Monday, October 1st, 2012

How the Meta Description Tag Can Affect Google Rankings


Many have discounted the benefits of the Meta Description Tag because it is no longer considered by Google’s ranking algorithms when evaluating where your site should rank in search results; it is generally assumed spammers abuse of the tag forced search engines to devalue it. This hasn’t left the Meta Description Tag a complete waste of space though. Before explaining why the Meta Description Tag still has an impact on rankings I will first cover what the tag is still widely known to be good for; prompting clickthroughs.

Fact: The Description Meta Tag Can Increase Clickthroughs

Nowadays if a webmaster writes a good representation of a webpage into the Meta Description Tag there is a good chance Google will use the tag as the description of the page in search engine results. As a result, the wise marketer will take this a step further and ensure the Description Meta Tag is further optimized to entice someone to click on her search result versus her competitor’s. Granted, this is only a big help if the page is actually ranking where viewers can see it; which requires the other facets of website marketing not covered in this article (search engine optimization, community building  which is better than link building, etc.).

Now consider the next important piece of the puzzle – in my opinion it is likely Google tracks user behavior and considers it a negative when someone clicks on a search result and quickly returns (a “bounce”) to continue their searching.

The Unknown: Does Google Consider Bounce Traffic in Organic Rankings?

Although Google has not publicly confirmed it is using bounce data to determine rankings in organic results, recent news has Google using bounce data to provide different results when a searcher returns to Google after spending a significant amount of time on an page he/she visited from search results (see article “Reading May Influence AuthorRank” by AJ Kohn and confirmation of this from Google). The whole concept has also been hotly debated over the past 5+ years; here is an interesting study on rankings & bounce rate by the SEO Black Hat forums on the subject in 2008 which seemed to confirm what many of us thought at the time. Conversely in 2011 Google’s Matt Cutts carefully stated “to the best of my knowledge, the rankings team does not use bounce rate in any way.” But that was 2011 and this is 2012 which has been an insanely busy year for algorithm updates at Google; although I have to say that even at that time I took what Matt Cutts said with a healthy dose of salt.

With that said, let’s get real here! Google’s reputation and bottom line is 100% connected to the quality of search results it provides its users; if the results do not deliver what the searcher was looking for Google could lose the searcher to another search property. As a result, Google should take it very seriously when a statistically significant number of users are returning to Google to continue the same search after visiting a search result. Although an over generalization in such cases it stands to reason the website the users were on did not provide the kind of search experience Google is devoted to providing. As a result, if Google had a few smart people on staff (yeah!) the offending search listing would likely be reevaluated which could lead to a negative effect on rankings.

“Okay Ross… I am getting a little tired of the ‘coulds’ and ‘maybes’ here. Get to the point!”

I am sorry for the careful wording but no matter how strongly I feel my ideas are correct I am still only making an educated guess because I can’t actually know what Google is doing without being Google. With that said, the next component pulls everything together.

My Point – Based on Facts and Educated Conjecture

The clearer your Meta Description describes the content and purpose of a given page, the better chance you have of keeping a searcher on your page when they get to it. Now based on what I believe above, if the searcher stays on the page instead of going back to Google immediately (or quickly) your site’s page will have a better chance of at least maintaining the ranking it has or improving it.

= Make damn sure your Meta Descriptions concisely represent your page

By relation the above statement requires the following if you want your site to kick ass and take names:

  1. Write great content so that most of this discussion is academic at best; the better the content the stickier the page and less important this whole discussion is!
  2. Ensure social sharing options are built into your site to further the benefit of that visit from the search engines; your great content is bound to prompt some social sharing IF the options are there to do so.
  3. Provide links to related content on your own site wherever possible to try and keep the visitor engaged and on your site. For example, did you read the sad obituary for Mr Meta Keyword? He had a tragic life and deserved to rest peacefully; however, in a story fit for Halloween Google has reanimated Mr Keyword Tag for a purpose that is entirely chilling.
  4. Present the incredibly cool and awesome visitor with the ability to subscribe to your newsletter so that a conversion of some type is also gained from their visit 😉

