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Should Google Tweat Its Snippets?


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#1 bwelford

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 10:02 AM

Many now use Twitter to give status reports on what is happening in their corner of the universe. The strict imposition of no more than 140 characters and spaces seems to concentrate the mind most effectively. Tweats are produced by human writers and can certainly be rated a success.

Google snippets are those short pieces of text that appear under each item in a Google Search Engine Report Page (SERP). They too have a strict limit of 155 characters and spaces, just a little more than a Twitter tweat. Google snippets are produced by computers. Perhaps they are less successful than Tweats?

You might even question how customer-centric Google snippets are. Are they really the best way for searchers to find what they’re looking for? Perhaps they are motivated by Google's wish to prove that some apparently obscure item should logically appear in the SERP. The resulting snippets often seem much more attractive to computers than to the human readers they are intended for.

Do Google snippets work for you? Would you like to see Google change how it helps you to find what you’re looking for?

#2 EGOL

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 10:12 AM

I like Google snippets when I am searching for something obscure or for information about a person, or an address. The snippet often shows the context of how that term is used on the page and saves me from clicking into the page and hunting it down. As a searcher I like this feature.

As a webmaster, I try to write good description tags because Google often uses them as the snippet. I can use the description tag for secondary marketing or as a call for action that is displayed in the SERPs.

Looking forward... maybe some day search engines will be able to pass query information to websites. If a person searches for "Bluenote Widgets" perhaps the search engine could pass those words to my website and there would be an easy to install tool that make them appear in highlight on my page... or maybe the link to my page would dropdown to the occurrence of those words on my page. These links could be tiny icons beneath the snippet. Searchers would click them if they want the highlighting or the dropdown anchor.

#3 Ron Carnell

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 12:57 PM

Google snippets are produced by computers.


Uh, I don't think so, Barry. They're all written by human beings . . . most of whom just don't take search engines into consideration.

If Google isn't using a portion of your meta-description for its snippet on a search, then you just haven't finished optimizing the page yet. In my opinion, that wouldn't be Google's fault.

#4 bwelford

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 02:02 PM

Don't like to disagree, Ron, but Google itself says it produces snippets using a computer. The precise snippet that is displayed in any given SERP depends on the keywords searched for on that particular page.

The Newsletter cited in my signature (SEO Those Descriptions) shows examples of the dramatic differences you can get in the snippets by small changes in the keywords. I hesitate to say their snippet process is broken, but I don't think it works very well. :)

#5 EGOL

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 02:05 PM

For some queries/sites the description tag is used verbatim... but for others an algo grabs the snippet.

#6 yannis

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 02:27 PM

I hesitate to say their snippet process is broken, but I don't think it works very well.


Well it is not exactly broken, but anything that needs NLP is prone to surprises and errors. This is more prominent also for non-html pages such as pdfs (see image below).

Posted Image


The links actually return perfectly readable pdfs! I am sure it is some form of encoding or decoding problem.


Yannis

PS For your descriptions, punctuation is very important. One fairly common strategy for text summarizers is to actually extract sentences. They then try to reduce the number of sentences to relevant ones (i.e the ones that contain important keywords). My guess Google uses a similar process. Fairly standard text-analysis procedures.

Edited by yannis, 26 March 2008 - 02:33 PM.


#7 Respree

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 02:28 PM

I think you guys might be talking about two different things.

Of course, the description meta tag and content is written by a human being. The algo which determines if the the snippet will be based on the meta tag or content is done by a computer. The number of characters surrounding the search query that goes into the calculation of what the content snippet looks like is done by a computer.

I think you're both right, but are saying two different things.

Any opinions how they determine whether meta tag or content will be used as the basis for the snippet?

Edited by Respree, 26 March 2008 - 02:29 PM.


#8 yannis

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 02:35 PM

Any opinions how they determine whether meta tag or content will be used as the basis for the snippet?


Sorry Garrick it appears we were posting at the same time. My opinion is that the algo looks for the keywords or n-gram and returns the relevant one (ie meta or snippet), See the PS in my post above.

