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I expected to see something like this in the <head> section of stackoverflow.com, for example:

<meta name="description" content="A language-independent collaboratively 
edited question and answer site for programmers."/>

There seems to be some evidence that the meta description is useful at least for some search engines.

http://stackoverflow.com/questions/53081/html-meta-keyword-description-element-useful-or-not

Why not include it? Is this tag a complete waste of bytes?

As an aside, when you google "stackoverflow", where does the "A language-independent collaboratively .." description get pulled from?

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The description comes from the Open Directory Project. search.dmoz.org/cgi-bin/search?search=stackoverflow.com –  user1100 Jul 29 '10 at 18:48
    
Answer here: webmasters.stackexchange.com/questions/634/… –  Joseph Kingry Jul 29 '10 at 19:01
    
this is the correct place for this question, it just needed to be generalized so it applies to any website not just SO. I have done so with my edit. –  Jeff Atwood Jul 29 '10 at 19:43
    
@Jeff, thanks, you beat me to it. –  Mark Henderson Jul 29 '10 at 21:26
    
@James Lawruk: +1 great question I would change the title in something more appealing like: "Why doesn't stackoverflow have a "description" meta..." –  Marco Demaio Aug 27 '10 at 13:05

5 Answers 5

up vote 10 down vote accepted

There seems to be some evidence that the meta description is useful at least for some search engines.

In general, meta tags are not useful. Google is over 90% of our traffic, and they only use the meta for site summary in the case where you aren't listed in DMOZ.

http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2009/09/google-does-not-use-keywords-meta-tag.html

For example, we do sometimes use the "description" meta tag as the text for our search results snippets, as this screenshot shows:

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.

We are listed in DMOZ so I see no reason to have 100+ bytes of meta site description in every page we serve over the wire. The benefit is trivial, and the aggregate impact is large.

As an aside, when you google "stackoverflow", where does the "A language-independent collaboratively .." description get pulled from?

See here:
Does an entry in DMOZ significantly help the ranking of a web site?

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8  
-1 You want the SAME description used for search engine results pages (SERPs) for EVERY page? If you care about click-through rates and conversions, this is NOT a trivial thing. In fact, I routinely BLOCK Google from using DMOZ listings by using the following meta tag: <meta name="googlebot" content="NOODP" /> –  Dan Gayle Jul 30 '10 at 0:33
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@dan yes, I do want the same description for root level searches. In all other cases the actual excerpt of the search hit is superior to generic meta description. –  Jeff Atwood Jul 30 '10 at 7:59
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From an SEO perspective, a description meta tag (for sites with DMOZ listing) may not be important, but there may be other applications for which it's useful. For example, the Google WC Blog suggests using meta descriptions to "tag" your page with structured data (e.g. product price, author, etc.) for better snippets. Other software (e.g. some screen readers) also use meta descriptions to get a page summary. If you use Firefox, you may have also noticed that FF automatically pulls meta descriptions when you bookmark a page. –  Lèse majesté Dec 23 '10 at 14:11

As mentioned, the description you mentioned is pulled from DMOZ. However, one reason they may not have a meta description is because StackOverflow is primarily user-generated content. As such, creating a relevant meta description isn't the easiest task. They may have thought that Google would do a better job of programmatically creating a search engine results snippet for any given question than they would have.

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Google will use whatever they think is the best. DMOZ, description meta, or parsing out their own description. For SO specifically, it would be very hard to get a user to craft a decent description. (It's hard enough to get people to craft a decent question, lol) –  Dan Gayle Jul 30 '10 at 0:37

Google will use your meta tag description for the listing, even if you are listed in DMOZ.

It will probably NOT help you rank higher, but it makes a lot of difference when it comes to conversion. That meta tag description is what people read when they decide to click on your website in the SERP.

When I search for something on Google, about 4 results appear on my screen in Firefox, and 6 in Chrome (I have to scroll down to see the rest). Which of these results I click on depends mostly on the title and the description. IF these results don't seem to be what I am looking for, I will scroll down for more.

Treat that metatag description as a free text ad for the page.

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Meta descriptions definitely aren't a waste of bandwidth. One of the things I dislike about SEO is that it gives webmasters a sort of tunnel vision when they design their webpage. And I think recent attitudes towards meta tags are a perfect example of this.

From time to time, we have to remember that there are other considerations to be had besides SEO/marketing when building a website. Sure, meta keywords, meta descriptions, etc. have very little SEO value these days, but that's not the (sole) purpose of those fields. Search engines aren't the sole consumer of meta data, which is important for much more than helping you rank better on Google.

When you bookmark a page, many browsers automatically fetch the meta description or even keywords. This enables users to browse their bookmarks and find old links much more easily. The same thing happens when you post a link to Facebook, Twitter and other sites. Some screen readers also allow users to preview a page by reading out its meta description, giving the user a more detailed overview of a page than just the title.

The point is, like semantic structure, meta information is useful because it enables users and programmers to do more with a document. These could be uses that you never thought of or that haven't even been invented yet (e.g. a wikipedia bot can pull meta descriptions from a webpage to add descriptions to external links; a browser history search engine can build faster indexes from each page's meta description). Not including meta data just because it doesn't improve your search ranking is really shortsighted, not the type of user-centric thinking that webmasters ought to be using.

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Google ways meta tag descriptions are useful for search engines and users (but not for improving your site's ranking):

"While accurate meta descriptions can improve clickthrough, they won't impact your ranking within search results. We frequently prefer to display meta descriptions of pages (when available) because it gives users a clear idea of the URL's content."

(Google Webmaster tools)

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