Google Selectively Ignoring Meta Description Tags?

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I’ve been doing some SEO Consulting with Safeguard Financial, a company specializing in Self Directed IRA’s. As I was chatting with them today, they pointed out something odd that I’ve never seen before.

On their home page, they’ve used the following meta description tag:

<meta name=”description” content=”The Value Leader in Self Directed IRA, Real Estate IRA, Checkbook IRA, Solo 401(k) and IRA Business funding plans. LOW COST GUARANTEE.” />

If you do a Google Search for Self Directed IRA’s, you should find their website http://www.ira123.com on Page 1 with that particular Meta Description.

However, it was pointed out to me that if you do a Google Search for Self Directed IRA LLC (a very relevant search term in the space), Google ignores the meta description tag and shows the following snippet that appears on the home page.

Investment Real Estate is one of the more popular options for using a Self-Directed IRA, otherwise known as a Real Estate IRA or Self Directed IRA LLC. …

Other searches such as “self directed ira allowed investments” and “self directed ira investing rules” behave similarly. But if I do a search for “self directed ira business funding” (words fully contained in the meta description tag), I get the tag to show verbatim.

A long time ago, I wrote about why I think meta description tags suck…mostly because if the user query didn’t map to the language of the tag, the meta tag would decrease the likelihood of the visitor going to the site. In almost all cases, I would favor Google’s snippet over a “limiting” meta description tag.

However, what I’m seeing here is that Google is algorithmically deciding whether the meta description tag sucks or not based upon how well the user query maps to the tag. If it sucks, they’ll show a relevant text snippet. If it’s good, they’ll show the tag verbatim.

If my theory is correct, Google is removing the risk of using meta description tags that perhaps don’t map to all possible search engine queries. This certainly offers a better user experience (making the SERPS clearer for searchers) as well as a better SEO / Webmaster experience (solving the problem of having to writing meta description tags that map to all possible user intents which is impossible).

Bravo Matt!

Todd Mintz is the Director of Internet Marketing & Information Systems for S.R. Clarke Inc. He also is on the Board of Directors at SEMpdx, runs his own side gigs and tweets quite a bit.

Todd Mintz
Todd Mintz knows PPC...knows Social Media...knows SEO...knows Blogging...knows Domaining...and knows them all real well. He is also a Director & Founding Member of SEMpdx: Portland, Oregon's Search Engine Marketing Association.
  • http://www.smtusa.com Brent

    Matt – We have been seeing this for quite some time. Google is determining the “best” snippet to display based on either the provided meta description tag or from the actual page content.

    What will be interesting is with Google’s longer snippet test (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/03/two-new-improvements-to-google-results.html). Industry thought is that the meta description tag may go by the way side just like the meta keyword tag.

  • Brent

    Sorry Todd. Had Matt in my head from the end of the post.

  • http://holisticsearch.co.uk Peter Young

    Think this has been rolled out into mainstream results as off a couple of weeks ago on 3 phrase + queries

    I have included the link to the post I did on Marketing Pilgrim for reference

    http://www.marketingpilgrim.com/2009/03/google-rolls-out-longer-snippets-and-new-search-refinements.html

  • http://www.parkblvdmarketing.com Cara Mia Ciasulli

    This is exactly why we take *lots of extra time with our sites to include the highest volume keywords / phrases as pertaining to the page content that we write (also crafted with keyword research in mind) in the description meta.

  • http://searchengineland.com Danny Sullivan

    I don’t see what’s new here.

    The exact phrase “Self Directed IRA LLC” doesn’t appear in the meta description tag, so Google instead forms a snippet by looking for the first reference containing all those words on the page.

    That’s how Google’s handled descriptions for years. If you want your meta description to show when a page is found for a particular search phrase, make sure the words of that phrase are in the meta description tag.

    For “self directed ira allowed investments,” I do get the meta description tag used — at least for the first part of the description. Then I get a snippet from elsewhere on the page, where another of the two words show.

