Why a Search Engine Might Choose Something Other Than Meta Descriptions for Page Summaries in Search Results

A misconception about web pages that lingered for a long time on the Web was that most people who visit your web site will enter your site on your home page. Another one is that the meta description you choose for a page will usually be what a search engines shows as the snippet, or summary, for your page in search results.

Search engines have made it a lot easier for a visitor to enter your site at pages other than your home page. And the summary, or description snippet, that those search engines provide about pages listed in search results are more likely to be taken from text on your page that matches the query terms used to find your page, especially if your meta description doesn’t include that text.

You’ve created a web page, carefully chosen a title for that page that carefully describes the contents of that page, and uses a keyword phrase that you hope your audience will use to try to find the page. You created a meta description for the page that is persuasive, engaging, and (you hope) likely to convince visitors to click on the link to your page when they see it in search results.

How likely is it that a search engine will show your page title and your meta description when your page does show up in search results?

The snippet that a search engine might display for a page in search results may come from content on your page instead of from your meta description. Keep that in mind when writing sentences that contain important phrases that your page might be found for in search results.

Yahoo Research on Page Titles and Search Snippets

Tapas Kanungo was one of four researchers from Yahoo last year who published a paper describing how that search engine might choose what to display as a page title in search results, in Web Search Result Summarization: Title Selection Algorithms and User Satisfaction. In that paper, we are told that there are a number of potential sources that all of the major search engines might consider as candidate choices for use as the title display for a page, including:

  • HTML title,
  • Anchor text,
  • Internal anchor text,
  • Open directory page title,
  • Various HTML headline titles on the page,
  • Yahoo! directory page title,
  • Etc.

The paper was interesting for a couple of reasons. One of them is its description of how a search engine might choose a title to display for pages in search results. The second is that it notes that Tapas Kanungo is now at Microsoft, which seems to be a future home for other Yahoo search engineers. His home page at Kanungo.com tells us that he is now a Principal Applied Scientist at Microsoft’s Bing R&D Division. It also tells us that he proposed and was the tech lead for the machine learning process used to create summaries for search results at Yahoo, serving approximately 3 billion queries a month.

Search engines will sometimes use the meta description that a publisher has created for a web page as the summary used to describe the page, especially if it contains the query terms used to find that page. But, it’s just as likely that a search engine will decide to create a summary based upon content found within the page instead. Especially if the words used in the query the page showed up for in search results aren’t included in the meta description.

While a meta description describes the content of a page, a snippet or summary in search results for a page often tries to let searchers know why a page is being shown to them, by displaying text from a page that contains the keywords they used to search for that page.

In addition to the white paper on title selection for search results, Tapas Kanungo wrote some other papers that provide some more insights into processes that may have been involved in creating a machine learning summarization process:

He is also listed as an inventor on a couple of Yahoo patent applications that I wrote about in the past, in my posts:

Those posts give us some hints as to why a search engine might choose the sentences that they do when deciding upon a snippet to display in search results. Another Yahoo patent application published this week which was co-authored by Tapas Kanungo adds an important detail in that selection, describing something called a “utility metric,” which measures a number of different factors. The patent application is:

Generation of Search Result Abstracts
Invented by Tapas Kanungo, Jan Pedersen, and Tamas Sarlos
Assigned to Yahoo! Inc
US Patent Application 20100057710
Published March 4, 2010
Filed: August 28, 2008

The utility metric that might be used to determine which sentence or sentences, or parts of sentences, might be displayed as a summary of a page in search results may look at factors such as:

  • How readable the phrase is,
  • How relevant the phrase is to the query,
  • How relevant the phrase is to the page it appears upon,
  • How long the phrase is,
  • Combinations of the above and/or
  • Similar considerations.

Conclusions and Search Snippet Takeaways

My takeaways, after reading this patent filing, and the previous patents and papers on search snippets?

1. Try to write a meta description for your page that does a good job of describing the content of the page, includes the most important keyword phrase for that page, and that might persuade people to visit the page if they see it in search results.

2. Anticipate that other phrases on the page might also be shown in search results, and include those in sentences that are well written, and that might be engaging and persuasive if seen out of the context of the page itself. If they match up with a query the page is found for in search results, and are chosen as snippets, or summaries for the page, you want to make it more likely than not that people will visit the page if it is relevant for the tasks or information needs that they are trying to meet.

3. How relevant text within the content of a page might be to a query, or to the page it appears upon depends upon a number of factors that I described in my previous post on How a Search Engine May Choose Search Snippets, in the sections on query dependent and query independent relevance.