Yannis

#9 bwelford

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 02:39 PM

In one of the Google references, they write the following:

The quality of your snippet — the short text preview we display for each web result — can have a direct impact on the chances of your site being clicked (i.e. the amount of traffic Google sends your way). We use a number of strategies for selecting snippets, and you can control one of them by writing an informative meta description for each URL.



#10 yannis

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 02:44 PM

Barry I just posted a slightly different post which might also be relevant to this discussion. The BBC snippet was picked up from way down the text and not the meta. Meta can mean meta-information. I also remember reading one of their early patents, where they state that the snippet can be picked up from relevant sections of the page.


Yannis

#11 Ron Carnell

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 04:49 PM

Don't like to disagree, Ron, but Google itself says it produces snippets using a computer.

It's probably a niggling quibble, Barry, but I would still contend that Google doesn't "produce" snippets so much as it selects them. And except for a few well known exceptions, it never selects anything that isn't already there.

Let's carry that a step further. I also contend that you have almost complete control over what Google will select for your snippet for any search you intend to capture (or any search you later discover you've inadvertently captured). One well written sentence of the proper length in the meta-description, including all the search terms, is all it will take in about 99.5 percent of cases.

Any opinions how they determine whether meta tag or content will be used as the basis for the snippet?

Some, Garrick. Some. :)

#12 bwelford

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 06:15 PM

And except for a few well known exceptions, it never selects anything that isn't already there.

.. isn't already where? As Bill Slawski points out in a recent post, this may well include Anchor Text on other web pages. He is looking at a Microsoft patent on this, but I'm sure Google does something similar. After all, they believe that such text is a strong determinant of Relevance.

#13 Ron Carnell

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 06:51 PM

Microsoft may have recently filed a patent, Barry, but most I think would agree that Google and Yahoo have been using anchor text to determine relevancy for several years. There's nothing new there. So far, in my experience, Google doesn't use the anchor text, however, as a snippet.

Classic case: Search for click here. The first result, of course, is the download page for Adobe Reader. The snippet does NOT come from or include the anchor text (it's from one of the dynamic menus), though a quick glance at the cached page will nonetheless include the note "These terms only appear in links pointing to this page: click here." Again, nothing new here I think. This has been Google's behavior for almost as far back as I can remember.

Still, let's speculate for a minute. What if search engines did indeed start using anchor text to assemble snippets? Isn't it logical to assume they would most likely do that only when the anchor text wasn't better represented as on-page content? Like Adobe's "click here" scenario? Seems to me that would again present a fairly easy and controllable solution: Put the same search terms as found in the anchor text into a well formed sentence of the meta-description. I think it's fairly safe to say the SE would use that in preference to a shorter and often less meaningful phrase from anchor text.

Barry, I'm sure situations exist where we do lose control of the snippet. So far, however, I've never seen one. In every single instance in my experience, putting the search terms in a meta-description sentence resulted in THAT sentence being used in the snippet as soon as the page was crawled. Every instance. (Knock on wood. :) )

#14 bwelford

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 07:37 PM

Ron, this is still currently the 'official' Google definition of a Snippet:

Snippet
A short description of or excerpt from a website which appears in Google search results. Snippets are created automatically based on the site’s content or the content of pages that link to the site.

Is this typical Google obfuscation or could there be some truth to it?

I guess it depends what you mean by 'losing control of the snippet'. My definition of losing control is that there is an ellipsis (...) somewhere in the snippet and that phrases rather than complete sentences are used. Given that searchers may put all sorts of long tail keyword searches together, I think that kind of loss of control is probably quite frequent.

Indeed I would throw down the gauntlet on a minor snippet challenge. Can anyone suggest three fairly distinct keyword searches where the same Web page comes up in say the Top One Hundred and all three snippets for the Web page do not contain an ellipsis? I've tried and have not yet succeeded.

#15 iamlost

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Posted 26 March 2008 - 09:00 PM

Speaking of Google (the SEs do differ :)) they do tend (now) to take the meta description providing it covers the query term.

