Meta descriptions (the text snippets of the Web page you see in search results) used to be an important ranking factor. Until not too long ago both Google and Yahoo! officially announced they no longer used meta descriptions in their search algorithms. But recent developments in Google's search algo bring meta description back to life as a ranking factor.
No, Google did not back out of their decision to discount meta descriptions as a ranking factor. However your site's search snippet can now significantly affect your rankings. Here's the deal.
Google and Personalized Search
Early this month Google announced that they would be tailoring everyone's search results based on their search history even when users are not signed into Google. Personalized results are nothing new on Google. The search giant has been customizing peoples SERPs (search engine results pages) for quite a while already, but until now it only happened when you searched while signed into your Google account. Today, signed in or not everybody gets personal results.
Here's How It Works
Whether you're signed in or not, all the searches you run on Google are stored in your browser cookies. This data is referred to as your 'Web History' and Google uses it to customize your search results. If you're not signed in, your Web History is stored for 180 days, then old data is replaced with new searches. If you're signed in, there's no time limit and you can manage you Web History. Either way the searches you run and sites you visit will affect your future search experience.
The sites you visit more often will be pushed higher in the search results on related queries. For example if you search for "cat food" and visit www.petfood.com, next time when you search for "dog food" you may see www.petfood.com in top 10 results even if it doesn't rank there in the general impersonalized search. You can tell that your search results have been personalized by the View customization link in the upper right hand corner.
The personalized search results can differ significantly from the general SERPs. I ran a couple of tests searching for related keywords and clicking the same site each time. I also checked this site's rankings with a rank checker to get a list of impersonalized rankings. In one of the tests a few click-throughs to a site pushed it 26 positions up on a highly competitive keyword. That is from the 31 position on page 4 straight to the 5th spot on the first page in personalized search results (I was signed out).
How Meta Descriptions Can Affect Your Google Rankings
Although meta descriptions are no longer part of the ranking algorithm, they can affect your site's positions in the personalized search results. Your meta description is a crucial factor that determines the CTR (click-through-rate) of your site in search results. The more compelling your description is, the more searchers will click it. When they click through to your site from search results this is recorded in their Web History. Next time they search for a product or service related to your site, it may appear high up in their personalized search results.
Since everybody now gets personalized results, the scope of the affect your meta descriptions have on your rankings can get really huge. That's another reason why you should invest some time into testing and optimizing your meta descriptions.
Meta Description Optimization
There's plenty of advice out there on writing compelling titles and descriptions, so I won't go there. Just keep in mind one thing. Google doesn't always show the meta description you provide. Sometimes it just compiles a random text snippet from your page that contains the keywords used in the query. But you can easily locate the keywords where your meta description shows up by searching for them on Google.
There's been a lot of criticism coming down on Google for introducing personal search to everybody. Some people are worried about privacy issues. Others don't like it because the whole concept will help the rich get richer and keep the small guy out of the game. And some SEOs are just whining that this makes SEO success harder to measure.
Although I don't think it is the best idea Google had either, I prefer to embrace it and run with it. And I suggest that you take this news as a call to action: A strong motivation to actually do something that's going to help your SEO, your sales and your business. And that is to take a look at your meta descriptions. Go and see how your Web site appears in the search results and find ways to improve it. With personalized search or without it, having a catchy compelling text in your search results snippet will get you more clicks, more traffic and more customers.