Update: Google’s Maile Ohye has Confirmed my hypothesis that META descriptions do NOT affect relevancy. But please, still read this post to learn about testing SEO.
Last week after SMX, Alan Bleiweiss started running a META Description Test to see whether or not the META description has any affect on search engine rankings in Google.
The article generated lots of comments, and several SEOs (including Jill Whalen) argued that the META description does affect rankings. Somebody even claimed that Google employee Maile Ohye even said so at SES Toronto, but I was unable to verify this claim. For years, my theory has been otherwise.
From my experience, the best way to come up with a hypothesis for an SEO test is to do just that – think of things from Google’s point of view. This is where knowing how to program can greatly benefit an SEO. Ask yourself “if I were coding a search engine, would this make sense? Would it make my results more useful? How could it be spammed? How would I do it? Is it robust? Does it Scale?” You’ll find that answering those questions from an engine’s point of view will almost never steer you wrong with regard to SEO theory.
I didn’t believe that META descriptions affected rank so I decided to join in with a test of my own. We had just finished listening to a panel talk about testing SEO so testing was still fresh in my mind. I also wanted to keep the test as scientific as possible, so here’s what I did:
I then changed the META description of an already established site to also include a different unique phrase. The reason I did this is because Jill argued that new pages and old pages may be treated differently – so I didn’t want any bias in my data.
I then planted several links to both of the sites on various blogs, including the test post you see below this one (which will be removed in a few days.)
On the existing page, Google re-visited the page rather quickly and updated its cache. On the new page, it took just about 24 hours. That was several days ago and the spiders have been back several times since then.
After several days of waiting, neither the new page nor the old page rank for the unique phrases contained solely within their META descriptions. You can verify that by clicking the two “unique phrase” links above.
No matter what I tried, I was not able to make a page rank solely based upon its meta description.
Do some sites appear to rank for the text in their descriptions? Most likely, but we can’t confuse that correlation with causation.
If your site is properly optimized, the terms and phrases contained within your META description will also be the same terms and phrases used both on your site and in links to your site. Several tests have shown that when people see their search terms in titles and descriptions they tend to click through at higher frequencies (just ask your paid search people about this one!) Therefore, it’s a very common strategy to use the same wording in META descriptions as on the site – which then causes people to use that same wording in links.
Also, when it comes to sites who haven’t changed their META descriptions in a while, a funny thing happens. people scrape that content and use it on their spammy sites. Those people even sometimes link that scraped description back to the original site. In that case, it’s very possible that a site would appear to rank for terms contained within the meta description, but it may not actually be because of the meta description.
I’m glad that my test shows what I thought it would show – not simply because I enjoy being right, but because META descriptions are very easy to spam.
In most cases, Google doesn’t actually use the META description you provided. They prefer instead to use a snippet of text taken off of the page. It all goes back to the same “increase clickthrough when your terms appear” idea mentioned above. This means that users very rarely see the meta description you provide. Google has long said that they don’t like to rank sites based on factors that don’t appear to users (see META keywords) as they often invite spam.
So there’s the results – please leave your insights, comments, or observations in the comments. Also, please run your own tests if you feel fit. I’d love to see your results and compare your findings with my own.