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Description meta tags: are they still worth the effort?

Having written about page titles yesterday, it would be remiss not to mention description meta tags, because any of you inspired to audit and spring-clean your titles might well decide to do the same for the page descriptions while you’re at it.

Search engine results usually take the form of a title/headline, with a couple of lines of descriptive text underneath. As each page should have a “title tag” and a “description meta tag” behind the scenes which correspond to these, it’s reasonable to assume that the search engines have merely used what the page creator gave them. That’s not been the case for a long time.

The title displayed in the search results usually is what the page creator has proposed, because the title is heavily used in assessing the relevance of the page to the search query in the first place. So think about it: if someone searches for ‘blue widgets’, the pages which are displayed are mainly going to be ones with ‘blue widgets’ in their titles – a chicken-and-egg situation.

The same is not the case for the description, because the description meta tag we provide is not used in assessing the relevance of the page. If it does happen to be displayed as we provide it, the reason will be that it happened to be relevant to the search.

What the search engine wants to do is to tailor the results it shows to the specific search that has been made. This is possibly oversimplifying things a little, but if it wants to offer a particular page as a result in a search for ‘blue widgets’, it will want to show a title and description that contain the term ‘blue widgets’.

It’s highly likely that the page title provided by the site creator will contain the term ‘blue widgets’, so using that supplied title is an easy choice to make. But when it comes to the description, the search engine may well find the supplied description less compelling, and instead, it will grab some text from the page that it thinks is more relevant. Our task is to supply something (in the description meta tag) that it will want to use. But we can’t cover every eventuality.

So if we decide that the primary target of our page is to appear strongly in searches for “buy blue widgets uk”, then we might put those words in both the title tag and the description meta tag to form a compelling whole, hoping that the search engine will agree and use both. But what happens when the page appears as a result in a search for “blue widget suppliers uk”? In this case, we should probably resign ourselves to the fact that the search engine might prefer, as the description, a sentence from the page which happens to contain the word “suppliers”.

That said, our provided descriptions will be shown quite often. We have about 160 characters to work with, and it really is worth the effort.