A confused SEO specialist frustrated by data that makes no sense
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Being on the first page of Google is one of the prime pieces of real estate that marketers and companies worldwide strive for — and with good reason too, as according to Statista, Google owns a whopping 92% share of the search engine market

Over the years, the specific ranking factors that Google has viewed as a top priority have continued to evolve, and so have the tactics that marketers have used to try to stay ahead of the algorithm. From keyword stuffing to acquiring backlinks and producing long-form content, many have tried to understand exactly what Google wants to know about your website in hopes of reaching the sometimes elusive #1 rank for a specific keyword.  

Arguably one of the most misunderstood elements of the Google ranking algorithm, in that regard, is the SEO or meta description. An Ahrefs study discovered that a quarter of top-ranking sites don't even have a meta description. However, the debate as to whether it matters continues to wage on with many experts continuing to use it. To uncover the truth, we spoke to experts to learn the importance of SEO descriptions and find out what matters most to Google today. 

What Is a Meta Description?

The meta description is an HTML tag that is 160 characters in length and used to summarize a page's contents. These descriptions appear as snippets of text in search results and give visitors an idea about what a page is about before they click on it. 

So what exactly goes into a meta description?  According to Justin Smith, CEO at Copley, OH.-based OuterBox, the most important thing to include is the keyword or key phrase you're trying to rank for. "When a user types in a search query on Google, if your meta description matches the terms used, those words will be bolded in the search results, letting the user know that your webpage is relevant to their search," explained Smith. 

Meta descriptions help search engines and visitors know what they could expect if they decided to click on your page, and if you choose to ignore them, the results may not be that great, according to Nick Papagiannis, Vice President and Director of Search at Chicago, IL.-based Cramer-Krasselt.

He points out that without a proper meta description, you could risk a potential visitor bypassing your website since they won't know if it answers their question. "You should think about it like you would any ad or marketing copy," Papagiannis advises. This means using your existing brand messaging and including a relevant call to action that encourages a user to visit your website. 

But beware of the length of meta descriptions Smith added as "Google will truncate meta descriptions to 160 characters so try to include your most relevant information in the first 50 characters." 

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Does a Meta Description Matter for Google or Site Visitors?

Our experts believe in the importance of meta descriptions, but how much does Google care for them as a ranking factor? It turns out that meta descriptions aren't that important for Google rankings, as the company has previously stated. However, they remain relevant for the user experience. 

Meta descriptions provide the first glimpse that a visitor may have of your brand in an organic search. Therefore the copy you include should be both relevant and engaging. "Many studies have shown that providing a good description tag increases the click-through rate of your search engine result, which can help your site rank better over the long run," said Papagiannis. 

So how should you treat meta descriptions? Just like blog posts and ad copy are optimized to include keywords and provide relevant and valuable information to your potential visitors, SEO descriptions should be treated in the same way. "Your content has to actually be of value to your site visitors, with optimization a path to more views for that content (but not the main initiative)", said Greg Gillman, Chief Revenue Officer at Los Angeles, CA.-based MuteSix

Key Ranking Factors for 2021

A meta description may not be a direct ranking factor in Google's eyes but should not be overlooked. That said, our experts provided some ranking factors that play a more significant role in SEO rankings. 

EAT (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness)

Google wants the content on websites to showcase expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness. Show Google that you know what you're talking about, and you can provide valuable content to your users. 

"From an SEO perspective, this means the days of keyword stuffing are long gone. If you want to rank your website in 2021, you need to be creating valuable, authoritative content that is still keyword-focused but not written for a robot," Smith adds. 

Loading Times & Mobile Friendliness

Websites that load slowly and aren't mobile responsive may struggle to move up the rankings on Google, even if they contain valuable content. As Papagianis explains, having a site that's easily accessible on mobile devices will be even more critical going forward. The upcoming Page Experience update in May 2021 will significantly impact sites with slow loading times and put a dent in SEO rankings. 

However, keep in mind that even though meta descriptions aren't a direct ranking factor, as our experts have pointed out, they can greatly improve the click-through-rate and the user experience. Google's most important factor is the user experience. Websites that can provide the user with quality content that answers their questions and is enjoyable for them to read will raise the rankings in 2021.