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Are Meta Descriptions A Google Ranking Factor?

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Are Meta Descriptions A Google Ranking Factor?


Meta descriptions can help appear in search results and social media, enticing people to click through and visit a site.

They can help search engines like Google understand what a web page is all about, too.

If you run a site audit using one of many SEO tools, you may find a flag or warning about missing or duplicate meta descriptions.

This could suggest that you need to make sure each page has a unique meta description, as part of your SEO strategy.

But are meta descriptions actually a factor in Google’s search ranking algorithm?

The Claim: Meta Descriptions As A Ranking Factor

The idea here is that if you write an optimized meta description, it will help you rank higher in Google search results.

Since we’re talking about a field with fairly limited space, the conventional wisdom is that you should use your target keyword phrase in the meta description as SEO best practice.

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Yoast is considered one of the definitive experts as far as meta descriptions go.

At the time of publication, the Yoast WordPress SEO plugin was in use on over 7.9 million sites.

And here’s what Yoast recommends as far as meta descriptions go:

  • Keep it up to 155 characters.
  • Use your focus keyword.
  • Make sure it matches the content of the page.

If and how often you use the focus keyword in your meta description is part of the SEO evaluation Yoast provides:

Screenshot from Yoast, January 2022

All of this seems to suggest that optimizing your meta description is essential for SEO.

But does Google actually use it to determine your ranking?

The Evidence For Meta Descriptions As A Ranking Factor

In a video published on the Google Search Central channel in August 2020, Google’s Search Advocate Martin Splitt said of meta descriptions:

“Please don’t forget to add them to your mobile pages. They matter a lot for Googlebot, as well.”

Almost immediately, an SEO professional tweeted Splitt asking for any additional details.

Splitt responded that the meta description and page title not only provide searchers a first impression but also:

“…helps Google Search to get a short summary of what you consider important about the page.”

Now, this caught a bit of attention.

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The widely-held belief among SEO pros is that meta descriptions lost any ranking value they may have had a long time ago.

As Ann Donnelly wrote even back in 2011,

“Most of us know that while the search engines no longer consider the meta description in their ranking factors, this element of your page is still important in getting traffic to your site.”

Could it be that after all this time, Google actually does use meta descriptions as a ranking factor?

No.

Here’s why.

The Evidence Against Meta Descriptions As A Ranking Factor

John Mueller was quick to clarify:

John Mueller tweets about meta descriptionsScreenshot from Twitter, August 2020

Now, there’s a healthy skepticism amongst SEO pros that Google perhaps isn’t entirely honest and open about ranking factors. Maybe you choose not to take Mueller at his word.

Even so, meta descriptions as a ranking signal just doesn’t hold water.

First, it’s ridiculously easy to manipulate. Just put the keywords you want to rank for in there and voilà!

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Instant signal to Google that you should rank for that keyword phrase.

That was indeed the belief system in 2005-2008 or so when I was writing for sites like About.com, Demand Media, and Suite101.com.

Back then, on-page optimization was quite formulaic and you could literally change up keywords in your title, meta description, subheadings, etc., and see rankings change dramatically.

And that’s exactly why the meta description lost any value as a ranking signal.

Matt Cutts’ 2009 explanation of why meta keywords were removed from the algorithm sheds some light on their thinking around meta descriptions at the time, as well:

“About a decade ago, search engines judged pages only on the content of web pages, not any so-called ‘off-page’ factors such as the links pointing to a web page.

…Because the keywords meta tag was so often abused, many years ago Google began disregarding the keywords meta tag.

Even though we sometimes use the description meta tag for the snippets we show, we still don’t use the description meta tag in our ranking.”

Even today, the meta description you assigned to that page might not appear in search results.

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In fact, a 2018 experiment by the team at Yoast found that Google “often” came up with its own description to use in the search snippet.

There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why Google found some of the meta descriptions provided inadequate, either.

Michiel Heijmans noted:

“It didn’t matter if we’d created long or short meta descriptions and whether the description was written with a high or low keyword density.”

They also found that in two-thirds of cases, Google used content from the first paragraph on the page to populate the search snippet.

More recently, Portent found that Google rewrites meta descriptions over 70% of the time.

Meta Descriptions As A Ranking Factor: Our Verdict

Are Meta Descriptions A Google Ranking Factor?

Google does not use the meta description as a search ranking signal and hasn’t since sometime between 1999 and 2003-04.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t an important element of your SEO strategy.

The direct benefits of meta descriptions can include:

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  • Improving click-through rates from search results.
  • Helping to differentiate your content from competitors in the SERPs.
  • Intriguing and engaging searchers, compelling them to check you out.
  • Brand exposure.

Indirectly, the additional user behavior signals resulting from more – and more engaged – site visitors can support your SEO.

But on their own, meta descriptions aren’t a ranking factor and haven’t been for a long time.

See Brian Harnish’s SEO Best Practices: How to Create Awesome Meta Descriptions for helpful tips.


Featured Image: Paulo Bobita/Search Engine Journal

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Google’s Algorithms Can Understand When Sources Agree On Same Fact

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Google's Algorithms Can Understand When Sources Agree On Same Fact

Google’s Multitask Unified Model (MUM) algorithm is now capable of identifying when multiple high-quality sources agree on the same fact.

This update to MUM is part of a more significant effort to improve information literacy across the web.

A Google-supported survey conducted by the Poynter Institute finds that 62% of respondents encounter false or misleading information every week.

To help people separate fact from fiction, Google is applying several changes to search results.

Here are the complete details about the updates Google announced today.

Improvements To Google’s MUM Algorithm

With improvements to the MUM algorithm, Google can understand when multiple sources on the web come to a consensus.

What does this mean for search results?

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Google will now fact-check its featured snippets to see if other reputable sources agree with the information.

Pandu Nayak, Google’s Vice President of Search, explains how advancements to the MUM algorithm make this possible:

“Our systems can check snippet callouts (the word or words called out above the featured snippet in a larger font) against other high-quality sources on the web, to see if there’s a general consensus for that callout, even if sources use different words or concepts to describe the same thing. We’ve found that this consensus-based technique has meaningfully improved the quality and helpfulness of featured snippet callouts.”

Further, MUM can help Google more accurately determine when queries are better served without featured snippets.

As a result of this update, Google is reducing the triggering of featured snippets in these cases by 40%.

Helping Searchers Identify Trustworthy Information

Along with the update to MUM, Google is introducing additional features to help searchers find information they can trust.

Expanding ‘About This Result’

Google is expanding the ‘about this result’ feature with more context, such as:

  • How widely a source is circulated
  • Online reviews about the source or company
  • Whether another entity owns the company
  • When Google’s systems can’t find adequate information about a source
Image Credit: Screenshot from blog.google/products/search/information-literacy/, August 2022.

About this result is now available in the Google app and in more languages, including Portuguese (PT), French (FR), Italian (IT), German (DE), Dutch (NL), Spanish (ES), Japanese (JP), and Indonesian (ID).

Content Advisories About Information Gaps

A new advisory in search results will alert users when there’s not enough reliable information available for a particular query.

Google shares an example of a search related to a conspiracy theory triggering the new content advisory:

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Google’s Algorithms Can Understand When Sources Agree On Same FactImage Credit: Screenshot from blog.google/products/search/information-literacy/, August 2022.

Source: Google
Featured Image: Andrii Yalanskyi/Shutterstock

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