Why Google Won’t Display Your Meta Descriptions

One of our blog readers recently reached out with a question about his meta descriptions and title tags. He had noticed that Google was displaying different meta descriptions than what he had entered into the Yoast SEO plugin on his WordPress site. Aware that Google was doing a slow, gradual implementation of Penguin 3.0, he was concerned that he was somehow being penalized as a result of the algorithm update.

The truth is, that’s not really how Penguin works, so if you’re seeing something similar with your site, don’t worry. If you were being penalized by Penguin or another Google update, you would likely just see a decrease in your rankings and a resulting decrease in organic search traffic.

When Google displays meta descriptions that are different from what you’ve specifically entered in your CMS, there are a couple of possible reasons.

1. The CMS is to blame.

WordPress, and I assume other content management systems, creates default title tags and meta descriptions using the name of your page/post and the first sentence of body copy. Even if you’re using an SEO plugin like Yoast, WordPress may continue to use its defaults in some cases. With Yoast, the option to force override the defaults is in the Titles & Metas section of the SEO setting menu.

2. Google is to blame.

Google thinks of meta descriptions as suggestions and will modify them if it can substitute a sentence from the body copy that more effectively uses the search term. When this is the case, it’s an indication that your meta descriptions could use some work. In my experience, Google will most often modify your meta descriptions when it considers them overly self-promotional. Remember that meta descriptions should describe the page in a helpful way and should not read like ad copy.

Here’s an example from the SERPs for the search “teeth whitening denver”:

Looking at this page’s source code, we can see the meta description is actually “Check out http://denverskinandteeth.com! skin care, waxing, teeth whitening, make-up, lash and brow tint, airbrush tanning, prolem skin care, skin care product.” Google used only part of the actual meta description in the snippet on the SERPs. The rest it pulled from the content on the page because my search was specifically about teeth whitening in Denver and the description should speak to that. In this case, the defined meta description only does so in a very general way. Google is able to make a stronger case for this page’s value by pulling copy from the body content, which must be relatively strong since this website was on the second page of results.

Despite Google’s tendency to modify descriptions, if I was the webmaster in this case, I would change the meta description to be a single, informative sentence about the purpose of the page. After all, the page is about teeth whitening, not skin care, waxing, or any of the other terms mentioned in the description. Much of SEO is making sure that every webpage is focused on a single topic and every element of that page, whether it’s the title tag, meta description, image alt tags, or headings, should all speak to that one topic.

If you’re struggling with this issue, take heart that at least you’re not actually being penalized by a Google algorithm update. Rewriting your meta descriptions is far easier than digging through your backlink profile and disavowing spammy links.

Ryan Wilson
Founder & CEO
Ryan has his hands in a bit of everything, but he mostly focuses on client success and the technical aspects of advertising. Ryan likes 90’s hip hop, heli-skiing, and spending time with his family.