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Are meta descriptions a Google ranking factor?

Optimizing your meta description was once considered essential for SEO.But is it a ranking factor in Google searches today?

Meta descriptions can help appear in search results and social media, driving people to click and visit a website.

They also help search engines like Google understand what a web page is all about.

If you run a website audit with one of the many SEO tools, you may find signs or warnings about missing or duplicate meta descriptions.

This may indicate that as part of your SEO strategy, you need to ensure that each page has a unique meta description.

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

Claims: Meta descriptions as ranking factors

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 target keyword phrases in your meta descriptions as an SEO best practice.

Yoast is considered one of the leading experts in terms of meta descriptions.

At launch, the Yoast WordPress SEO plugin was used on over 790 million websites.

Here are the meta descriptions that Yoast recommends:

  • A maximum of 155 characters are reserved.
  • Use focus keywords.
  • Make sure it matches the content of the page.

If you use the focus keyword in your meta description and how often is part of the SEO assessment provided by RankMath:

RankMath100

All of this seems to suggest that optimizing your meta descriptions is critical for SEO.

But does Google really use it to determine your rankings?

Evidence of meta descriptions as ranking factors

In a video posted on the Google Search Central channel in August 2020, Google's search advocate Martin Splitt talks about meta descriptions:

"Please don't forget to add them to your mobile page.They are also important to Googlebot.

Almost immediately, an SEO professional asked Splitt on Twitter for any other details.

Splitt responded that meta descriptions and page titles not only provide searchers with a first impression, but also:

"...Help Google Search get a short summary of what you think is important to the page.

Now, this is causing some concern.

A widely held belief among SEO professionals is that meta descriptions lose any ranking value they may have had long ago.

As Ann Donnelly wrote in 2011,

"Most of us know that while search engines no longer consider meta descriptions in their ranking factors, this element of your page is still important in driving traffic to your site.

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

No.

The reason is as follows.

Evidence against meta descriptions as ranking factors

John Mueller quickly clarifies:

john-mueller-meta-descriptions - Meta descriptions as ranking factors
Now, there is a healthy skepticism among SEO professionals that Google may not be entirely honest and open about ranking factors.Maybe you chose not to listen to Mueller.

Even so, the meta description as a ranking signal is untenable.

First, it's very easy to maneuver.Just put the keywords you want to rank for there and voila!

Signal immediately to Google that you should rank for that keyword phrase.

This was really the belief system around 2005-2008, when I was writing for sites like About.com, Demand Media, and Suite101.com.

At the time, on-page optimization was very formulaic, you could literally change keywords in the title, meta description, subtitle, etc. and see a huge change in rankings.

This is exactly why meta descriptions lose any value as ranking signals.

Matt Cutts' 2009 explanation of why meta keywords were removed from the algorithm also sheds light on their thinking about meta descriptions at the time:

"About a decade ago, search engines judged pages only based on their content, not any so-called 'off-page' factors, such as links to pages.

...Google started ignoring keyword meta tags many years ago due to their frequent misuse.

Although we sometimes use description meta tags in the snippets shown,But we still don't use description meta tags in rankings.

Even today, the meta description you assign to that page might not show up in search results.

In fact, a 2018 experiment by the Yoast team found that Google "often" came up with its own descriptions for search snippets.

There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason why Google found some meta descriptions to be inadequate.

Michiel Heijmans points out:

"It doesn't matter whether we create long or short meta descriptions, and whether the descriptions are written with high or low keyword density.

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

Recently, Portent found that Google rewrites meta descriptions more than 70% of the time.

Meta descriptions as ranking factors: our verdict

Google doesn't use meta descriptions as a search ranking signal, and hasn't used it since 1999 and sometime between 2003-04.

That doesn't mean they're not an important element of your SEO strategy.

Immediate benefits of meta descriptions include:

  • Improve the click-through rate of search results.
  • Helps you differentiate your content from your competitors in the SERPs.
  • Interesting and engaging searchers that force them to check you out.
  • Brand exposure.

Indirectly, additional user behavior signals generated by more - and more engaged - website visitors can support your SEO.

But by itself, meta descriptions are not 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.

Extended reading:

Are meta keywords a Google ranking factor?

Are Nofollow Links a Google Ranking Factor?

Is link stability a Google ranking factor?

Is Keyword Density a Google Ranking Factor?

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