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I received this bit of advice about the meta description tag recently:

Meta descriptions are used by Google probably 80% of the time for the snippet. They don’t help with rankings but you should probably use them. You could just auto generate them from the first part of the question.

The description tag exists in the header, like so:

<meta name="Description" content="A brief summary of the content on the page.">

I'm not sure why we would need this field, as Google seems perfectly capable of showing the relevant search terms in context in the search result pages, like so (I searched for c# list performance):

google keyword highlighting

In other words, where would a meta description summary improve these results? We want the page to show context around the actual search hits, not a random summary we inserted!

Google Webmaster Central has this advice:

For some sites, like news media sources, generating an accurate and unique description for each page is easy: since each article is hand-written, it takes minimal effort to also add a one-sentence description. For larger database-driven sites, like product aggregators, hand-written descriptions are more difficult. In the latter case, though, programmatic generation of the descriptions can be appropriate and is encouraged -- just make sure that your descriptions are not "spammy." Good descriptions are human-readable and diverse, as we talked about in the first point above. The page-specific data we mentioned in the second point is a good candidate for programmatic generation.

I'm struggling to think of any scenario when I would want the Google-generated summary, that is, actual context from the page for the search terms, to be replaced by a hard-coded meta description summary of the question itself.

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Are you asking about the Stack Exchange sites in particular, or generally? It probably depends on the actual site if Google can generate a meaningful description on its own. –  balpha Jan 10 '11 at 10:19
@balpha both, explain to me when this would be useful on ANY website (excepting, I guess all-flash sites which are virtually unindexable as text, so you'd have to manually generate a summary) so I can understand what it's for. –  Jeff Atwood Jan 10 '11 at 10:22
Google isn't the only search engine. –  w3d Jan 10 '11 at 11:49
@w3d not the only one, but probably the one with the largest mindshare. –  dvhh Jan 10 '11 at 13:57
Given that the question is the primary anchor, why not add the accepted answer (if one exists) as the META description? Might save searchers some time determining whether it's what they're looking for. –  danlefree Jan 11 '11 at 9:17
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8 Answers

up vote 19 down vote accepted

The meta description is used in the those cases where your page is returned in results, but the users search terms don't actually appear on the page in question.

I.e. if you click through to the "Cached" version of a page and it says at the top "The following terms only appear in links to this page".

Obviously, this is an unlikely occurrence for the StackExchange sites, but it is still potentially relevant for other types of sites.

Edit to add:

Google's Webmaster Central page on "Changing your site's title and description in search results" also has the following:

Google's creation of sites' titles and descriptions (or "snippets") is completely automated and takes into account both the content of a page as well as references to it that appear on the web.

We use a number of different sources for this information, including descriptive information in the META tag for each page. [...] We frequently prefer to display meta descriptions of pages (when available) because it gives users a clear idea of the URL's content. This directs them to good results faster and reduces the click-and-backtrack behavior that frustrates visitors and inflates web traffic metrics.

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well, at least this makes sense -- though the idea that I'd be matching a page where none of my search terms appear on the page itself is bizarre to the extreme. Can you provide a more concrete real world example of where this would happen, specifically? –  Jeff Atwood Jan 11 '11 at 0:39
@Jeff Atwood: Certainly - anything that is just a search for "site:...." with no search terms. A more obvious one is searching for "Penn" (google.com/search?q=penn) the first result I get is for www.upenn.edu, where the meta description is used, even though the term "Penn" appears in numerous lists on the page. I recall other occasions when I'd search for something only to find I'd been googlebombed, especially when Google's algorithm heavily weighted incoming links over in page content - a good/bad referrer could have all sorts of interesting effects on results. –  Zhaph - Ben Duguid Jan 11 '11 at 9:13
That said, I really need to add some meta descriptions to my own blog ;) –  Zhaph - Ben Duguid Jan 11 '11 at 9:27
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My experience has been, that on sites without meta descriptions, Google has in the past chosen the first bit of text it finds on the page when searching for the site by name, for example, in your case "Stack Exchange" or "Stack Overflow". The problem is that first bit of text maybe alt tags and a menu. In one case, this was all it was and it ended up being quite confusing because it ended up being a bunch of bits and pieces that didn't make sense together.

Here's an example: Search for "western air calgary". The website doesn't have any meta descriptions and the description Google comes up with is:

Western Air & Power Ltd. contact products employment about us. 1.877.245.2822 1.403.243.2822 1919 Highfield Crescent SE Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

I personally don't find this very useful as it doesn't give any description of what the company actually does or is about. It is pretty amazing what Google picked up because there "Wester Air & Power Ltd." is only in an alt tag (by itself) while there are quite a few other bits in alt tags as well. But because the page doesn't have much content, it's pretty much useless and would be much better with a meta description.

