META Descriptions aren’t Dead

I recently read (and quickly commented on) a post on Volusion’s blog entitled “4 SEO Tricks Google Doesn’t Want You to Know.” Although Volusion is first and foremost an e-commerce platform provider, and search engine optimization is a component of success in e-commerce, Volusion is not an expert on SEO – says I, anyway.

Nevertheless I read their blog regularly, and I find that, although they aren’t SEO experts, they do tend to give solid advice for the intermediate online store owner. That said, part of their recent post made me facepalm.

META-D’s are What!?

Secret #1 on the Volusion blog states “Secret #1: Meta tags and descriptions are Google garbage.” Post author Matt Winn argues that META-D (along with keywords and titles) were once important factors in Google’s algorithm, but that Google doesn’t consider them so much now. I suppose I can agree with that. He also adds a caveat (which I don’t recall being there when I made my comment) stating that:

“…while Google doesn’t care about your meta descriptions, it’s still helpful to your readers.”

I’m really tempted to agree with that statement as well, but doing so reinforces a concept that am inclined to disagree with – the idea that writing for Google is more important than writing for readers.

Writing for Google and Writing for Humans

The following is true of small entries like page titles and META-D, to multi-paragraph pages of content: time and again, I see content that is written with keywords strategically placed, or sometimes forcefully stuffed, where it really doesn’t belong – all in an attempt to meet some secret ethereal standard for keywords and to stretch out otherwise mundane and brief statements, paragraphs, and descriptions.

More often than not, this leads to keyword overuse, which leads to unnatural looking / sounding content, which leads to poor rankings – all because you tried to write what you think Google wants to read instead of what humans want to read. Fellow Volusion store owner Nick Morgan wrote an article featured on SEOmoz recently that addresses keyword overuse. Nick mentions my views on this topic in his post, so obviously this is something I tend to grief about regularly.

The truth is this – All of Google’s algorithms and math and magic are designed to mimic human logic. Google is supposed to be like your human friend, a friend who knows how to answer you based on where you are, things you’ve asked before, who your friends are, what they think, and how well it knows you. With each passing week Google gets better and better at filtering out spammy crap and collecting well-written relevant content that humans are looking for.

Google’s target audience is humans, not other machines. This is why your content needs to be written for humans, and the first opportunity your content has to reach humans is your META-D and Title.

Try it Yourself

But really – what good are rankings if your search engine results page listing looks terrible? Is being in SERP position number 1 always better than number 2 or 3, regardless of what’s on in your title and description?

Try this out:

1) Go Google a term or phrase that you don’t know about, like elephant stomach.

2) Cross your eyes (or take off your glasses) such that the text on your monitor is too blurry to read, but not so much that your vision is doubled.

3) Look at the SERP. Since you can’t read the blurred text of the entries, the position (which you can still see) of the entries becomes the deciding factor on where you may click. Closer to the top is more relevant, right? Isn’t that for you to decide?

Now uncross your eyes and see the results like most humans do. What’s attractive and relevant now? Maybe result number one is best, and maybe not. The point is that now you aren’t clicking blind; now you have a choice, and the content you read, not necessarily the position of that content, is a big factor in where you click.

Basic SERP Template

First know this – Depending on what “decision” Google makes on relevancy, it may not always display the META-D that you define.

That said, here are some suggestions on how to write your titles and descriptions to maximize your SERP listing for clickability.

[1) Met Descriptions aren’t Dead] [2) – ] [3)]
[4) Feb 21, 2012 … META Descriptions are still critical to SEO. You’re reading mine now. Here’s
how you can optimize your META-D for clickability.] [5)]

[1) Page on Site] [2) Separator] [3) Site Name or URL]
[4) We have the product you want. This is who we are. Here’s a trust-building statement.
Brief elevator pitch. Quick deal or offer. Less than 160 characters.] [5) URL-that-matches-what’s-been-written-above]

[1) WHAT] [2) Separator] [3) WHO]
[4) WHY you should click here. WHY you should click here. WHY you should click here.
WHY you should click here. WHY you should click here.] [5) WHERE]


1) Let the visitor know what they’re going to be looking at. This should be similar to the H1 content on your page. Catchy and flashy take a backseat to accurate.

2) Separate your thoughts. Keep it neat and presentable. Matt Cutts says that pipes and hyphens are fine.

3) Tell your visitor who is responsible for this content. If you have a short URL like me, stick that in here. If your business name is more important than your URL, maybe use that.

4) This is the big one – your META-D. If your SERP entry is a book then this is everything between the table of contents and index. This is your chance to differentiate yourself from the entries above and below you. This is where your accurate, concise writing beats out black-hat, trick-of-the-week, $150 an hour SEO work. This is the human element that Google wants to understand. Make this count.

5) Make sure your site builds URLs that reflect your accurate and original content that is written for humans. Don’t bait and switch!

These are my thoughts and ideas on content, which I think should be written for humans rather than bots. I don’t claim that my ideas are right, but I do believe they point toward the natural and accurate way to develop and display content to visitors – and that’s what I think Google likes. I hope you’re able to make sense of my position and suggestions and put them to good use for your client or on your own site.

About Dean Peckenpaugh

Dean offers small business consulting services at DeanP, LLC - specializing in e-commerce and operations. Visit the contact page to request a consultation.