Where it is most common to see a non-meta-d snippet is when the query term is not referenced there. This occurs most often when either no meta-d is available or the same one is used site wide. Because a well written description covers what the developer/seo views as the keys to a page topic(s) it is commonly all that is shown. Any outlier terms are usually insufficiently weighted to overcome other pages optimised for them as primary content keys.

However, when a query inexplicably throws up an outlier page or because a query topic is sparsely covered or simply because a site has tremendous authority/trust/rank a mention of a term on page or in anchor text pointing to that page can be served up instead. This is especially bemusing in the case of synonyms or stemming.

As a widgetised example: a page on a major home lawncare authority site has a meta description that does mention 'turf' and it is used once in the content something like '...there is no accounting for such turf conditions...'. 'Accounting', naturally is not referenced in the meta-d.

A search query for 'bookie' returns that page on the basis of 'turf' and 'accounting' being within a certain proximity; 'turf accountant' being a synonym of bookie and 'accounting' and 'accountant' both stemming from 'account'. As the lawncare page meta-d is not relevant the snippet snips and displays '...there is no accounting for such turf conditions...'. Apparently, site weight, as opposed to relevance, can have a major input.

Algos are as stupid as they are powerful.

#16 Ron Carnell

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Posted 27 March 2008 - 11:05 AM

Given that searchers may put all sorts of long tail keyword searches together, I think that kind of loss of control is probably quite frequent.


You're probably right, Barry. The first time someone searches for a phrase you didn't consider optimizing for, I'd have to agree it represents a loss of control. If it happens a second time, however, that's an abandonment of control. And that might even be acceptable; how much effort a visitor is worth depends on the site. If it happens a thousand times, however, I think someone is definitely missing the boat. And it ain't Google.

All you have to do, for any keyword combination, is write a sentence of the appropriate length that contains all of those keywords. Put that sentence in your meta-description. That's it. If there's a limit on how many such sentences you can include in a meta-description, I haven't hit it yet (though, realistically, any page drawing more than a handful of related search queries probably needs to be better targeted).

We could spend weeks or months talking about how best to write that sentence, but getting Google to use it shouldn't take more than five minutes. It really is just that simple.

#17 bwelford

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Posted 27 March 2008 - 11:25 AM

Most interesting, Ron. I've tended to write descriptions that are only one sentence of less than 155 characters and spaces. I had not considered writing several such sentences. What's the maximum number of such sentences you have included in a single Description meta tag? Did Google most often just choose one of your sentences? .. or did it more often mix and match?

#18 Ron Carnell

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Posted 27 March 2008 - 02:15 PM

I generally have only two or three sentences in the meta-description, Barry, each of them as close to 155 characters as seems reasonable within the context of the page. I've had as many as 14 sentences, I think, but eventually broke that page up into multiple pages (which should have been done right from the start). And, yes, of course Google chooses just one of the sentences for its snippet -- just as it chooses one of your sentences from the content or concatenates smaller sentences when all else fails. Remember, though, the 155 char sentence must contain ALL the keywords in a query if it is to fully satisfy Google. Otherwise, you'll likely see ellipses. Google is very good at parsing full thoughts when the punctuation is correct, though, and much prefers good sentences.

There's nothing magical about the meta-description. It just happens to be first on the page, and Google looks for its snippets from top to bottom. Once Google finds what it wants, it stops looking. Our job is to give it what it wants (while simultaneously giving it what WE want for a good call-to-action).

For the record, Ammon and I have had a similar discussion before.

#19 Respree

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Posted 27 March 2008 - 02:25 PM

I pretty smart guy suggested to put your keywords at the beginning of the sentence. Assuming they don't use your meta, doing so will 'force' the snippet to appear in context with the words which succeed it (and read much better, like a whole sentence), rather than taking a chance of potential out of context snippet displays (i.e. the ellipsis).

#20 bwelford

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Posted 27 March 2008 - 02:40 PM

That really is an excellent thread, Ron. I missed it at the time since I was moving lock-stock-and-barrel from Eastern to Western Canada at the time. It's excellent preparation for this discussion.

As you may imagine, I've been watching snippets with more than usual interest during the last week or two. As you seem to confirm in that thread, the snippet process takes words a little more literally than does the general search algorithm with its more 'semantic' analysis.

