On the Usefulness of Meta Tags

One of the oldest rules of Search Engine Optimization is the importance of meta description and keyword tags. They help search engines understand the content and context of each page they query. On my drive in to work today I thought a bit deeper about a strange occurrence I’ve begun to notice. I recently spent several months recoding two of my personal sites (more sites = more experience) and the result has been a steep spike in referrals to both sites from search engines. Each site ranks very high (top 5 results) for related queries and yet the strange thing I’ve noticed is the description for each result is the meta information rather than content from the page itself. This is true for both sites.
An example query for “Sony Launches Music With a Twist” produces some 500 thousand results. My recoded site Jungle-Life is the 2nd result just below About.com and above Sony’s own music blog. This proves the power of the new method which I’m using to code websites, and after this experiment I’ve begun applying the methods I used on my personal sites to the sites I code here at Extractable.
Check the screenshot below (I’m using Firefox’s handy Google Preview extension btw). Pay special attention to the description beneath each title. The first result produces a contextual summary for the article as does the third and fourth results. The second result however is only the meta description. What is it about my site that causes this to happen?
Google Search Results
Digging deeper I find that About.com is using content directly from the article as meta description information (a clever SEO tactic) and the article title for meta keyword information (equally clever).
Checking the Sony blog I see that they are using neither meta keyword or description tags and have left out the title tag altogether. The summary Google is using appears on Sony’s page only after the second sentence of the fifth paragraph!
Continuing my quest I check the QueerDay Magazine site to find that they too are lacking meta tags. It appears that Google has used the document title as the search result link and portions of the second and third sentences as a summary.
So what can we learn from this? It seems clear from this expirement that the importance of meta tags can surely be downplayed. A site will show up in relevant search queries regardless of meta diligence. How high they will rank may require further research (both the About.com and Jungle-Life websites use meta tags) but whether they are something worth investing time and money implementing on each page is something else.
On the one hand, I like seeing content summary results for the other sites, it allows a person to quickly scan the content for relevance. On the other hand, the simple meta description displayed on the Jungle-Life query allows you to see if the site itself has what you’re looking for – not just the search result.
In the end, the jury is still out and while the major search engines are constantly changing their techniques, Search Engine Marketers scramble to keep pace. One thing is for sure: Content is still king. Provide quality, relevant content and the customer will find you both organically and through search engine referrals. No amount of search engine optimization can trump a person’s desire to find accurate results. They may find a black-hat SEO marketer’s website first – but does that website provide the results they seek or does yours?
In the meantime, I will continue to monitor search engine, site analytic and referral statistics. Perhaps I will consider implementing the content-as-meta trick for better search summaries. Or maybe the best idea is not to mess with a good thing. Either way, research is key and the more we know the more we can offer our clients.
Addendum: After all that, I’ve just discovered that the anomaly appears inconsistently. So a search for “free encryption softwar” (the ‘e’ is deliberately missing since that is how it appears in my referral stats) returns contextual summaries while the earlier query does not. See the screenshot below… Will have to explore this further!
Google Search Results Addendum