The use of meta description tags as a method of optimizing a site's placement in search engines has, for the most part, fallen by the wayside. If nothing else, it's not considered nearly as important as it once was in SEO.
Google, by far the world's largest search engine, says it does not take meta descriptions into account in its algorithm at all. Bing, its biggest compeition in the United States, is a bit more ambiguous about its use of meta descriptions as a ranking/relevance signal but it's safe to say that the tag no longer carries the influence it once did. Meta descriptions still play a role in the user experience, but how do search engines treat them? Let's find out.
In order to get an idea of how meta descriptions are treated by Google and Bing, Website Magazine developed a study that looks at various keywords and the results the queries yielded on each search engine. After studying the top ten listings for each keyword on each engine, we crunched the data to see which websites utilized meta descriptions and how those meta descriptions were treated by Google and Bing.
The three keywords searched were "holiday coupons," "Florida golf vacation" and "new Chicago restaurants." We then looked at each site to see if it included a meta description, and then how those descriptions were attended to in the search result description. Exact matches are noted when the content of the meta description is rendered verbatim in the search result description; "partial" matches are when just part of the meta description is included in the search description with other content; and if the content of the meta description does not appear in the search description, it was, obviously, not considered a match at all.
On Google, nine of the top ten websites appearing in the search results for "holiday coupons," or 90 percent, included meta descriptions. Just four of the nine sites with meta descriptions listed at Google, about 45 percent, had exact matches of the meta description used by the sites themselves. Of the remaining, two (or 22 percent) were "partial" matches, including the top result, and three, or 33 percent, didn't match at all. The number of exact match meta descriptions on Bing was a bit more positive. A full 90 percent included meta descriptions on their pages, but of those nine, eight (or approximately 89 percent) were exact matches. The other one was not a match at all.
- Google: 90 percent of top 10 results included meta descriptions. 45 percent were exact matches, 22 percent were "partial" matches, and 33 percent did not match.
- Bing: 90 percent of the top 10 results included meta descriptions. 89 percent were exact matches and 11 percent did not match.
Florida Golf Vacation
Google's top 10 results for "Florida golf vacation" saw a full 100 percent of websites using meta descriptions. What's more, only one, or ten pecent, did not match the site's description tag with the search result description. Interestingly, while the other 90 percent saw the meta descriptions match the search result descriptions verbatim, the vast majority (78 percent) were cut off in the search results - as a result of utliizing too many characters within the meta description of the page listed on the search result page. It is important to remember that Google limits descriptions to 156 characters; so definitely craft a description that fits within that limitation. The results were very similar on Bing. Again all of the top ten results included meta descriptions in their coding, and 80 percent of them were word-for-word matches with the search result descriptions. As far as meta description limits go on Bing, you're allowed 150 characters to have your whole message displayed comfortably. This means that, assuming you're going to be optimizing for both major search engines, 150 characters should probably be your max.
- Google: 100 percent of the top 10 results included meta descriptions. 90 percent were exact matches and 10 percent did not match.
- Bing: 100 percent of the top 10 results included meta descriptions. 80 percent of them were exact matches and 20 percent did not match.
New Chicago Restaurants
Like the others, this keyword yielded promising results on both engines, at least for those who are adamant about the use of meta descriptions. On Google, nine of the top ten results featured meta descriptions. Of that, 45 percent were exact matches with the search result descriptions. Just one did not match and the other 45 percent were "partial" matches, meaning some of the content from the meta description was included in the search result description. Bing also saw a full 90 percent of the top ten results with meta descriptions in their code. Over half (56 percent) of those were exact matches, while 33 percent were partial matches and just 11 percent did not match at all.
- Google: 90 percent of the top 10 results included meta descriptions. 45 percent were exact matches, 45 percent were "partial" matches and 10 percent did not match.
- Bing: 90 percent of the top 10 results included meta descriptions. 56 percent were exact matches, 33 percent were "partial" matches and 11 percent did not match.
What Does It Mean?
It seems that, if nothing else, websites continue to use meta descriptions because, well, "Why not?" it seems they aren't being penalized for including them, and when you customize the meta description tag, you have an opporunity to control the degree of appeal for users.
The numbers on both search engines were eerily comparable, although this was definitely compounded by the fact that many sites made an appearance in the top ten spots on both Google and Bing. If anything, Bing appears to be slightly more likely to include a verbatim rendering of the meta description in the search result description, but the difference is marginal, at best.