How likely is it that Microsoft’s Bing might start considering factors like these in the future? A better question might be why they wouldn’t be considering them now. I think regardless of how many Yahoo researchers and technicians move to Bing, ideas about what make good summaries for pages shown in search results are likely things explored by all search engines.

On the migration of researchers from Bing to Yahoo, Jan Pedersen, also listed as an inventor on this patent, was a researcher at AltaVista and joined Yahoo when Yahoo acquired that company. His home page states that he is now “currently Chief Scientist for Core Search at Microsoft.”

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54 thoughts on “Why a Search Engine Might Choose Something Other Than Meta Descriptions for Page Summaries in Search Results”

  1. Google always shows exactly what I have as meta title and meta description. Yahoo and MSN do not. I will say it helps get me more traffic – with Google highlighting the keywords shown in searches.

  2. I have noticed with just about every blog post I have created on around 40 blogs that the Google snippet is never my meta description. The meta title is always the title Google though.

  3. I see this often when my internal pages are in a search query. I guess when the search keywords are more relevant to the body text, that is what google will show.

  4. In the beginning the Title has confused me a bit! Later I realized that this articles is only for SEO familiars. Anyways, your suggestions on meta tags and content are good. I would also like to remind that Google had already said that they “might” consider the meta description element to display in the search results. Though they take the snippet of content from meta elements, the displaying results cannot always be same.

  5. Another insightful post. And I’ve long given exactly the same advice regarding keyword use in meta descriptions: determine for which keywords you think the page might rank for, and ensure that you’ve covered those off as best as possible in the meta description, to maximize the chance of that highly optimized text appearing in the SERPs. I use “highly optimized” here in the sense you allude to: encouraging users to click-through to the resource by providing a good and, if possible, enticing summary. (I advocate, where it’s reasonable, to start a meta description with an action verb, and to avoid passive constructions, for this reason. “Save on great widgets at ABC.com’s widget sale” is more compelling, in my opinion, than “The widget sale page at ABC.com, where you can save on widgets.”)

    It would be interesting to know how Michael and John are producing the SERPs to display their pages. Many people don’t realize the relationship between the search query and site snippet displayed – i.e. that what snippet a search engine displays is based on the context of a query, and is therefore a dynamic element in SERP snippets (the top link being the static element, which is always pulled from ). In my experience you’ll always see in Google, a page’s description – where it exists – returned when you do a site:[URI] query. When this isn’t the case, it typically indicates a problem with the coding.

  6. It’s true that showing the match terms within context in search results is an excellent way to show how the search engine found and ranked the pages.

    However, that’s not why the web search engines don’t use descriptions very much. The reason is search spam.

    Back in the 1990s, some web sites would put misleading content and keywords into the meta description tag text. I’m sure you can see how this would lure people to the spammer’s sites. So the web search engines had to stop showing the descriptions, which is a shame.

  7. I wish I had more control over meta tags. I still haven’t quite figured out how to utilize the program I am running fully.

    I also read an interesting post about this, it got more into the similiar words and phrases Google uses when determining a relevant search. Many people think that if you only use specific keywords, you will only rank well in those word searches, but often times Google knows what people are looking for and will match you up regardless.

  8. One has to wonder what Yahoo! is going to do with all its patents once it stops updating its own algorithm.

    I’ve been advising people for years to write their page copy on the assumption that any random sequence of text might be used as a snippet in a search result.

    That approach takes copywriting to a whole new level. :)

  9. Thanks for this article, I see G taking my content as page descriptions regularly, but I think it depends on what platform/cms your using.

  10. Hi Michael,

    Is that true with all the different possible keywords that your pages may show up for in search results? I know that I’ve created pages that rank for more than one keyword phrase, and the snippets that show up for those pages can vary in Google based upon the keywords the pages are found for. Most of the time at Google, the page title shown for those pages doesn’t seem to change.

  11. Hi Jennifer,

    The point you raise is the reason why I’m writing about this in the first place – how and why do the different search engines decide what they might use to show as a summary, or snippet from pages that show up in search results in response to queries?

    The patent filings and papers do tell us that the summary they show might be chosen because it’s relevant to the search queries, but they are also looking at other things, like how readable it might be, how long a sentence (or two) that contain the keywords might be, how relevant those sentences might be to the query terms, and how relevant they might be to the page as a whole.

  12. Hi Australia SEO,

    Thanks. I have seen Matt Cutts state in one of the videos he has made on Google and SEO that Google will use Meta Descriptions for pages in search results, but that they may show them less often than most people might think that they do.

    I have seen both, and as I mentioned in the post, it’s more likely that your meta description will appear in search results if it is well written (as opposed to, for instannce, a list of keywords on the page), and includes the keywords used in the query the page has been found for in a searcn.

