Search Engine Journal posted an article about this topic recently that I believe gets it wrong. Their basic premise is that meta descriptions are not a ranking factor when it comes to Google’s search algorithm.
Many of the conclusions the writer of this article comes to are to validate existing SEO theories — mainly, that the description itself is not important and easily manipulated, both by content writers as well as Google themselves.
What is a Meta Description?
A meta description is an HTML tag used by content management systems to describe what a web page is about. This allows search engines to understand the intent of the article and then match that article’s content to a person doing a related search about the topic.
Search engines use this description to provide a preview of the article in search results (SERPs) when a user is looking for information. Our own article’s meta description looks like this:
Normally, SEO plugins and website tools like WordPress, Square Space, Wix, etc, give you the ability to create the meta description and tell the search engine in your own words, what you are writing about. But if no meta description has been specified, search engines will display copy from the page itself as an alternative.
People Matter when it comes to Search Intent
SEJ references articles written in 2009 and 2011 as two primary sources of the conclusions. The biggest evidence is attributed to a study from 2020 that dives into Google re-writing the meta descriptions to more accurately reflect the purpose of the content they are indexing. This is a GOOD thing and not a bad one for both the content creator as well as their audience.
Google wants to make sure your content (and meta descriptions), along with the value it brings to a potential website visitor, are aligned. This is in keeping with their North Star of satisfying user search intent from the search query they type into the box.
Google wants to connect your search query to the content most likely to satisfy your need. And if your description isn’t aligned with the content, then website owners should write better descriptions to better reflect what is behind their links.
If I were interested in learning how important meta descriptions were to my Google rankings, I’d probably click it.
Meta Descriptions Indirectly Affect Your On-Page SEO Metrics
The other big thing to keep in mind is that the description is what humans read when they decide whether to click a link. It’s that tiny blurb you see about the article in the search results (see my comment below with the description for the SEJ article). The more indicative it is of the content behind that link, the more likely your link gets clicked.
Getting a user to click your content link is the first big hurdle. After that, having great content that causes users to stick around and explore your website, products, services, etc, further, is the next big step all businesses must take.
Google Analytics measures all these things with organic traffic counts, bounce rates, average session times, pages/session, etc. The more people click on your link, stay on the page for longer session times to read your content, and then explore more pages within your website, the better it is for your business and the higher you’ll rank.
And guess what? That all comes back to your meta description in search results. Even if your description keywords don’t technically factor into Google’s algorithm (which I doubt), they absolutely indirectly affect the other metrics that do.