Despite the increasing amount of money being spent on paid search marketing, organic search engine optimization (SEO) continues to be a crucial piece of any digital marketing strategy. This is particularly true when Google is crowding out the organic search results to make room for more ads, and marketers have more competition for less space.
SEO is an effective digital marketing tool, and businesses know it’s worth the effort. It’s estimated that organizations in the U.S. will spend over $72 billion on SEO in 2018, and about $79 billion by 2020. While brands continue to increase their spending on SEO, Google gives more room to paid listings. At the same time, Google has decreased the number of organic links displayed on the search results page from 10 to an average of 8.5. The saying ‘More competition plus less space equals effective SEO’ is now more important than ever.
Knowing how search engines work is also more important than ever as a result because it changes. Google search indexing is still based on the same principles (helping users find relevant content), but how it works changes how it goes about the indexing and the displaying of results.
How Does Google Work? By Constantly Changing
There’s an old saying: “The only thing that is constant is change.”
Although, the quote is attributed to an ancient Greek, it fits how Google works. In an effort to constantly improve and to reward the white hat practices of some and the black hat practices of others, Google search indexing is modified by constant changes to the Google search algorithm.
For example, if you have worked in SEO for any length of time, you’re familiar with updates like Panda, Hummingbird and even Mobilegeddon. You probably also know that Google’s treatment of meta tags has changed since SEO became a common practice. However, two remain critical: the page title and the meta description. And, everyone working in SEO knows that these two elements remain important for on-page SEO.
The Missing Link Between On-page SEO and the Search Results
What you might not give enough consideration to, however, is the piece between the on-page SEO you’ve done and where the searcher starts from, with that search query box on Google. That missing piece? The Search Engine Results Page, or SERP. If you’ve done your SEO well, and you’re ranking well, that won’t guarantee you’re getting the click-throughs to your site. And without the click-throughs, your SEO efforts are all for naught.
The page title plays a role in ranking, but it is also important because it is the title that shows on the search results page. It should use a keyword phrase to rank well with Google but it must also be compelling to a user will want to click on it. The meta description does not affect ranking, but it plays a role in the SERP because it also must make the user want to click on the search result.
Yet, the results that show up on the SERPs are not always what you intend them to be. Why? Because Google can choose to use text other than what you’ve provided. This is yet another example of the kinds of changes Google makes on a regular basis, and why you need to stay current with how search engines work.
Google Usually Uses the Title You Provide
As mentioned above, the title of each webpage has two jobs: ranking and clicking. The title helps with your webpage rankings when it uses a relevant keyword, and it helps with click-throughs when it tells a searcher, “Yes, this page has what you’re looking for.”
When it comes to choosing the text to display on your webpage, Google treats titles in a fairly straightforward way. In general, Google will use the title that you provide, except in certain circumstances such as when the title is missing, poorly written, or very long.
The better the title, the more likely it is that Google will use it and that searchers will like it. To write better titles that Google will approve of, follow these best practices:
- Use a unique title for each webpage.
- Write your title to read well and to describe the content it is linked to.
- Make sure your title is relevant to the content on the webpage.
- Do not stuff keywords into your title.
- Do not use boilerplate titles on your webpages, only changing one or two words.
When you’re writing it, remember that your title has two jobs: to help with your search rankings (because it is considered by the Google search algorithm), but perhaps more importantly, to help your webpage get the click-throughs on the search results page, which in turn helps your SEO.
Google Can Draw from Several Sources for Your Snippet
Your title is front and center on the search results page. It comes as blue text that appears in the description. And so, you have some control over the text that Google uses, as described above. On the other hand, the description or snippet is the black text that appears below the title, and you have less control over the text that Google will use. And this is when you need to ask, “How does Google work?” in order to understand what a searcher will see.
The meta description is a snippet containing up to 320 characters and summarizing your webpage’s content. Like the title, the snippet must serve the searcher by describing the content on a particular webpage. A searcher is looking for something when they enter a query into the Google search box. They are looking for the web page that most closely matches what they are looking for, and Google wants to help them find it. That is why Google won’t necessarily use the text you provide.
The Google search algorithm apparently does not use your description to affect your search rankings, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. You want people to go to your website, which makes your snippet important because it will encourage click-throughs. In addition, those click-throughs can help your webpage move up in the rankings if you get a lot of clicks on your search result link. Just like the title has two purposes for SEO, so does the description.
As stated above, Google can pull your description or snippet from a number of sources like:
- From the meta description, you provide.
- From the text on your page, either quoted directly or cobbled together.
- From publicly available information.
Although Google has this leeway in the text it uses, you should still optimize your descriptions just in case that is the content Google chooses. (This could mean that a well-written description that is part of your on-page SEO is more likely to be included.)
To write descriptions that will please Google and get click-throughs, follow these best practices:
- Write longer descriptions. Google recently increased the character limit to 320 characters. Take advantage of that.
- Write descriptions that compel the searcher to click on the link. Use an active voice and include a call to action, if appropriate.
- Be sure to include the focus keyword phrase for that page in the description.
- The description must accurately describe the content on that webpage and not try to trick someone into clicking through.
- As with titles, the descriptions should be unique for each page.
- Be cognizant of the searcher’s intent and write the description to match that intent. For example, someone researching ticket prices will probably want to see the prices or product information in the description, while someone researching how to fix a sink will want information about how to do the task.
Google offers additional advice on writing good snippets in the Search Console Help.
How Does Google Work? Quite Well, If You Keep Up!
If reading about the way Google chooses titles and descriptions to display has you concerned about your own webpages, that’s not surprising. It makes changes to the Google search algorithm on a nearly constant basis and it can be a challenge to keep up with the latest requirements and best practices. To make sure you are up to speed, take a look at this Wordpress SEO beginners guide written by SEO expert Neil Patel.
Also, consider staying current with SEO by pursuing online training from Simplilearn. Our SEO course advisor is Matt Bailey, an Internet marketing expert, author, and popular speaker. Matt ensures that our content is up-to-date and relevant. From the free SEO basics course that offers foundational knowledge in SEO, to the advanced SEO course that teaches keyword management and research, on-page and off-page optimization, link building, URL building, SEO analytics and more, Simplilearn can help you master the full range of SEO skills you need to excel in your digital marketing career.
If you know anything about how search engines work, you know SEO is not a cut-and-dry, one-time endeavor. It’s an ongoing process that involves continuously creating quality content. In the same way, staying knowledgeable about SEO best practices and trends is also an ongoing process. Taking online courses from Simplilearn can help.