  13. Hi Aaron,

    Thank you. All great points, and things that I’ve been recommending and observing as well.

    You would think that Michael should be seeing some snippets that don’t include his meta descriptions in some search results that display his pages, and that John would be seeing some search results that do display his meta descriptions.

    In my experience you’ll always see in Google, a page’s description – where it exists – returned when you do a site:[URI] query. When this isn’t the case, it typically indicates a problem with the coding.

    Also, on a site that uses the same meta description from one page to another, I’ve seen Google return both meta descriptions, and seeminingly random text from other pages on the same site. Not sure if you are referring to that as a coding problem, but some of that random text can include odd choices of things to display, such as text accompanying a shopping cart, or the anchor text for a set of links in a sidebar.

  14. Hi Avi,

    I do believe that more than a few webmasters put a lot more words in their meta descriptions and keywords than they should have, especially words that weren’t necessarily very relevant for their pages. The purpose often has been to intentionally rank for terms that didn’t appear on those pages.

    But, I remembered back when AltaVista starting noting that you could include meta descriptions and meta keywords, and I started adding some fairly large lists of keywords to pages. Words I thought were relevant for the content of the pages, even if those words didn’r appear upon the pages. In reflection, I think AltaVista could have done a better job of providing instruction on how best to use meta descriptions and meta keywords.

    Here’s a screenshot of an AltaVista Page on Meta Tags from 1998.

    Note at the bottom, where they tell you that “AltaVista will index the description and keywords up to a limit of 1,024 characters.”

    I remember thinking that was a lot of characters, but that I should use as many as I could.

    I had no intent to “spam,” but I did include relevant words that didn’t appear upon pages.

    I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen the major search engines stop showing meta descriptions for many pages I’ve worked upon in the past. But I’ve been using meta descriptions that are relevant and focused upon persuading people who read them to visit the pages that they describe. I don’t believe that most search engines these days use meta descriptions as ranking signals, and I do believe that has to do with people using meta descriptions to try to spam search engines.

  15. Hi Andrew,

    I’m not sure what you mean by having more control over meta tags. Are you using a content management system or ecommerce platform that makes it difficult for you to create unique meta descriptions and meta keywords for each page?

    About the other post that you’ve read, I’ve written a few here about how Google is sometimes showing search results for terms that might be synonyms for words that originally appeared in a query.

    As a searcher, and as a publisher, I’m still a little hesitant about relying upon Google to show me the pages it thought I meant, when I type one set of words into a search box, and Google has the opportunity to expand my search to possibly include terms that it thinks are synonyms for my query terms.

  16. Hi Michael,

    I’ve been wondering the same thing about Yahoo’s patent filings. Of the ones I see from them that are either granted, or published as a pending application, only a small percentage are search related. Many others cover email and email spam, instant messages, portal features for their many niche properties, local search, and more.

    I’m not quite sure that Yahoo and Microsoft have sorted through all of the small details, but I would guess that it would be helpful for Microsoft could use some of the processes described in some of Yahoo’s patent filings.

    I’ve been advising people for years to write their page copy on the assumption that any random sequence of text might be used as a snippet in a search result.

    That approach takes copywriting to a whole new level. :)

    That’s good advice, Michael. Same here – I’ve been recommending that people creating content for their pages consider that anything they write might be taken out of context by search engines for snippets, as well as by people who might end up quoting something they write.

  17. Hi Blacksheep,

    I have seen some site owners take shortcuts with the creation of meta descriptions because the CMS or ecommerce platform they’ve used don’t give them much flexibility in writing unique descriptions for pages. But, if you do create unique meta descriptions for each page, I’m not sure if the CMS you use influences the choice of snippet text that Google choices to use.

  18. I’ve noticed recently that Google has placed less emphasis on my meta descriptions and more emphasis on my header tags.

  19. It certainly makes you think about the context in which you use keywords on a page. If the surrounding text was used as a snippet… and not the meta description… how would it read? How engaging would it be? Have you given it as much thought as your description?

  20. I have read before that meta is ignored by the search engines. But, after reading your post, I have decided to also give some attention to these meta tags. It pays if you try to cover everything concerning SEO.

  21. “Try to write a meta description for your page that does a good job of describing the content of the page”

    I love the above point and is something which alot of webmasters fail to do, I always explain that the meta description is your 20 words to sell your business from the search engines.

  22. The first thing to remember is that Google will often reference Open Dir, or Yahoo Dir.

    The second thing is the onpage anchor, and the domain name or URl syntaax. Those are the areas where I see variation determinded by the SEs.

