How the Meta Description Tag May Harm Your Website

Problems when implementing it wrongly

How the Meta Description Tag May Harm Your Website

by Christopher Heng,

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.

Preliminary: Context of This Discussion

For those who are not familiar with the meta description tag, you may want to read my previous articles on this subject:

Current Problems with Using the Meta Description Tag

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.

Possible Solutions to the Spammy-Looking Meta Descriptions

Here are some possible ways to avoid having your site look spammy in the search engine results when it has real content.

Is It Time to Panic?

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.

Second Thoughts on the Meta Description 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.

Copyright © 2008 by Christopher Heng. All rights reserved.
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