The Power of Meta Descriptions

A long held belief amongst SEOs is that meta descriptions, on their own, have no bearing on search rankings. I believe that to be the case. But I also believe that well crafted description tags can have significant impacts on click through rates, regardless of were you actually rank. Compelling text shown in the search result snippet is bound to pull more clicks than something not compelling, not descriptive and plain un-interesting.

I now have data, that I think, proves this point.

My wife launched her little recipe blog side project just before Christmas last year. She loves to cook and wanted to blog her recipes so I set her up with Wordpress, gave her a few pointers and let her fly at it. I tried my best to tell her some basic SEO stuff about her content, page titles, linking, etc… but whenever I try to bring it up she just starts shouting “LA LA LA LA LA” and does not want the hear any of it. “You’re the SEO guy, you take care of the computer stuff and I’ll just write what I want to write”. Ok, fine. Ultimately that is Google’s key recommendation.

She posts one or two recipes per week and the content is growing. Traffic is growing, slowly, but not fast enough for my liking. Checking what key phrases are sending traffic then doing that search to see how things appear in the SERPS pointed out a serious flaw, in my eyes. Google was basically pulling the first line or two of text right out of the content to display as the description snippet. Sometimes it contained a word or two of the key phrase but was largely un-descriptive of the page. So I went about doing something about that.

Since my wife had no intentions of making use of the All in One SEO Pack plugin I installed, which would allow her to write custom description tags, I went about customizing the plugin to do the heavy lifting for her.

Here is an example snippet from her Kid Friendly Meatloaf recipe before meta description customization;

Search snippet before adding meta descriptions

And here is the same result after Google re-indexed things;

Meta description with higher click through rate.

What would you rather click on?

I created a basic template description and dynamically insert the recipe titles into it. The description is relevant via the recipe name, often its primary keywords, and stating that it is a fabulous recipe and easy to make at home makes it more compelling to click on.

And here are the traffic results;

Traffic increases after changing meta descriptions

You see the point, red arrow, where I added an annotation in Analytics on the date I made the change. Over the following couple weeks (weekly data in chart) traffic surged ahead as more and more pages got re-indexed with better description tags.

Now over that time period more posts were added, each of them attracting a bit more long tail queries (long tail is long in recipe land), and the site attracted a couple new links, so maybe there was a slight improvement in rankings as well. But to me the time frame of that big increase points to the better meta descriptions and an increase in click through rates.

Google webmaster tools, though really limited in what it reports and its time frames seems to lend support to my suspicion the meta tags are giving the biggest boost here.

Webmaster tools data

Over the period of March 26 to April 30th it reports a 94% increase in impressions (some new posts and maybe some improved rankings for some posts) and a 250% increase in clicks. The site is new and competes with the likes of food.com, allrecipes.com and other heavyweights. Many of the new posts rank for a little while due to freshness factors then slowly slip back to page 2, 3 or deeper. Some stick on page 1 better than others. Again, I’m very confident the description tags are primary factor.

Some SEO’s are leaning towards user actions as a possible ranking factor. If not in place yet, certainly something that may be coming down the pipe (or maybe it’s riding on the back of a Panda). So get your meta descriptions doing their job of influencing click troughs from the search results. It will get you a larger share of traffic out of your current rankings and maybe, just maybe, the increase in click through’s will indirectly turn meta descriptions into an actual ranking factor.

If this post made you hungry and you’re wondering what to have for dinner tonight- check out some of my favorites;

6 Comments on “The Power of Meta Descriptions”

Infonote on May 5th, 2011 wrote:

I hope I am not asking too much, but can you please post some guidelines how you modified the All In One SEO Plugin?

Just some general procedure, no need to state your secret.

Evan on May 11th, 2011 wrote:

Great post. Though meta tags are generally seen as inconsequential, title tags and descriptions have appeared to have an affect on organic optimization, as one typically sees the keywords matched to these parameters. It’s awesome to see some data to support this notion.

Miguel @ Organic SEO Consultant on May 16th, 2011 wrote:

Interesting post and I’m glad to see someone testing this. I would have liked the test to be more specific to one page though, and for organic rankings to also be tracked daily and worked into a graph along with the traffic date. This could easily be done in excel.

I think that reporting on all pages and not showing ranking increases or decreases makes the results difficult to correlate.

Stever on May 18th, 2011 wrote:

@infonote Perhaps I need to write a new blog post about customizations of All in One SEO plugin. But basically I went into the heart of the php code and re-coded a few things. But now I cant update the plugin to new versions without overwriting my customizations.

Stever on May 18th, 2011 wrote:

@Evan, I dont believe the meta descriptions are having any direct effect on rankings. Yes, Google will highlight words from your search phrase if they appear in the description snippet, but that’s just highlighting. The data here supports getting even more traffic from your current rankings – higher click through rates.

Stever on May 18th, 2011 wrote:

@Miguel, you might be right. Picking one page, tracking it’s rankings, and seeing if traffic increases due to changes in description text, but no changes in rankings, would be more accurate. But I’m pretty confident doing it at a broader level like this and seeing significant search traffic increases illustrates fine enough for me. The webmaster tools data helps to support the fact that rankings did not change significantly over that short time period.

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