  23. I use WordPress for my blog with the All In One SEO plugin and it works out great. It shows my meta description for the homepage, and the first 2 lines of content for all my other pages’ summaries.

    The big question in my mind is, will Yahoo and/or Bing ever matter that much for the purposes of search engine traffic? Google has dominated for so long, I don’t see any way that Yahoo or Bing can close the gap.

  24. Hi Ryan,

    Thanks for sharing that observation. That is one of the areas that the Yahoo patent filing says that they might look at when considering page summaries (from my list above: “Various HTML headline titles on the page”).

    If you’re writing on-page headings that are more than one or two words long, it makes sense that Google might use those, especially if you’re using keywords in those headings that people might search for to find your pages.

  25. Hi Steve,

    Good questions. I do find myself going back over pages/posts after a first draft, and asking myself some of the same questions that you bring up about how I’m using keywords within the context of what I’m writing. I think doing that can help you write better content for a page as well as providing search engines with some good options for page summaries or snippets.

  26. Hi Andrew,

    The most important aspect of meta descriptions isn’t whether or not they might help a page rank better in search results, but rather that if they are used by search engines as a snippet or summary for a page in search results, will they be helpful in persuading someone to visit your page.

    We have had people from Google state that they don’t consider the content of meta descriptions when they rank pages for keywords within those descriptions. But, if you do include those keywords, they will sometimes show your meta description as a snippet.

  27. Hi Dave,

    Absolutely. In some ways, that meta description can be like a 30 second elevator speech, where you only have 30 seconds to describe what you do to someone before the doors open. It can be interesting visiting sites and viewing their source HTML, and seeing what they’ve written as descriptions for their pages.

  28. Hi Roy,

    There are some helpful SEO plugins, and some themes with built in SEO support that make it easy to create meta descriptions.

    But, it’s still the decision of the search engines as to what they might use as a snippet, whether the meta description from your page, or text upon your page, or from other sources like an Open Directory description. If the search query used to find your page contains words that aren’t in your meta description, it’s more likely that Google will show text from your page that does contain those keywords, if there is any.

    The big question in my mind is, will Yahoo and/or Bing ever matter that much for the purposes of search engine traffic? Google has dominated for so long, I don’t see any way that Yahoo or Bing can close the gap

    Yahoo or Bing don’t need to surpass Google in use by searchers, if they still bring visitors to your site. Relying solely on Google, or even upon the major search engines either to bring visitors to your site ignores the possibility of having people come to your pages from many other places. It’s helpful if you can get visitors from Google, and from Bing and Yahoo.

  29. Hi JasonCH,

    Thanks. Those are good points to raise, and a good opportunity to add the following about preventing the use of those descriptions as snippets for your page if you think it’s a good idea.

    The search engines may use Open Directory or Yahoo Directory titles or descriptions for your pages, and sometimes that’s not a bad thing. But sometimes, you may not want either of those descriptions showing. If not, there’s the option of using the following meta elements in the headers of your page or pages, asking the search engines not to use them:

    <meta name=”robots” content=”noodp”>
    <meta name=”robots” content=”noydir”>

    Google has more on writing good meta descriptions and title elements, and preventing the use of open directory descriptions on the following page:

    Changing your site’s title and description in search results

    Yahoo describes how to keep them from using Yahoo Directory descriptions on the Yahoo Search Blog here:

    Yahoo! Search Support for ‘NOYDIR’ Meta Tags and Weather Update

    Microsoft also will stop using Open Directory descriptions as well:

    Opting Out of Open Directory Listings for Webmasters

    I have seen anchor text from a page used as meta descriptions as well.

  30. After doing some research, of my 12 sites – 11 display meta descriptions. This article provides some great insight into the process. It’s important to have content that isn’t complete nonsense as some of the bots may grab snippets for site descriptions.

  31. Hi Ryan,

    Thanks. No matter how carefully you plan, and how well you attempt to anticipate what a search engine might use as snippets, they will sometimes surprise you.

    For instance, I took some words from one post here last night, which were all in the same sentence, and did a search on Google for those words. Google returned a couple of pages from my site at the top of the search results for my search, but the pages it showed me were from other posts, and the words in the snippets Google showed me for each of those pages didn’t even appear on the two pages. The pages weren’t very relevant for the search either. It was pretty disappointing.

  32. I honestly hadn’t given this topic much thought. Case in point that you need to write quality content for your sites. It never occurred to me that the search engine would grab page content and show that in place of the meta description. I guess I just always assumed that my meta description would be what shows up on a search. That said, I’ve always tried to make my meta descriptions relevant to my page content, so I imagine that’s really what’s important.

