One of the original objectives of the ‘description’ meta tag for a web page was to describe the contents of the page in more detail than the title, particularly when the content of the page itself might have been difficult to discern. Even if we could automate taking a text excerpt of the content, the exercise would be pointless if all that the page contained was a photo or illustration.
Does this have any relevance today? Yes it does. The product sections of many web sites often include intermediate pages which are designed to give just a couple of very simple options. For example, the home page might have a link to ‘widgets’, which leads to an intermediate page just offering the visitor the chance to select ‘aerospace widgets’ or ‘offshore widgets’. These two links might lead to some detailed product pages, but the fact remains that the home page is isolated from these by a page with very little information on it. This will be hard for search engines to contextualise.
I’ve often mentioned that if this is your website’s top page about ‘widgets’, and all that it contains is a couple of panels with nice pictures, you’re making it hard for search engines to give you a high ranking for the term ‘widgets’. They don’t like pages without any real content. The solution is to add lots of great content about widgets, making the page a real reference guide …but there are several reasons why you might not want to. I’ve seen sites where the content management system doesn’t even allow it. In other cases, it would ruin the simplicity of the design, the aim being to get viewers to the sub-pages without distraction.
The description meta tag comes to our rescue here. While it won’t turn the page into a reference document in the eyes of search engines, it will at least allow them to understand what the page is about. After that, we can safely leave the search engines to get a grip on the site hierarchy, and the page which needs to be shown in response to a search on ‘widgets’.
The takeaway? The less content there is on a page, the more important the description meta tag. It’s worth indexing your web site and listing the pages with low word count, investigating their description meta tags in each case. We’ll happily do this for clients, without charge.