Search Engines Evaluating Snippets in SERPS

Meta descriptions for web pages likely don’t influence the rankings of your web pages in search results. But if your meta descriptions include keywords that your pages might be found for, they may be displayed in search results with links to those pages. If those meta descriptions are interesting and engaging, and provide the right information, they may influence people who view them and are interested in what you offer to visit your pages.

When someone searches at a search engine, they are usually presented with a list of search results, often referred to as SERPS – search engine result pages, that can include page titles, abstracts or snippets from those pages, and URLs from the pages. The abstracts or snippets may sometimes be part or all of the meta descriptions for the pages, if the meta descriptions contain the keyword or keywords used by searchers in their queries.

But, a seach engine might just as easily take that snippet from somewhere else on the page returned in search results.

If you spend a fair amount of time trying to find the right words to use in those meta descriptions, you may want to think about what might snippets appear when your pages show up in search results and the search engines don’t use those painfully and carefully crafted meta descriptions.

If I look up “nine inch nails,” I’m shown the following result:

search results for a Google search for [nine inch nails].

If I expand my query to include Trent Reznor’s last name -”nine inch nails reznor” – I’m shown a completely different snippet for the same page:

search results for a Google search for [nine inch nails reznor].

As you’re writing or editing the text for pages of your web site, you may want to think about, or see what queries people might be using, or may try to use to find your web pages. Better snippets shown in search results may mean more visitors to your pages. It may be worth editing some of your copy to see if you can increase the number of visitors to those pages.

Search Engines and Meaningful Snippets

Search engines also have an interest in showing snippets that meaningfully describe the pages that they list in their search results. One reason why they might not show a meta description as a snippet is that it doesn’t contain one of the keywords used in a searcher’s query, like in my [nine inch nails reznor] query above.

Search engines would like to be perceived as returning meaningful and relevant results to searchers, and if the snippets that they show don’t reflect that the pages they are returning in SERPS are relevant for the queries used to find them, people may use another search engine or perform a different search. For that reason, search engines also try to evaluate the search results that they return to searchers.

A Yahoo patent application published this week tells us a little about some of the methods that they use in evaluating the search results and snippets that they show to searchers. The patent application is at:

Search Summary Result Evaluation Model Methods and Systems
Assigned to Yahoo
Invented by Tapas Kanungo and David M. Orr
US Patent Application 20090187516
Published July 23, 2009
Filed January 18, 2008

Abstract

Methods and systems are provided herein for establishing and/or using an evaluation model that is adapted to determine a model judgment value based, at least in part, on measured summary feature values associated with a search result summary. The evaluation model may be established through a learning process based, at least in part, on human judgment values associated with a set of search result summaries.

The patent filing doesn’t go into a lengthy discussion about how the search engine might choose one string of text over another to display in place of a meta description. It doesn’t yield the answer to the question of when a search engine will sometimes choose to use a title from DMOZ or the Yahoo Directory rather than the title of the page defined by the publisher of that page using a title element.

It does tell us that it will look carefully at the page title, the snippet, and the URL that it displays for a page to see if the words used in a query that found the page are included within those titles, snippets, and URLs.

The patent also tells us that it may use a search result summary evaluator to try to show the best search results that it can. This evaluator uses a machine learning training system, which takes a set of human reviewed search results for a number of entries, and tries to learn from those reviews so that the search engine can then create search results for other pages in an automated fashion.

In breaking down the different processes within the patent filing, the inventors discuss some aspects of that human training:

As part of the learning stage, at block 202, a data set of search result summaries may be established.

For example, one or more queries may be provided to a search engine to generate a set of search result summaries. Such queries may or may not be related.

At block 204, at least one user judgment value may be established for each search result summary. Here, for example, users may be presented with one or more search result summaries and asked to evaluate and score each search result summary with regard to some criteria (e.g., relevance to a search query or topic, or informative nature, etc.).

Such user judgment values may be more subjective and/or objective. Such user judgment values may represent an average of user judgment values from a plurality of users.

This training system may use a database to learn from where it collects sets of information about “queries, summaries, and user judgments,” to evaluate the search results it creates.

There is some information about the kind of features that the search engine might consider important in creating search result displays for pages. These may include such things as the “presence, style, location, and/or order of terms or portions thereof as presented within a search query.”

The adjacency or proximity of query terms may also play a role in the evaluation by the search engine of the quality of their search results:

Further, the location or proximity of two or more query terms or portions thereof with regard to one another (e.g., closeness or separation) in the title may be measured, as may the ordering of such terms in the title.

