Hi Jill,

I agree with your recent newsletter that high rankings are not all it takes to build a successful site. But it sure is hard to do without them!

Now that Google has stopped using [DMOZ descriptions] it is even more important which fragments of your copy Google chooses to display. The Webmaster fully controls the title tag and the URL, but those lines in between are a key factor when a potential customer decides whether to visit your site or the one below it.

Searching for "Search Engine Optimization," I noticed that Google chose to display the description from your index page (highrankings.com), whereas other sites have just fragments of their copy displayed.

I assume lots of your readers would like to know more about how to influence Google's description, so maybe this would be a topic for an upcoming newsletter. Questions I would like answered include:

  • How or under what circumstances will Google choose to display the description instead of just fragments of the copy?

  • Is Google more likely to choose the description from pages/sites with a high PR (credibility)?

  • If Google chooses to display fragments of the copy would it be wise to alter those parts of the copy (slightly) to make them look more appealing in the SERPs? I realize that you shouldn't alter the keywords, but the words around them might not be as appealing as one could wish. Google mostly does a good job at selecting relevant parts of your copy, but still!
Yours sincerely,

Henrik Ranch

Jill's Response

Henrik, those are all great questions, and I'm sure others will also be interested in the answers.

First, it's important to note that Google will display a different description in its results pages, depending on the keyword phrase that was searched for. Because of this, it's impossible to completely control what will show up as you have no way of knowing every single keyword phrase that someone might use to find your site. The number of different phrases people find your site with is often quite surprising, which makes it a good idea to check your server logs regularly.

So let's look at what circumstances cause Google to display your Meta description as opposed to a plain old "snippet."

It's actually surprisingly simple, yet elegant:

If the keyword phrase searched upon by the user is included in your Meta description tag, then this is what will show up in Google, instead of the usual snippet.

This is why when you find my site on the first page of Google for the phrase search engine optimization, my Meta description shows up -- that phrase is used within my description tag. As long as the *exact phrase* being searched upon is contained in your Meta description tag, it will show up in the search results.

It's as simple as that, and doesn't have anything to do with the PageRank or the authority of the page in question. The same thing should happen for every site under the same circumstances. This is why Meta description tags are still important to use on all of your pages. They don't actually boost your rankings, but they allow you to have better control of the description that shows up for your optimized keyword phrases.

Does this mean you should create really long Meta descriptions that have every conceivable keyword phrase in them? Of course not! If you have a long Meta description, Google will then just show a snippet of your Meta description that contains the searched-upon phrase. Theoretically, you could create a 10- or 20-sentence Meta description tag that used every conceivable keyword phrase you might be ranked highly with, but you wouldn't get any real benefit from that.

So what happens when the searched-upon phrase *isn't* used within your Meta description tag?

You'll notice that if you do a search for search engine rankings in Google, you'll still find my site in the first page of results, but this time my Meta description tag *doesn't* show up. Instead, you'll see the following snippet: "When performed by a qualified, experienced search engine optimization consultant, optimizing your site for high search engine rankings really does work!"

It's not my Meta description, but it's a darn nice marketing statement nonetheless. So, how'd I do it? Well, I waved my magic wand and said "ala peanut butter sandwiches" and poof, there it was! Don't worry, for those of you who don't have magical powers, you can achieve the same thing through other means. In reality it showed up as it did simply because that sentence was the first (and in this case the only) instance of the phrase "search engine rankings" within the copy of my page. Pretty neat, huh?

I didn't purposely optimize my snippets as I'm really not smart enough to think of such things, but there's no reason why you can't or shouldn't optimize yours. There are definitely things you can do to get the most benefit out of your Google listings, once you realize how it works.

The best (and most obvious) thing to do is to make sure your two or three optimized keyword phrases are being used in your Meta description tag. However, if there's a phrase you happen to be getting found for that you can't or don't want to use in your Meta description tag, then just make sure that the *first instance* of that phrase is part of a nice call-to-action marketing statement within your copy, and voila -- that's pretty much all it takes!

On a related note, if you happen to check to see if your page is indexed by Google, and search for it by company name or by the site's URL, you'll often find that this brings up the copyright notice at the bottom of the page, or some other strange, ugly snippet in the search engine results page (SERP).

I've had frantic emails from people concerned about this, but there's really no reason to be worried. Your site's description only shows up that way for that particular search, not for the real searches people do to find your site. Since the copyright notice at the bottom of your page is often the only place that mentions your company name or URL, it becomes the Google snippet by default!

If you're not a big brand that people are searching for by company name, then you don't need to worry about it. However, if people do indeed search for you by name, then simply control the snippet by making sure you put the company name in your Meta description or in a nice marketing sentence closer to the top of the page.

So you can see, although those descriptions at Google never seemed to have any rhyme or reason to them, they actually do! You'll find that the more you learn about search engine marketing and optimization, the less mystifying it becomes. Most of the time, the things that seem really strange on the surface are actually very logical.

April 16, 2004

CEO and founder of High Rankings®, Jill Whalen has been performing search engine optimization since 1995 and is the host of the free High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter, author of "The Nitty-gritty of Writing for the Search Engines" and founder/administrator of the popular High Rankings Search Engine Optimization Forum. In 2006, Jill co-founded SEMNE, a local search engine marketing networking organization for people and companies in New England.

High Rankings is an internationally recognized search engine optimization firm located in Framingham, MA specializing in search engine optimization, SEO consultations, in-house training, site audit reports, search marketing seminars and workshops. High Rankings has a 100% success rate for substantially improving client rankings and targeted traffic.

Jill speaks at national and international conferences and has been writing about SEO and search marketing since 2000. She's been quoted in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report and The Washington Post. Her articles have appeared in numerous print magazines and online websites including CIO Magazine, CMS Focus, The Internet Marketing Report, ClickZ, WorkZ, Inc.com, Entrepreneur, Lycos Small Business, WebProNews, SiteProNews and others. Jill has also appeared on many online and offline radio programs such as Entrepreneur Magazine's E-Biz Radio Show, SearchEngineRadio and the eMarketing Talkshow.

Search Engine Guide > Jill Whalen > Getting a Great Google Description