  33. Hi Dan,

    Using your meta description element to provide a relevant description for each page is a very good starting point. The big takeaway from a patent filing like this one is being aware that other information might be shown as a snippet in search results as well, and if your page may potentially rank for other terms, then what you write on your page that includes those other terms may possibly show up in a snippet for that page as well.

  34. Ive been away for a while and have some catching up to do, this is an interesting read. From an ecommerce perspective on large sites with >20k pages not been able to select the exact meta description can really hamper your click through rates….

  35. Hi Jimmy,

    Thanks.

    Very good point. The larger the site, the more problems you may experience with it when it comes to creating unique content for things like meta descriptions.

  36. Hi Bill,

    I think If Google is not showing Meta Description is search result it probably means that Google finds it irrelevant to that page. I have faced this issue earlier
    and after making some changes in the Meta Description, Google started to show it in results.

  37. Hi Max,

    Sometimes a search engine might attempt to show a snippet that is more relevant to the query the searcher used, and sometimes it might show one that is more relevant to the topic of the page. If the meta description doesn’t include the query term (or possibly a synonym, if the search engine expands the query based upon synonyms), then Google may not use the meta description as a snippet, even if the meta description is relevant to the page. And, sometimes meta descriptions aren’t relevant to the pages they appear upon as well. :)

  38. The search engines are getting more intelligent and will eventually show only the most relevant information, be it a snippet from your content or a meta description, the key here is not to rely heavily on either and just do an honest good job throughout and make all meta information as descriptive as possible – this way you are protected and need not worry about this issue. Just stick to the Webmaster guidelines posted by the big G.

  39. Hi Clinton,

    The problem with just sticking to the webmaster guidelines is that they only provide a limited amount of information regarding what might make a good meta description, and what might not. What is helpful is to make sure that you consider carefully the words that someone interested in what you offer on your page might use in a search to find that page, and to include those words and phrases in your meta description and within the content of your page in ways that describe that page in an engaging manner while also describing the content of your page well.

  40. I have a blog and google alwasy display some lines from first article on serp.
    Even if i use plugin like all in one seo.

  41. Hi Alex,

    I’m guessing what you are saying is that when you do a search for a term that your home page ranks for, and the front page of the site shows up in the search results, that the snippet that appears is from the excerpt (or full article) showing on your home page instead of your meta description or from some other post that may appear on your home page. That’s not quite the experience that I’ve had. It sounds like it’s worth investigating more.

  42. First off, great post.

    Second, I noticed that Google uses my META description in the search results if I use just the right amount of words or characters, as well as being relevant, of course. This is only when searching for the main keywords used here, though. If my website appears for a keyword that appears within a paragraph of my page then Google will show a snippet of this. I think it works well.

  43. Hi Marty,

    Thank you. Google does seem to be willing to include a meta description if if is well crafted and relevant, including the main keyword a page may be optimized for. It will also try to use content from a page itself if the query terms within a search exist on that page. But, there are other times that pages may appear in search results, such as when they are considered relevatn for a term used only in anchor text pointed to that page. In instances like that, the choice of what to include as a snippet becomes harder.

  44. Thank you for this article. I wasn’t really aware of this. I suppose if you are trying to put keywords into your meta discription it wouldn’t show for a different search. I’ve not noticed this on my website but now you’ve mentioned it you see it all the time.

  45. Hi Michael,

    It’s possible that your meta description might show up for other searches that your page might be found for if it contained terms from that search as well. But it’s just as likely that a search engine might decide to include other text from you pages that might include those terms.

  46. I do believe that ranking factors, today, have an immense consideration if the title/description fits very well with the content. keeping contents relevant to the given description is a plus, especially if you’re targeting exact queries, and it should be the main agenda in the first place. though I have a question, what’s your take about those pages that are not really relevant to certain search terms (keywords not even mentioned on the title, url, description – all efforts done through off page anchored text links)? I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately.

  47. Thank you for an interesting and enlightening post. As web designers just starting out on our journey information like this is invaluable and will assist us in offering a better service to our clients.

  48. Far too many people focus all their SEO efforts on the home page and fail to realize that having their interior pages rank well is huge. This is a big reason why blogs do so well. If that thought process was carried over to more websites they would be far more effective.

  49. Hi Bill,

    Unfortunately that’s true. Every page on your site is potentially a landing page, especially with the search engines acting as an index to pages on the Web.

    Blogs give you a chance to create new pages as frequently as you can that might focus upon aspect of the topics you write about that people might be both interested in and actively searching for. There are site owners who do recognize that visitors might arrive on their sites on any page, but many don’t and possibly do focus too much upon their home page as the way that people arrive at their web sites.

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