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:
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.
<meta name=”googlebot” content=”noodp”>
<meta name=”slurp” content=”noydir”>
<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.
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.