) may show your meta description in the SERPs. The description gives users an idea of what each unique page is all about, so that they aren’t just clicking blindly on URLs. A strong, well-written description will then attract more clicks—and that does figure into the search algorithm.

So far Neil’s right: Google considers lots of user behavior factors in choosing which sites to put first in the SERPs, and CTR is one of them. Sites that get more clicks are considered more relevant, and move up the ladder.

By that reasoning, writing a strong meta description is an important SEO step.

Not So Fast

While Neil’s thinking is good in theory, in practice the meta description still has negligible effect on search rank (and CTR, for that matter). That’s for two reasons.

1: Searchers don’t always see your description. While Google might show your meta description in some SERPs, more often it grabs text from the body of a web page where specific search terms appear. As an example, EverSpark’s home page meta description is:

With a core competence in Organic SEO we thoroughly understand the Google Algorithm. Let one of our search engineers take a FREE look at your site.

However, even a search for our exact company name doesn’t show this text. Instead, searching for “EverSpark Interactive” gets a search result with this blurb:

Atlanta SEO Company – EverSpark Interactive was born in 2009 out of one vision: three founders wanted to create a full-service Atlanta Search Engine …

… which is pulled directly off our main page.

Other search terms, like just “SEO company” from an Atlanta-area user, would show other blurbs pulled off the page. The lesson is that you can’t control which text Google grabs for the SERPs, and all of your on-page copy needs to be strong. The meta description, which appears verbatim depending on which search terms you use, may be less important than the site copy itself.

2: That’s not how you get CTR. Click-through rate may influence search rank, but Neil makes this brazen statement: “The meta description is the most important feature for improving click-through rate from search results pages.” But it’s not—by a long shot. The most important feature for improving CTR from search pages is …

(wait for it)

… search rank.

If two competing web pages sit next to each other on the same page of the search results, and if the meta description is shown as the blurb for both, then it’s true that the more compelling description will likely get more clicks. But if those two happen to be on, say, Page 8 then the difference in clicks is negligible—neither site will get many clicks at all. Even on Page 4, your extra clicks per month from a strong meta description can likely be counted on your fingers.

We don’t mean to pose a recursive loop here (better SEO gets more clicks which means better SEO which gets more clicks …) but that’s kind of how rankings work. The sites that climb to Page 1 of the SERPs get more traffic, which boosts a whole bunch of algorithm factors: more clicks, more social shares, more backlinks, etc. It’s good to be on top.

The reality is that if you’re not ranking well for your keywords, then tweaking your meta description is going to do almost nothing for you. As part of a broad, careful SEO strategy, writing strong meta tags never hurts and it sometimes helps. But it’s by no means the strong driver of user behavior, and thus rankings, that Neil suggests.

What should you do instead? Here’s our suggestion:

  1. Get a professional copywriter to make sure all of your site text is strong.
  2. Make sure you’re not suffering from a Google penalty or at risk of incurring one.
  3. Pursue a thoughtful SEO strategy that addresses dozens of technical factors and centers on frequent, high quality content.

You can do this yourself or with an SEO team to help you. EverSpark offers free consultations to get you started.