For example, a search result summary may be perceived by a user to be more relevant if the terms in the title are more proximate in their respective location and/or the more correctly ordered with respect to their order in the original query.

If there is a “perfect” or substantial match of the original query terms (e.g., to the left, in the correct order, etc.) in the title, then measuring such may help to determine how relevant the search result summary may be perceived by a user.

Conclusion

This patent filing covers how a search engine might evaluate its own search results as they appear to searchers in SERPs, rather than telling us what it is looking for when it ranks pages to display in those search results.

It may hint at some things that may go into how a search engine might determine the relevancy of pages, but that isn’t the focus of the patent filing.

If you’re concerned about what shows up as a snippet for your pages in search results when a search engine decides to use something other than your meta description, you may want to spend some time reading through the patent application, as well as thinking about which terms and phrases your pages show up for in search results, and seeing what actually shows up as search results for those pages.

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32 thoughts on “Search Engines Evaluating Snippets in SERPS”

  1. Pingback: marshal sandler (msandler) 's status on Saturday, 25-Jul-09 02:38:09 UTC - Identi.ca
  2. Pingback: marshal sandler (msandler) 's status on Saturday, 25-Jul-09 02:38:40 UTC - Identi.ca
  3. Great article, I was reading something else on this the other day and its a good thing to know when optimizing your pages. Thanks for the info.

  4. This snippet presentation is new to me. I thought Google either accepted your description or didn’t. I have had success with them accepting mine each time, but gonna have to experiment with different search queries and see.

  5. I am finding that as my site evolves with posts exploring certain topics related to the main theme of the site, search queries are changing as the search engines find my posts relevant. It seems then crafting snippets to meet future query trends should be given consideration, or otherwise we will be going back to edit data all too often. I guess with this information, it shows us that it pays to focus on trends developing in our analytics, particularly with the long tail, since that may be where more conversions take place. Now I have to go back to evaluate some snippets.

  6. The point here is that it takes so little time to set up. Even if the results are weak they’re still results you get almost for free. Why neglect that?

  7. It’s unfortunate how many web designers do not take the time to do some basic SEO like meta tags. When a SE finds some type of relative match in the meta title, meta description and the page text, your chances have just improved to get that web page displayed in a SERP. As you pointed out, adding the description gives you a chance to dictate to the SE what to write about your page in the snippet. Sometimes the SE will make their own snippet like you said Bill, but at least by adding one of your own you sometimes get it listed exactly the way you wanted it. That’s interesting that Yahoo is doing this too.

  8. Hi Gareth,

    I suspect that the majority of snippets that show up in search results are ones that are automated by the search engines rather than being taken from meta descriptions, especially for pages that show up in search results for long tail searches on pages that were optimized for more popular terms.

  9. Hi Frank,

    Good points. This is an area where using analytics can show us some things we can take action upon that might help. In addition to the idea of looking at queries that deliver people to pages that may not have been specifically optimized for those terms, exploring which terms bring people to previous posts may inspire some ideas for new posts.

  10. Hi Bajki,

    Yes, and sometimes even small changes can make a big difference – such as rewriting a sentence or two from an older post, so that if it is being used as a snippet by a search engine, it may be more likely that people will visit after those edits.

  11. Hi Mal,

    I would like to see more designers pay attention to SEO as they develop and update sites. I believe all of the major search engines have been paying attention to meta descriptions for a fair amount of time, though I’m not sure if they ever used meta description content to determine the relevancy of a page for specific terms or phrases. However, it can be worth writing a strong meta description, especially after making an effort to try to focus upon a specific term or phrase within the content of a page. If the meta description is what searchers see in search results, it can mean the difference between whether they visit or don’t.

  12. Thanks for the insight on what yahoo is moving forward with. This really post really shows the importance for web designers to include insightful meta descriptions as part of their best practice. But at the same time seeing how search engines will use a snippet in place of an established description poses a new dilemma because it makes it harder track the effectiveness of our descriptions.

  13. I recently found a website lazulijewelry.com that was pulling a snippet from Dmoz, and I was intrigued and confused… Great breakdown once again Bill

  14. Hi Buddhacom,

    You’re welcome. You raise some good points. Meta descriptions may not get your pages to rank higher, but those descriptions just might convince more people to visit your pages when they read them.

