[Podcast] How important are meta descriptions and does Google even use them?

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I’m the first to admit that I’ve slacked on writing meta descriptions for some of my 1,100-plus articles on here over the years. Sometimes, I remember to write them and when I’m writing in the mobile WordPress app it’s just too hard to even do. An excuse, I know.

But are meta descriptions even necessary? Should we spend our time writing them? This episode of my podcast and this accompanying article discuss that topic.

Green lights for SEO and readability When I write articles directly in a web browser, the Yoast plugin prompts me to write a meta description. See, Yoast is an SEO tool that measures the readability and SEO friendliness of my content. When everything checks out, it gives two green lights. I want those green lights whenever I can.

In the back end, it tells you why the lights aren’t green, yet, one possible reason being the meta description. Once you add a good meta description the light often turns green.

Here’s how the meta description field looks:

Meta description in Yoast

Depending on what system you use, this might look different. But adding a meta description has always been mentioned as necessary. After all, this is the content that shows on Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs) and can entice people to click.

Do meta descriptions actually show on SERPs?

I noticed this a while ago on some projects. The actual written, hard coded meta description didn’t always seem to show on Google. To make it more interesting, some of my highest ranking articles don’t even have meta descriptions that I wrote.

Michal Pecanek
Michal Pecanek

Could it be that Google picks different sections of the copy for results pages to align more to the perceived intent of the searcher? There was a chance and Michal Pecanek of ahrefs looked into this further and analyzed thousands of meta descriptions.

You can read his study here and he also joined me on Episode 185 of the Business Storytelling Podcast to discuss the topic. You can listen to that here or wherever you listen to podcasts.

I did find it interesting to learn that Google indeed does not use the handcrafted meta descriptions over 60 percent of the time. It makes sense to a degree. I try to hit certain keywords in my content and meta descriptions. And sometimes that same content also applies to other searches and ranks for those. It’s virtually impossible for the content creator to write different versions for all potential searches. So Google picks what it thinks works best.

About a quarter of the top ranking sites don’t even have written meta descriptions, Michal found.

“Meta descriptions are neither important nor completely useless,” Michal said on the podcast.

Read next: Your accidental SEO strategy worked, now what…

One idea might be to check what other terms – aside from the one you were trying to go after – your content ranks for. I usually use Google Search Console to do that.

Should we still be writing meta descriptions?

Michal said yes in summary of his study, and adding on the podcast that this should take a minimal amount of time. I agree. From a writing perspective, the meta description – given it should be between 55-160 characters, forces the content creators to be brief and get to the point.

Meta descriptions may show up on Google pages, they also can help the writer focus the content. In shorter than a tweet, tell me what the content is about.

Excerpts on the homepageI usually write my meta descriptions first for that reason. I also use them as excerpts – which is a different field in WordPress. The excerpts show on the homepage.

Meta descriptions wrap

Of course, everything in digital marketing continues to evolve so it’s no surprise that Google rewrites some meta descriptions. If it helps our content be more relevant to the searcher, that’s not a bad thing.

Where does the content for the rewritten meta descriptions come from? Michal said Google simply picks other sections of the existing content to highlight in the meta description field that searchers see.

It can make it a bit tricky when you try to pull up a Google search that your content is ranking for a boss or client. They may not like the Google generated rewrite, but of course, you can just explain that Google does that to make your content even more relevant.

[Tweet “Higher relevance means that more people may click.”]

It’s probably good to keep writing them, but there are other SEO tasks that are more important to focus on. Michal mentioned these to get started:

  • SEO health of your site. Can it be indexed? All the SEO tasks in the world won’t help if you have your site set to no index.
  • Satisfying search engine needs. Create content that people are searching for. You can use tools like the ahrefs keyword explorer to do keyword research

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