I’ve seen some frustration in QA lately with how Google is handling search snippets and META descriptions. You may have seen a schizophrenic search result that looked something like this:
Site owners are understandably frustrated when they see the META descriptions they’ve labored over get carelessly tossed aside. So, where do snippets come from, and is there anything you can do to stay in control?
Search Snippet Basics
Typically, search snippets come from 1 of 3 places (and we’re just talking basic snippets here, not rich snippets like sitelinks):
- META descriptions
- On-page copy
- Open Directory Project (ODP) data
In the example above, Google is using my query (“January 11”) and pulling up page content that the algorithm thinks is relevant. Since that copy is really just dates and fragments, I end up with a strange mash-up of on-page copy.
Controlling Search Snippets
So, is there anything you can do to bend Google to your will and always use your META descriptions? Unfortunately, the short answer is “no”. Like so much of SEO, though, there are some ways to nudge Google in the right direction:
1. Focus Your META Description
Let’s say that, for some reason, we really wanted that SEOmoz blog post to rank for “January 19”. One solution is to make sure that phrase appears in our META description for the relevant page. If Google can find the matching copy in your description, they’re more likely to use the tag as is. It’s also just a good exercise – figuring out what your core target keywords are and targeting them naturally in your META description (don’t just make it a list of keywords, of course) will help you focus your overall on-page SEO efforts.
2. Remove Duplicate METAs
In some cases, having too many pages with duplicate TITLE tags or META descriptions can lead Google to rank the wrong page or filter that META description. De-duplicating your TITLEs and META descriptions is a good practice anyway, but making sure that each page has its own unique and relevant description can also help insure that Google sees value in those descriptions.
3. Block Your ODP Listing
If you suspect that your search snippet is coming from the Open Directory Project (this would be more common on the home-page than deeper pages and long-tail queries), you can block Google from using your ODP listing with the following META tag:
meta name="robots" content="NOODP"
This problem isn’t quite as common as it used to be, but it does still pop up from time to time.
4. Block Your Snippet (Caution)
There’s another, much more severe META tag you can use to block your snippet entirely:
meta name="robots" content="nosnippet"
This directive will remove your snippet ENTIRELY, though, so use it with caution. It can also effect caching. In general, I’d only use this option if Google is taking liberties with snippets that could harm your brand or cause legal problems. Typically, these issues would be better dealt with in your on-page content directly.
5. Leave It Alone
Google’s attempts to match snippets to queries don’t always work the way you’d like, but in general they’re a good thing. Matching, bolded keywords drive click-throughs, and people rarely read the whole text of a snippet. If it’s just a couple of long-tail queries, don’t worry about it.