    Here’s one thought on tracking the effectiveness of snippets that are generated by search engines that you may attempt to improve upon. If you look in Google’s webmaster tools for a site, it does show some of the phrases that may be delivering traffic to your pages. Some of those phrases may not be the ones that those pages where optimized for, and the meta description may include only a few, or even none of the words in those phrases. I think it’s interesting to look at what snippet shows up for those, and to see if the snippet can be improved by editing that content. If the volume of traffic based upon those changes increases, it might be due in part to rewriting sentences and content where words from those queries appeared.

  15. Hi Joel,

    Thanks. The search engines will sometimes pull descriptions or titles from other resources such as DMOZ and Yahoo if they think those help to create a better snippet. We’re told that by Microsoft in The Influence of Caption Features on Clickthrough Patterns in Web Search (pdf), which I highly recommend you read if you’re interested in some good ideas on creating good snippets. Here’s a quote from that paper:

    Different caption generation algorithms might select snippets of different lengths from different areas of a page. Snippets may be generated in a query-independent fashion, providing a summary of the page as a whole, or in a query-dependent fashion, providing a summary of how the page relates to the query terms. The correct choice of snippet may depend on aspects of both the query and the result page. The title may be taken from the HTML header or extracted from the body of the document [8]. For links that re-direct, it may be possible to display alternative URLs. Moreover, for pages listed in human-edited Web directories such as the Open Directory Project1, it may be possible to display alternative titles and snippets derived from these listings.

    When these alternative snippets, titles and URLs are available, the selection of an appropriate combination for display may be guided by their features. A snippet from a Web directory may consist of complete sentences and be less fragmentary than an extracted snippet. A title extracted from the body may provide greater coverage of the query terms. A URL before re-direction may be shorter and provide a clearer idea of the final destination.

    Note that they refer to the combination of title, snippet, and URL together as they appear in search results as a “caption.”

    Matt Cutts also wrote a little about Google using DMOZ information in search results here:

    Google supports META NOODP tag

  16. I really do appreciate how you take all of these complicated abstracts and explain them plainly. I feel smarter when I leave your site.

  17. Hi jlbraaten,

    Thank you very much for your kind words. I find that going through patents and trying to put them in plain English is one of the best ways for me to learn what they include. And the chance to discuss them here adds to that significantly, so thank you in return.

  18. This is especially the case when you are trying to attract visitors to an ecommerce site and you are hoping to attract the type of customer who will convert to a sale not just a person who is looking for info on a given subject

  19. Hi Jimmy,

    Yes, a good snippet may lead a potential customer to a site with an expectation that the site will meet that visitor’s needs. If the site does, then it’s one step closer to converting to a sale.

  20. Hi SJL Web Design,

    Thanks. Don’t give up on meta descriptions yet. They really can make a difference in whether or not someone clicks on a search result.

  21. Description don’t influence to the rankings, but probably it can influence also to SI (suplemental index). I’m not sure, but i think that subpages without description or with duplicate description easier fall into SI

  22. Hi Adi,

    I do believe that Google still does have a supplemental or extended index, even though it’s been a while since Google removed the “supplemental index” label from results they show. Their justification for removing that was that they were updating those supplemental results much more frequently than they had in the past. From what I’ve seen in the past, I do think that things like having the same meta description for more than one page may make it more likely that those pages can end up in a supplemental index.

  23. Can anyone point me to a good algorithm for snippet selection, which is totally query driven?

  24. Hi N,

    Byt “totally query driven,” I’m guess that you mean that the algorithm should focus upon matching the query terms used to find that page, rather than one that might be descirptive of the contents of the page overall. The major commercial search engines don’t usually provide the details of their algorithms in full in most instances, but we can get some ideas from places like the patent filing mentioned in my post above.

  25. This is an interesting one but I also think you could go absolutely crazy trying to optimise for such things. I think it’s something like 20% of all queries made to Google on a given day are unique i.e. they’ve never been made before.

    Frank makes a good point about long-tail, searching for patterns within Analytics is the optimal way to optimise for more long-tail queries, true. But I also think it’s just as important maintain a ntural flow and writing style.

  26. Hi Chris,

    It’s always important to maintain a natural flow and writing style, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t make intelligent choices based upon using words that people who are likely searching for what you offer may use in their queries and may expect to see on the pages of your site. Analytics can be helpful, and including synonyms and other related words in your content can bring you a long way towards having a chance of ranking well for some of those long-term queries.

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