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The Meta Description is Dead (Long Live the Meta Description!)

John Doherty —  April 17, 2011
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I’m a search marketer. It’s what I do. I’m also a human being. It’s what I (as the philosophers like to say) be. I write this as both.

The meta description, it seems, has long been a way that search engines have figured out what a website is about and they have used is information when ranking a website in the search engine results pages (from here on, SERPs). Less-than-ethical SEOs figured this out pretty quickly, along with the meta-keywords tag (now essentially defunct), and have used the tag to stuff in keywords and essentially spam, or trick, or game (insert descriptor here) the SERPs.

The description tag, however, has historically served two roles. One was for the search engines, but the other use is user-oriented. The meta description tag, you know, is the description of the website that is shown in the SERPs to searchers when they see your site. At least, this WAS the case, until recently.

The meta description tag is dying in its current form, but it will never be dead, I do not think. Let’s investigate.

Google’s State of the Description

Google is now saying that they reserve the right to update either your page title (here) or your meta description, depending on the search query used to find your article/page.

This means your page titles and descriptions are not safe. Once again, the ethical search marketers, who are using meta descriptions to try to drive more qualified traffic and improve CTRs (click through rates) have been screwed by the practices of spammers who used to stuff their keywords into the descriptions.

Here is an example from Sphinn where the given meta description is not used. Instead, the title is used again, with ellipses added:

Good for user experience? I don't think so.

Thanks, guys. A big thanks.

So what can be done?

Thankfully, Google has given webmasters two different meta tags that can “suggest” to search engines that you do not want them to use other page titles or meta descriptions. I will be talking about these more in-depth eventually, as in the specifics of what they do, but I will describe them here.

NOODP: NOODP stands for No Open Directory Project. This tag tells Google that you do not want them to use the description of your site that is listed in DMOZ, if your site is listed. (sneak preview: this tag may have some effect even if you are not listed…)

NOYDIR: NOYDIR stands for No Yahoo Directory. Basically it serves the me function as NOODP, but applies to Yahoo (and I guess Bing).

You are also about to restrict specific search engine bots from indexing.

To restrict Googlebot, use this:
<meta name=”googlebot” content=”noodp”>
To restrict only Yahoo bot, use this:
<meta name=”slurp” content=”noydir”>
You can restrict both in a succinct way with this code:
<meta name=”robots” content=”noodp,noydir”>

Many WordPress themes have this built in. Others of us use Yoast SEO or a similar plugin for it.

Recommendations

I do recommend using both of these tags on your site, to attempt to preserve the integrity of the information you have so carefully entered into these meta descriptions. Also, be sure to do enough linkbuilding to the specific pages that you want to rank for specific terms so that your optimized page title and well-crafted description will have the best chance of showing correctly.

As always, do some testing, see what works, and adopt the best practices.

John Doherty

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I'm the new (as of October 2013) Online Marketing Manager of Hotpads.com, soon to be based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, explore new and interesting food in New York, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

4 responses to The Meta Description is Dead (Long Live the Meta Description!)

  1. Wow, once again this sucks! (Not your blog lol!)

    I’ve just finished sorting out all the meta descriptions for those new pages I’ve been tweeting recently, and we had already seen rank improvement across the board. I’ll have a look at your recommendations here though.. thanks again dude, informative as always!

  2. I just don’t understand google. I have a description with GROL in it.

    My meta tag description is 146 characters long.

    And yet when you search for GROL in google it only shows the first 90 characters of that description.

    I always thought if it had the keyword you were searching for it would show all of it.

    • Hi Lassar –
      Thanks for the comment! That is actually really interesting. I’m seeing the SERPs just display one line of your meta description. I’ve honestly never seen this before. I wish I had an answer for you, but I know that it is frustrating!

      I’ll see if I can’t find an answer/solution for you, other than getting higher (or apparently lower…) rankings!

      • Lassar –
        A followup to your issue. My friend Mike in the UK pointed out that your meta description has a lot of dots and random words. Why not try to write something cohesive that is related directly to GROL?

        Here’s what I would suggest:
        “RadioTelephoneTutor offers insight and answers to take the guesswork out of the GROL exam.”

        Maybe give it a try and report back what happens?