SEO 101: Does the Description Tag Matter?

Ian Lurie

Short answer: Not to your rankings.
The description tag is one of those ‘meta’ tags you hear about a lot. If you clicked view >> source in your web browser, it’d look like this:
It’s a bit of text that summarizes the page. There’s no real limit on length. Most search engines will show the first sentence or two, so make sure your best stuff is at the beginning of the tag.

It doesn’t impact rankings

The description tag doesn’t impact the rankings. Or it has so little impact it’s irrelevant. Either way, there’s no point in stuffing it with keywords.

But it does impact clickthrough

That said, the description tag is important, and it pays to write a good one.
Search engines often use the contents of the description tag as the search ‘snippet’ on a search results page:
A well-written description tag will get more clicks. In testing, I’ve seen #5-ranked search listings get more clicks than #4 listings because of the description tag.
I’ve already talked about 3 things your description tag must contain.

More Writing?!

Now you’re thinking, “Ian, you are a butthead. You make us do all this writing. Now you’re telling us to write even more, but this time for some stupid meta tag that doesn’t even help me move up in the rankings?!
Well, yeah, I am. But there are some alternatives.

3 ways to automate the description tag

You can generate your description tag automatically based on content on the page. Here are a few ideas:

  1. If you’re running an e-commerce site, grab the first 2 sentences of your product description and insert it into the description meta tag.
  2. On a blog, grab the blog excerpt.
  3. If you’re using another kind of content management system, grab the first 2 sentences of the page content or, if you have both article titles and subtitles, insert the subtitle as the description tag.

If your developer says that’s impossible, I don’t know what to tell you. Oh, wait, yes I do: Fire them.
Make sure you can always customize your description tag, even if you do automate it. Here’s why…

Optimize the description tag for clickthrough, not rankings

If a particular page on your site suddenly grabs a top ranking for ‘Colonial Viper’, you’ll want to maximize clickthrough from that page. So you can change your description meta tag from this vanilla bit of fluff:
To something that tells the reader what they’re going to see, like:
Photos of the coolest Lego-built Colonial Viper ever. I’d fly this frakking thing into battle any day of the week.
(it really is that cool, by the way – take a look)
Make that change and I promise you’ll see 10-20% higher clickthrough on your listing.

Not rankings, clicks

Every time an SEO ‘professional’ tells me they helped a client move up in the rankings by ‘optimizing their meta tags’ I grind about a millimeter off of my molars in an effort to not knee them in some terribly sensitive spot.
But that doesn’t mean the description meta tag is unimportant. Optimize it, and you’ll get more clicks from the rankings you already have.

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  1. Thanks for the great article Ian. I get tired of reading a long stream of keywords in peoples’ description tags. Drives me nuts! Thanks for the suggestions on automating the description tags. We have actually had issues with people who have their in-house “web guy” insisting we use keywords in the description tags and we get tired telling them that “will not help rankings.” Anyway, great article. Keep them coming.

  2. This is an excellent article as it illustrates a very important point. Sometimes SEO experts tend to forget the human elements and all they could think of is the perspective of the search engine. However, the human element exists as well, so having an enticing description tag, one which will actually get them to click on the website can be, at times, as important!

  3. Rather refreshing to hear an alternative viewpoint. And although it’s important to get to the first page of Google, if you have a crappy description, you are still not going to get that much traffic. 🙂

  4. This is a very good article, thank you. It explains very clearly what the META Description is and how to use it.
    ¿Do you know if having the keyword bolded in the SERPS actually helps the CTR of the page?
    I mean, sometimes I use the main keyword in the META Description because it appears bolded in the SERPS. I don´t use it for ranking purposes, but to improve the CTR of the page.
    I really enjoy reading your blog. Cheers

  5. Clearly, you have been around the blogosphere and have some authority here.
    Starting now, taking your advice, I will compose my description tags accordingly.
    And, your reader comments are quite educational as well. thx!

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