Meta descriptions are part of the smorgasbord of recommended SEO criteria but, sometimes, Google shows a different description in its search results to the one you specifically created, and it can be confusing if you don’t understand why. Let me explain why Google isn’t showing your meta description, how it’s a good thing, and what you can do to take advantage of it.
What is a Meta Description?
Meta descriptions are a short piece of text that describes the page. Meta descriptions are not displayed on the web page – they are written into the head section of a web page and act as a summary that is used by search engines. Historically, they were key to how a search engine understood what your web page was about, and were displayed in search results, but that isn’t what happens anymore.
So what does happen?
Well, if Google is not showing your meta description, there could several possible things going wrong, and some going exactly as they should.
Let’s assume you’ve done the basics so we can rule them out:
- You have specified a title or meta description for your page.
- The text of the meta description you set is neither too long nor too short.
- The meta description is in the page only once
If you’ve checked all of those, then it’s probably because Google will sometimes use the meta description that you set but, when it considers your meta description is not relevant, it will change the description it displays to the user. Google & Bing can select a different piece of text from your page to display, in place of your defined meta description, if it finds something that is more relevant to what the user searched for.
Yeah, but why does Google do that?
This is intended to ensure that what Google shows in its Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) is more relevant to what the user asked for, and what that user is expecting to find.
In fact, if Google isn’t showing your preferred meta description, it is probably doing you a favour. It means your meta wasn’t relevant enough to what their user searched for.
If the user’s search happens to match your chosen meta description, that’s great, your chosen meta description id doing its job and will probably get shown. But if the users’ search doesn’t match the text in your meta description, and something else on the page is a better fit, Google will select the text from your page that it decides is a better match to what the user wanted to see.
This not a bad thing.
It works in your favour and is also an (often untapped) opportunity for SEO.
After all, you don’t know what the person is looking for, but Google does, and showing them a stock meta description for every question is less optimal than a response that has been tailored to their enquiry.
How does this work?
The easiest way to explain how it works is to give an example.
At Narrative, we have a page for our BrightPearl Connector for WooCommerce. Brightpearl is a platform for managing multi-channel sales. Our connector is software that sits between a WooCommerce-based eCommerce website and Brightpearl where, amongst other things, it keeps orders & inventory synchronised.
The following example may be for software, but it applies equally to a hair salon, bike shop or online grocers – it’s just the example that I have to hand.
If someone is using Brightpearl to manage their company’s inventory & orders, and they want to connect their WooCommerce website to it, they will probably search on Google to find a connector. With any luck (and some good SEO), Google will display our page to them.
But, depending on exactly which words & phrasing were used to perform the search, Google might not show them our pre-defined meta description – Google might change what it displays to a different piece of text from our page; one that is more relevant to what that person searched for.
We can exploit that Google feature to gain an SEO advantage.
We expect most people who need this service to search for the keywords Brightpearl in conjunction with either WooCommerce or WordPress, so our default meta description targets those keywords and gets displayed like this in those type of searches.
But if they search for Brightpearl in conjunction with Experts and either WooCommerce OR WordPress, Google will pick a different piece of text from the page for the description, like this.
Notably, we don’t rank very well for Brightpearl experts – and we don’t want to rank for that because our expertise is in integration for eCommerce, NOT in the day-to-day use of Brightpearl as a business management system.
BUT, If a potential customer wants a specific benefit or feature from our product, like multiple shipping carriers, and Google can see that mentioned on your page, Google will pull out the relevant text from the page and show it to them.
So, simply making sure we provide the relevant information on our page, we can differentiate our service fro our competitors, provide potential customers with the answers they want, and Google will do the work of showing our product or service as relevant, at the point of need.
Yes, it is nice. With a little forethought, knowledge of SEO, and an understanding of your potential customers’ needs, this can be turned to your advantage. It’s kind-of holistic, but without the candles.
Google may not show the meta description you want, but it can show the description you need.
If you get it right, you have the opportunity to create short morsels of texts throughout a page that specifically target the benefits or features that your potential customers are looking for.
Google can then find your carefully written morsels and use them to display a more relevant description to your potential customers, when they perform a search.
There’s more to this, of course – we can’t give away all our secrets, but this information isn’t really an SEO secret.
From the earliest days of SEO, making sure you have the most relevant, useful information on your pages has been best practice. All that’s changed is that Google can now match elements of your page’s content with the needs of the people looking for them.