In 2014, I wrote an article titled “Why Meta Descriptions are Useless for SEO.” At the time I had comments open (I have since turned them off since the website was receiving over 20,000 spam comments a month and you can just reach me on Twitter if you have a response), and I received a lot of comments from SEO providers saying that while they agreed that meta descriptions were overrated, they still said that meta descriptions had value and should still be used as a best practice, leaving variations of the following paraphrased comments under the article:
- Google still rewards websites that have meta descriptions more than websites that do not.
- Having meta descriptions is important for getting clicks, which improves SEO.
Now, this is one of those “do as I say, not as I do” moments for me. When a company pays me to run their entire SEO campaign, I do tend to edit their meta descriptions. But I do this because it’s considered an industry best practice, not necessarily because I think it makes much of a difference. In fact, I doubt it makes a difference at all.
Does Google Reward Websites for Having Meta Descriptions
We know Google doesn’t care if you have keywords in your meta description. But does Google care if you have meta descriptions at all?
In 2013, Matt Cutts released a video answering a very common question: Does Google want you to have a meta description on literally every page. His answer was no. So there’s no real evidence that a meta description matters for SEO, and Cutts himself talks about how he leaves them off of his blog all the time (note: so do I, so he and I must be best friends).
Why doesn’t it matter? It doesn’t matter for two reasons:
- Meta descriptions don’t indicate quality content, and quality content is more important than whether someone takes the time for an SEO best practice. Indeed, websites like Huffington Post and NYTimes don’t create a meta description for every article they write, and yet they dominate search engines because searchers still find the content they’re looking for.
- Google does a very good job picking snippets. Google trusts itself. Their algorithm tries to pick the relevant snippet for the person that searched for an article. It finds it, turns it bold, and in the end it looks almost exactly like whatever meta description you were going to write anyway.
You can test this for yourself fairly easily. Go to Google, search for “Folsom SEO Company” and look for the 4th or 5th website. There’s me! You’ll see that the Google snippet is a pretty great intro as far as I’m concerned, and I have no reason to take time out of my day to change it.
Does Having a Meta Description Improve Clicks?
The other point I can only refute anecdotally, because I don’t have any data. But I’m going to say no, probably not. I haven’t seen any articles or evidence that pages with meta descriptions get more clicks than pages without meta descriptions. Maybe meta titles, but not meta descriptions.
In fact, in some cases it may be the opposite. When you write a meta description, you are forcing Google to limit the content it shows in the snippet. For example, if someone searches for “Folsom Content Writing” and my meta description says something like “Great Leap Studios is the leading search engine marketing company in Greater Sacramento,” then the meta description can actually hurt my ability to get clicks, because none of the words are bold, and Google will limit itself to the description I provided and not show them that the keywords are located in the content.
Whoops: Meta Descriptions Didn’t Change My SEO
I also inadvertently performed my own test to see if meta descriptions made a difference. Several months ago I was having problems with my website and I turned off all plugins to see if I could find the problem. One of the plugins I turned off was my SEO plugin with my meta descriptions and meta titles. All of my meta titles and descriptions were removed from Google.
I didn’t see any change in my rankings, so I never noticed.
So that brings us back to whether or not meta descriptions are completely useless. Despite all the hyperbole, I still like them for a few minor reasons:
- First, as Matt Cutts says in the video linked above, sometimes the snippet is bad. When you have a snippet that isn’t going to draw people to your site, replacing it with a meta description can have real value. I see this a lot with people whose blogs have a lot of text before the blog posts starts. The meta description will have a lot of useless words like “Posted by Micah. Filed in: Content.” and when these show up in the meta descriptions it can be a distraction, and possibly hurt clicks.
- Second, adding a meta description gives you much more control. Who has time to go check every keyword you show up for to make sure your snippet is of a high quality? When you add a meta description, you can be confident knowing what the meta description is saying about your content, and don’t have to worry about how Google is indexing your website.
- Third, meta descriptions simply appear more professional, especially if your website ranks #1 in Google and a website with a good meta description ranks right behind it at number 2. Professionalism is important for branding. That’s why as Cutts explains, it’s not a bad idea to use a meta description on your most important pages – these pages may show up often, and since meta descriptions can look more professional, it may reflect well on your business.
- Finally, theoretically it could improve conversions, even though I have no evidence it will. For example, I have a client that is a psychologist. They rank on the front page for a variety of keywords. Their page blends in with the competition, but they are actually a different service. The 4 of the first 5 websites in Google are psychologist aggregators/directories that look like they’re pointing people to a psychologist, but are actually just listings. I want to make sure that the clients he wants notice his website, and a meta description that speaks to them can make sure he stands out against that competition.
So yes, there is a bit of hyperbole in calling them totally useless. Perhaps it would be better to call meta descriptions “massively overrated.” Meta descriptions aren’t totally useless, but if you decide to skip them, you won’t take a loss.
Disagree? Agree? I keep comments off of my blog at Great Leap Studio, but you can reach me on Twitter @GreatLeapStudio