Although I have written a number of articles on purpose of the meta description tag and how you can add it to your website, I've begun to have second thoughts about using it, so much so that I'm now wondering if it's better in many cases not to include the tag altogether. This article discusses the problems that the meta tag may pose for your website, and some practical ways in which you can avoid the problems mentioned.
For those who are not familiar with the meta description tag, you may want to read my previous articles on this subject:
If you don't know what a META description tag is, and how to use it, you should first read my article on How to Use Meta Tags In Search Engine Promotion.
Dreamweaver users can find a practical guide on how to insert this tag, among others, in my tutorial on How to Insert Meta Tags to Your Site in Dreamweaver.
If you use Nvu or KompoZer, the practical guide for inserting the META description tag can be found in the tutorial on How to Add Meta Tags to Your Website Using Nvu or KompoZer.
Although the meta description tag is definitely useful in determining what the search engines print underneath your page title, judging from the results of various queries that I've used lately, it seems like Google is becoming more serious in using your meta description tag where available. Or perhaps it has always done that, and now more sites are becoming more aware of meta description tags and are adding them (to detrimental effects).
The problem with the meta description tag is that if your meta description tag is very generic, and the search engine uses it, it can lead to your site appearing less relevant to people searching for a term. In particular, your site may end up looking like a spammy site to some users, making them skip your link in the results and go on to another site.
Let me illustrate. Suppose you were searching for "widget XYZ review", and got the following results. (Note: this is just an example. The underlined blue text in the box below are not clickable -- they merely simulate the appearance of a search results page.)
Widget XYZ Review
Widget XYZ reviews - top widget reviews and analyses.
Widget XYZ Review
Read reviews of widget XYZ from users who have tried it.
Widget XYZ Review
Look up XYZ reviews and ratings from past and present customers.
Widget XYZ Review
When I first reviewed widget XYZ, I thought it to be a useful tool for creating a beautiful and functional website. Over time, however, I found...
If you received a such a listing, which link would you click? The first three sites have meta description tags with the key phrase you searched for, and as a result, have their meta description displayed underneath their site title. They seem incredibly relevant to the search phrase. But many seasoned searchers will instinctively distrust the first three links, even if they were really from useful, legitimate websites with genuine reviews. The reason is simple: they have clicked links that had such generic text in the past, only to find that these links led to spammy sites with very little useful content.
But look at the fourth site. The site did not have any meta description tag, so Google had to grab content from the page itself to display as the snippet. The result is a piece of text that seems like a genuine review, rather than some thinly disguised advertising site.
Not all sites that look spammy in the search engine results are actually spammy. The problem is that their meta description tags are so generic that they make the page look spammy when the pages are listed, since spammy sites often use the same generic text in their actual page content. Sadly, a number of my own sites' pages also suffer from this very defect, since I've often been too lazy to think up of some descriptive text after writing the actual article. Judging from the searches I've done recently, it looks like my sites are not alone in having this problem.
Here are some possible ways to avoid having your site look spammy in the search engine results when it has real content.
Nothing looks more spammy in a site's snippet than long lists of keywords dumped unceremoniously into a meta description tag. Don't do it.
Take time to write content in your META description tag instead of writing an overview of the page's content. That is, instead of writing "Review of Widget XYZ", write "I found widget XYZ to be a..." (etc). One way to do this is to copy your some of the most relevant sentences on your page into the tag.
Instead of putting some of the text on your page into the tag, another way is to just remove the tag altogether. This will cause search engines like Google to scour your page's content looking for relevant snippets to place in the search results. There is no guarantee as to what it will find, or whether the text will even be relevant. But if your page is filled with normal sentences rather than just bits of text like "Add to Shopping Cart", there is a chance that you'll get a better snippet than just some short, generic "Review of Widget XYZ".
Note that you may not want to do this if your page is just a shopping cart checkout page, since such pages usually have very little text other than things like "Quantity", "Check out" and the like.
If you are the sort who is inclined to panic, and want to rush off to fix your site after reading this article, consider the following points.
The search engines fine-tune their algorithms incredibly frequently to adjust to the realities of the web. What is true today, may not be true tomorrow. If you react every time they make a tweak, you may be slaving away unnecessarily on things that may no longer need to be attended to in the future. Google, in particular, tries to figure out what most webmasters do and adjust to it, so there is always the possibility that your meta description woes may one day be an issue of the past without your having to do anything. But then again, they may not.
The Meta description text isn't always used in the search engine snippet. If the user searches for "Widget XYZ" and the phrase doesn't occur anywhere in your meta description even though you have such a tag, Google will use an actual occurrence of the phrase "widget XYZ" from your page's content for its snippet. In other words, there may not be any cause for panic, since (potential) visitors may not even search for the words that appear in your tag.
Although the meta description tag is often seen as a way to help your site in the search engine results, it may actually harm your site depending on how you implement the tag on your web pages. My current sentiment on this is that if you are not sure how to craft a good meta description tag for your page, leave the tag out and let your content do the talking.
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