Now It is Time for Your Two Cents

Nothing about this hypothesis is rocket science. After all, in reality this is just SEO 101 academic since no matter what the outcome of this conjecture the fact remains that a well written Meta Description tag is a damn good idea and should be done anyway. I am just curious what my fellow SEOs and blog readers believe in this regard – how much faith do YOU put in what Google says versus what Google does? Thanks for reading and putting up with my (sometimes) silly rambling.

by Ross Dunn, CEO of StepForth Web Marketing & Co-Host of the weekly radio show SEO 101 on WebmasterRadio.FM & Founder of




14 Responses to “How the Meta Description Tag Can Affect Google Rankings”

  1. souleye

    thanks for the article. google keeps us all guessing. that’s cool. ‘conjecture’ is the right term here. if we follow google’s logic that they strive to search searchers to relevant results, and referring to the quality score in adwords, it makes sense that they take bounce rate into account. high bounce rate has never been a sign that searchers are finding what they’re looking for. google has always tried to discourage or penalize misrepresentation, which bounce rate would suggest. my two cents – I guess it’s more than two cents!

  2. Ross Dunn

    Thanks for your thoughts Souleye! I am glad you are in agreement this has some merit. Cheers!

  3. Steven

    Nice article Ross, and I’m very much in agreement.

    Writing a great, actionable meta description will have an impact on rankings at some point or another.

    A great tip is to use your best performing (CTR) ad in Google AdWords for one of your highest rankings page meta descriptions to increase click-through rate on organic listings.

  4. Adam Johnson

    Thanks for sharing. It’s really helpful for SEO beginners.

  5. Kymberly Deahl

    After I originally commented I seem to have clicked on the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I recieve four emails with the exact same comment. There has to be an easy method you are able to remove me from that service? Thank you!

  6. Fedobe

    Hi Ross, first I would like to thank you for your valuable post about meta description tags. According to me, meta part is the key factor for every website. If a website has a good meta title and description, then both search engine and user must love this site.

  7. Ross Dunn

    Hey that is a wonderful idea Steven. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Ross Dunn

    Gosh I am sorry to hear this Kymberly. Is there no option within the email you receive to unsubscribe from updates? I was fairly sure there was. Please let me know if you continue to have a problem with this. Thanks. Ross

  9. Lyndon NA (theAutocrat)

    I’ve been referencing BounceBacktoSERPs for ages now … and though no one at Google has directly confirmed it … the logic is there (and has been for 2+ years).

    One of the first questions a Googler will ask you about a poorly performing website is what the typical BounceRate is like.

    Clarity – Bounce Rate is a term applied to and referencing Google Analytics. Google do Not use GA for Direct/Site Specific Ranking.
    (Which may explain Matt Cutts saying what he did :D)
    But the SERPs – that’s a whole different matter.

    Google have several patents for things like Click Rates and Title Performance in the SERPs.
    Further – the SERPs give them far more site-specific traffic data than GA (which only a % of sites have/use).

    So the chacnes are very good that BBtSERPs is a factor.
    But – it’s a weak and long-term signal if anything.
    It’s not like G will simply push you up/down due to the reaction of 10 clicks and back-button pushes.

    But – the general point is – that both Title and Description should match the Search and the Page.
    If you don’t deliver … or at least sustain the visit for long enough to grab attention and secure the visitor … then you may well see a negative from it.

  10. moatasem

    great post and good information for webmasters

  11. Ross Dunn

    Thank you for your thoughts Lyndon! I agree with you sentiments and certainly didn’t want to give the impression that bounce back was a massive factor but the likelihood it is even a part of the algorithms is worth considering. I hope to hear more from you on our site. Thank you.

  12. Soumya

    Hi Ross,

    While I have always believed like many that meta description has helped clickthroughs, I am not very sure I agree with its impact on rankings via the bounce rate, as even Lyndon has mentioned above that Google does not use GA for site ranking. Regarding the question “how much faith do YOU put in what Google says versus what Google does?”, right now in the post Panda/Penguin/Disavow Links-complicated world, its looking pretty shaky :)

  13. Ross Dunn

    Hi Soumya, I still stand behind the likelihood that Google uses bounce rate in its ranking algorithms. As for what they say vs what they do… they always describe their systems using careful wording so they never fully come out and say anything with certainty. That, along with the fact that it isn’t in their best interest to share the truth at all times leads me to take everything they say with many grains of salt.

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