Edit (better example)

Yes, (to your comment) I would agree with you, but here's another example where that doesn't make quite as much sense.

Search for "body language speaker eliot hoppe". The second result has the following description:

body language." Isidoro Yee, DDS, Guatemala City. "Eliot Hoppe is an ...

The page has quite a bit of text, but a good percentage of it's not actually what you'd want the user to see in a page description (testimonials, links, captions). What ends up showing up is good, but isn't directly what the page is about (and includes some confusing unrelated info). In this case, I think it would be good to add a meta description in the hope that Google would use it. At the moment, as it doesn't seem that Google can figure out what is actually the main content of the page. (This could also be partially solved by moving the content up in the HTML and moving other stuff down.)

I've actually seen on the same website (eliothoppe.com) Google using alt tags and menus for the page description. After I added meta descriptions, Google starting using them instead and we saw an increase in traffic after the descriptions were added.

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right, I'm thinking this is only good when the page has almost zero plain text, human readable content.. the less there is, the more you have to rely on meta description. And the more there is, the more meaningless meta description becomes. –  Jeff Atwood Jan 11 '11 at 0:53
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I'm getting pretty tired of repeating this, but I'll throw it out there one more time. Meta descriptions aren't just used for SEO or by search engines.

When you bookmark a page in most web browsers, the meta description is used by the browser to save a description for the page. This has numerous uses, including for searching through your bookmarks.

Likewise, when you share a link on Facebook, Twitter, social bookmarking sites, etc. the meta description is also used to give a brief description of the link. All of this adds convenience for users. Meta descriptions are also used by screen readers and could be used by other software that might need a description of the page.

Microformats, OpenSearch, XFN, favicons, etc. all have no SEO value either. But that doesn't mean they're irrelevant or not useful to users. There's more to creating a webpage than just ranking well on Google.

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yeah, one small problem with that. people lie. codinghorror.com/blog/2005/11/… –  Jeff Atwood Jan 11 '11 at 4:05
How is that even remotely relevant to the uses I mentioned? Cory Doctorow's tirade misses the point of metadata completely. Yes, people can falsify metadata, but how does that affect its usefulness to users when used properly? That's like saying, because a video DVD publisher can put fake subtitles in their DVDs, DVD subtitles are pointless and no one should use them. –  Lèse majesté Jan 11 '11 at 4:54
I'd also add that, although I have tremendous respect for him, Doctorow's a writer, not a developer, and thus his exposure to metadata is limited to such a narrow context that he's oblivious to the fact that metadata has been successfully used for decades and is in fact vital in areas like data warehousing applications. Search engines shouldn't use meta descriptions for ranking, but that doesn't define the usefulness of metadata as a whole--just like the abundance of spam blogs does not mean blogs are useless. –  Lèse majesté Jan 11 '11 at 5:02
Lese makes a good point. All too commonly people worry about what's best for Google, and forget what's best for their users. Google was designed to find information on websites made for humans to read, not machines. It's strangely backwards to modify our websites to make its job easier! Worry about UX, if your UX is good then SEO will follow naturally. –  ZoFreX Jan 11 '11 at 10:44
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You should use a meta description tag because:

  1. Google says so as pointed out by previous posters.
  2. Google doesn't always pick great descriptions.
  3. When Google has a more relevant description than your meta desc, Google uses their choice. But, only when it's more relevant than yours.

In summery, there is low risk in using a meta description because your description only gets used when it's better than what Google finds on the page, and Google says that you should use one.

In practice, while a meta description won't help you climb up the rankings, it can and will draw more clicks to your listing. A meta description that exactly matches the user's search will draw the most clicks.

I could hunt around for "evidence", but in SEO there is often little evidence. All we have are the opinions of respected professionals and Google's guidelines.


If you have doubts, about whether or not to use something, view the source on wall's page and see if he uses it.

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Search for "buy ipad online". Note summaries in search. Now view source on the top 3 search results. You tell me how much of the meta description Google used in the search summary from those pages (yes, they all have meta descriptions). Hint: none. Good advice -- I won't be using this tag. –  Jeff Atwood Jan 11 '11 at 4:07
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I think a meta description can best be described as a marketing tool.

Since they are not used for ranking they only serve as information for users. Since Google uses them most of the time it's an opportunity for you to give the user good information about what they'll get if they click the link. Sure, snippets with search term context are probably best in most cases, but a lot of the time it is not possible and the meta description is used as the fall back.