    The meta description tag has never meant Google would absolutely use what’s in it to make a description for a listing. It can help, of course.

  • http://www.srclarke.com Todd Mintz

    Danny, clearly you know more about this than I do but I can’t find any reference anywhere that talked about Google changing it’s “meta description tag” behavior from what it used to be to what it currently is.

    Here’s a post from the Webmaster Central blog that talks about writing good meta descriptions that curiously skips over how they handle them: http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2007/09/improve-snippets-with-meta-description.html

    Most of the other references to Google’s handling meta description tags that I can find are at least 3 years old.

  • http://www.staygolinks.com/ Barry Welford

    The Google description of how it creates snippets even leaves open the possibility that it might include text from other web pages from which back links may start. Given the longer snippets for long-tail keyword searches and also personalized search results, it becomes even more difficult to do analyses like this.

    Although the main guidelines are still relevant, secondary issues now just contribute to the information overload that web analytics can so easily create.

  • http://www.floridahomeloanreport.com Kevin Sandridge

    Hey now! This is very cool! Cutts to the rescue! Sure helps to keep some of the “black box” -ness out of SEO! Thanks for the heads up! :)

  • Mary

    Afaik, this has been used for quite awhile – and makes sense. Looking at it from an average users standpoint, Google is pointing out “Hey! Check this out, this site is actually using your exact text string and I think it’s very relevant to what you are looking for.” Like you said, it is a usability feature. It takes some guess work out for the user.

    If anything, this just reinforces the importance of writing natural-language text and using lots of synonyms and word combinations for your targeted terms.

  • http://seoaware.com Melissa Fach

    I am with Danny on this one.

  • http://www.dvdrepairtips.com DVD Repair Tips

    Yeah I vote for the Danny guy too!.
    If the search term matches the meta description closely then Google displays the tag. If not then it displays a snippet from the page.

  • http://www.twitter.com/datguygabe Gabe Gayhart

    Yeah I concur with Danny – Google has been doing this for at least a couple of years to my recollection. Granted years kinda morph together, but it’s been awhile. I am just amazed this is a fresh topic on Search Engine Journal. Google is merely serving the most relevant content to the searcher per their keyword inquiry.

  • http://www.bestwebimage.com Rob

    I would have to agree with Danny Sullivan. Google is simply trying to show why it has come up with the results that it has. In a way, your results may even point the opposite direction, that Google gives priority to the Meta description, but will use site content if the result is not 100% relevant.

  • http://www.builddirect.com Rob Woods

    We’ve been seeing this activity for several weeks at least. It’s occuring for us for any 2+ word phrases. My testing shows that it’s happening for our more popular keywords where all the terms in the query are not represented in the title tag or meta description of the page.

  • mike

    Really SEJ??? Are there any search marketing related sites out there anymore that don’t just recycle old content as new content?????

  • Brian

    I saw this issue crop up a few weeks ago as well for a two word search. The phrase is the first word in the meta description, and is mentioned a couple more times in there yet Google is using a sentence from the content. Have the exact match in the meta used to always cause Google to display that. Not anymore for some reason…

  • http://www.idiotechnica.com spazdaq

    Its annoying when you spend time setting up a system to generate dynamic meaningful descriptions for each page and see google forgo it in favor of the global nav menu.

  • Matt

    What about when Google doesn’t use the meta description but also doesn’t use a snippet – it doesn’t list any text at all. Anyone know why it does this?

  • http://www.catfish.cc Catfish

    The key is for competitive keyword phrases, if the phrase is used in the Meta description, then the snippet will be pulled from there. Otherwise if the keyword is not found there, the description may be pulled from page content.

    BUT, for long tail keyword phrases, the description tag is not used, the snippets are noticably longer in terms of what Google displays, and the snippets are constructed from segments of text that are found in source and relevant to the query.

    It just depends on the query. The same way that competitive keywords are not ranked the same way as long tail keywords are ranked.