Meta Description Mutiny! Take Control of Your Text Snippets

April 3, 2015

Stage a meta description mutiny
If you're under the impression that you control what searchers see in the meta description snippet of your SERP listings, you're living in fantasy land. Static meta descriptions are like Santa Claus, Unicorns and men who look "good" in toupees. They just don't exist.

That's because the meta description is a chameleon: always changing its appearance. That snippet you tag to show in the SERPs is often discarded by Google for text more germane to a searcher's query. And given that Google’s goal is to return the most relevant results to their audience, I can see how personalized meta descriptions make sense. But that doesn't mean search marketers have to sit by idly and let Google dictate what an audience will or won't see. There are ways to take control of your text snippets

Examples of Tailored Meta Description Snippets

When Google SERPs overrule your designated meta name="description" content=" tag, the content that ends up in the text snippet can come from anywhere on your page. First sentence, last sentence, footer, call out box, you name it, it's all fair game. And no amount of tagging is going to stop it. For example, if I run a query for "what cholesterol levels mean," the first listing Google returns is a page from the American Heart Association.

Notice that Google is using the designated meta description here (preceded by the date authored) because the query is closely aligned with the keywords in the snippet.

<meta name="description" content="What are healthy levels of LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides?">

But if I run a different query, "high risk cholesterol levels," Google still returns the same page. However, this time the SERP listing has an entirely different snippet with text pulled from the article (not the designated  meta description), with keywords that are more relevant to my query.

When I run a third query, "LDL cholesterol level," Google returns yet another piece of text pulled from the article to match the query, this time featuring Google's new "Jump to" feature:

So if you're keeping score at home, that's three different search queries and three different snippets results, all from the same page, with only one displaying the page author's intended meta description text snippet. But is this cause for concern or cause for celebration? I guess that depends on who you are and how you look at it.

Personalized Meta Descriptions: The Good the Bad and the "Tacky"

I see Google's method of swapping out and personalizing text snippets as both a blessing and a curse.

Why tailored meta descriptions are a blessing:

  • Snippet support - For any site owner, webmaster, designer or blog owner who has no idea even what a meta description is, why it matters or how to populate it. Google lends a hand, taking the onus off the clueless.
  • Versatility - It's impossible for pages that rank for a range of mid and long tail keywords, stemmed keywords or a variety of modifiers to include every keyword variant in a static meta description without it looking spammy. It's equally impossible to predict all the query combinations for which a page will display. Google simplifies that by presenting a personalized snippet.

Why tailored meta descriptions are a curse:

  • Google knows best? - Many SEOs take time to craft compelling meta descriptions that comply with Google’s 156 character cap and include target keywords and clever, persuasive and clickable text. They've also done testing on various meta descriptions to identify text with the best click through rates. Having that text discarded impedes a marketers ability to do his/her job effectively. All that time, effort and testing goes out the window.
  • Lack of control - Knowing that as a search marketer you have zero control over which piece of text for which query will be thrust into the limelight is frustrating and disheartening.
  • Bad snippets - Since you're powerless over your meta descriptions, what’s being shown to searchers can be potentially detrimental to your brand. Take this search snippet for example. It's something Elisa Gabbert stumbled on and shot around to the marketing team the other day.

Meta description gone bad

From this SERP snippet, it would appear that the folks at The Guardian aren't big fans of Harper Collins scribe Leah McGrath Goodman, putting it mildly. However, if you click through to the page, you see that the actual on-page content tells a different story.

The meta description says one thing, the page says another

Sure, if you bother to click through, there's no confusion or misunderstanding. And I'm sure many do because the meta description is inflammatory and thereby compelling. However, if you don't click, the SERP snippet paints such an unflattering picture of Goodman's that the damage to her reputation is done. Not good.

Taking Back Control of Your Meta Description

Now, some may be reading this and thinking, "Why even bother with a meta description if Google is just going to show what it wants?" The answer is because in many cases your intended meta description will show for your target keywords. So it's still worth it to take the effort to craft persuasive, relevant text for your meta descriptions.

As for the queries where your intended meta description is being ignored by Google, there are ways to control your snippets. In short, you really need to pay close attention to your on-page content because you never know which piece of text is a snippet candidate. This is especially true for the content that surrounds your target keywords as well as all variations of keywords, particularly those that live in headlines and subheads (which get pulled more often) and in any on page anchor/jump links.

This is just more of a case for diversifying your on page content to include relevant, yet closely-themed keyword variations, such as:

  • Phrase swapping: "Boston car dealer," "car dealer in Boston"
  • Plurals: "car dealer," "car dealers," "cars dealer"
  • Gerunds: terms ending with "ing," like "car buying"
  • Modifiers/adjectives: "best car dealer in Boston," "car dealership in Greater Boston"

Point is, you never know which piece of content Google is going to show for your SERP listing. By including keyword variations, you’re covering all your bases. But it sure would be nice to know precisely which text snippets are displaying in your meta descriptions for various queries. Let's look at how we can do that.

Getting Better Meta Description Intelligence

One of the best methods to determine which elements of text are showing in your meta descriptions is to first find out exactly which search engine keywords are prompting your pages. You can do this in Google Analytics by drilling down in the "Content/Top Content" section, using these steps:

  1. Search: filter, "containing" [page file name]

  2. Click on the resulting file name to drill down to "Content Detail"
  3. Under "Landing Page Optimization," click "Entrance Keywords"
  4. Select "non-paid"

You'll then get a picture of the specific query strings that prompted your page and subsequent views. 

With this information, you can then run a series of tests to see which meta description snippets are displaying for your top entrance keywords. Also, rather than running a bunch of individual queries to find where you rank so you can evaluate your snippets, it's far more efficient to run a Google search operator which eliminates all other listings, such as site:kingshadeandwindow.com/boston-shutters "Boston window"

Given the results, if you see that your designated meta description isn't being used in the snippet, you can then tweak and optimize the content that IS being shown. That way, you can put your stamp of approval on the text, thereby taking back control of your meta descriptions.

Because having a snippet that's "pushy, desperate, tacky and jobless" is no way to go through life. Just ask Leah McGrath Goodman.

Ken Lyons

Ken Lyons

Ken Lyons is a cofounder and managing partner of Measured SEM.

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