In the context of Stack Exchange sites I see your point, but ultimately your opinion doesn't matter. Google does it how they do it, so now you need to create a good algo for what you'll shove into the meta description. Sounds like a good candidate for an A/B test. If you increase search engine referrals with good meta descriptions then you've settled it.

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google does NOT use them most of the time. Search for "buy ipad online". Note summaries in search. Now view source on the top 3 search results. You tell me how much of the meta description Google used in the search summary from those pages (yes, they all have meta descriptions). Hint: none. –  Jeff Atwood Jan 10 '11 at 10:49
As far as I know Google does use meta descriptions but only for top-level pages. For example, a search for Wikipedia shows Wikipedia's tagline as the description. However I am assuming, reddit's result contains a string not used anywhere on the page (but may have once been there?) I would be inclined to guess that when there is no clear match on the matched page (for example, the title matches best) the description is used instead of a context. –  Ross Jan 10 '11 at 10:59
Jeff, search for xbox 360, a lot of results using meta description. Why don't you turn all stackoverflow meta descriptions to empty strings and see how SEO is affected? At least then you'd have some data. This is all anecdotal, but on my side people that work at google or have worked there have told me this stuff, recently. –  tony4d Jan 10 '11 at 11:06
+1, Internally, we say the meta description is our "elevator sales pitch" to earn the click. When you take that viewpoint, the key is to see it like that but not get spammy. –  Chris Adragna Jan 10 '11 at 15:33
You can use <meta name="robots" content="noodp" /> to make sure Google uses your descriptions instead of the one from the DMOZ project (at least when it doesn't use autogenerated ones). –  Franz Jan 10 '11 at 15:36
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I use it to improve the performance of certain pages based on analytic data. I generally auto generate it based on the content of the page then over time I look through my analytics data to see which pages aren't performing up to my expectations for example if I see a page in GWT that is ranking well (and a money page) but getting a very low CTR I spend some time testing changes to the meta description. Those instances frequently result in big boosts in CTR (I've had some pages with an average ranking in GWT of ~2 getting a 5% or 6% CTR with a change in the meta description they jump to over 20%, on high converting pages that's money in the bank).

I also look for pages that have abnormally high bounce rates from Google, I find this is usually because Google chose the snippet based on an off hand sentence someone made in a comment, and when people visit the page and read the whole post and half the comments and find no mention of what they are looking for leave frustrated.

In both instances sometimes Google uses the new meta tag other times they don't, so my take is auto generate the bulk of them (as mentioned above other search engines do in fact use them more heavily then Google), then spend time testing the small portions that you'll see the biggest improvements.

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To be honest I think this recommendation comes from stalwarts in the SEO community who just can't move past the fact that their knowledge of how search worked back in 1999 isn't how it works in 2011. It use to be that the description tag was used as the blurb below the title, because no real analytics was really done on a page. Everything you searched for was based on the keyword or the description meta tags.

I would say that it is not worth the extra bytes. Because the search engines you really care about, Google and Bing, already find the relevant information in the page. And if they don't the search probably isn't going to show up.

The one place that it might be useful for is for all flash pages, where the content isn't easily indexable by the search engine, and the site has a tone of inbound links that the search engine deems relevant. Such as a popular flash game.

Alternatively, if you really have bytes to kill, and you want to add relevant meta information to your page. You should probably be looking at the Open Graph Protocol.


Since Facebook is a highly structuralized environment it makes sense to control your information that is sent over there using meta data. Not so much for Google with the description tag.

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I think the issue is less about which is right or even "better" than there just being two different questions or use cases. (And, as usual with Google, really no single answer.)

You're basically saying you like seeing the terms you searched for in context, in the content of the search results. That's fine when it works, but I suppose there could be cases where it shows you snippets that while they may show the words you've chosen don't actually tell you much about the overall document. For example, a search with just one more term(ie. http://www.google.com/search?q=c%23+list+performance+improve ) rapidly starts showing results whose snippets don't include one or more of the terms even though they do appear in the content, which possibly starts making your preference here mean less since you can't see them before clicking through anyway.

Generally, a meta description should be an overall summary that's useful regardless of whether it involves your specific search terms. (In theory, anyway.)

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"there could be cases where it shows you snippets that while they may show the words you've chosen don't actually tell you much about the overall document" -- that's fine, but can you cite any examples of this in practice (versus theory), and edit your answer to include them? –  Jeff Atwood Jan 10 '11 at 10:33
There was supposed to be a link, but it got stripped due to low rep. Now added. But I'll also agree that for Stack Exchange site purposes, the question probably does get weighted toward your opinion since any given document is by definition and convention heavily targeted toward a fairly narrow topic. –  Su' Jan 10 '11 at 10:47
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