I suddenly realized that however useful this multi-sentence approach might be with the Description meta tag, it might be a somewhat academic discussion for me at the moment. I'm using the All-in-one-SEOpack WordPress plugin that strongly suggests the Description meta tag should be limited to 160 characters. However I've just checked and you can put in whatever length of text you wish and it is correctly handled by the plugin. That's very encouraging. :)

#21 bwelford

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Posted 28 March 2008 - 05:15 PM

There was a most surprising visitor to one of my blogs this morning, which points to some very surprising logic used by the Google snippet processor. This visitor used Google Brazil in their search and here is the top part of the SERP they saw:

googlesnippet.jpg

To avoid confusion I should mention that I use a Firefox Add-on to customize the Google results, which explains the small amount of English text on the page. What is surprising is the actual snippet used.

The description meta tag has a sentence of exactly 153 characters and spaces and this is what is normally shown in a SERP. In this case, as I have seen occasionally, the first item in the snippet is the date of the post and Google has then slightly truncated the description to fit within the standard snippet length.

What is more surprising is that the date is shown in French. This does not appear anywhere on the blog post page. It may possibly be in a link pointing to the page. However why show this in French to a searcher from Brazil.

Since computers do not make mistakes, this presumably tells us something about the snippet creation logic. What exactly that might be is beyond me.

#22 Thejspot

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Posted 28 March 2008 - 07:35 PM

I think part of the debate is largely semantic. Can you choose the "snippet" for your site? Well who cares, you can pretty much get it to display what you want.

Having now amended the meta description on over 100 sites, I've noted the following.

If you have a meta description, it doesn't matter what it says, if the title of the page is relevant to the search it will display your meta description, not matter how irrelevant. I have done tests and put complete junk in there and it still gets displayed. This is because you don't seem to get any relevance in Google for a meta description. If Google has decided the page itself is relevant for the search, it will show your title and your meta description.

If you don't have a coded meta description you will either get some "relevant" text from the page or you will get a DMOZ listing or some other kind of directory listing.

This has been my experience in 100% of cases I've looked at.

This is only for web pages, I have noted more often in searches where blogs, forums and PDFs etc are the main search results, you get a "snippet" that seems to be taken from the point in the page that relates to the search.

#23 Ron Carnell

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Posted 28 March 2008 - 08:53 PM

Wow. Perhaps, Jspot, you could give us a few examples of Google displaying the meta-description "not matter how irrelevant?" Some with "complete junk in there" would be especially exciting, I think (I have to admit, that's not something I ever thought to try).

#24 Thejspot

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Posted 29 March 2008 - 01:06 AM

I'll make some examples to show you, but you can type just about anything in Google and you'll find meta descriptions that don't have you search phrases in it.

Took me 10 seconds to find this example to show you what I mean. I typed in the word "Yuck" into google and this site, http://themes.freshm.../projects/yuck/ - has yuck in the title and in the URL, not in the meta description which if you look at it, could have said pretty much anything and got displayed.

#25 Ron Carnell

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Posted 29 March 2008 - 01:35 AM

Mmmm. When I do a search for Yuck that site isn't returned at all. And every one of the first ten results, save one, includes the search term in the snippet. That single exception doesn't have a snippet at all.

#26 bwelford

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Posted 29 March 2008 - 10:15 AM

I too had a problem with your example, Thejspot. Your example didn't come up in the first 100 at either Google or Yahoo! nor in the first 50 at MSN/Live. Google is pretty clear that what is in the Description meta tag won't influence ranking.

Your example must clearly come up somewhere in the keyword search for Yuck although you may have to go a long way down to find it. At that point, if they can't find any more Yucks on the website or in back links pointing to the web page, then they don't have much that is relevant that could go into the snippet. So they'll leave it blank or perhaps use part of the irrelevant Description meta tag. At that point, I guess neither Google nor any of its searchers would care what they see there.

#27 bwelford

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Posted 29 March 2008 - 11:44 AM

If you want to hear some 'official' words on how to make snippets work for you, why not check out a Matt Cutts video. Tip of the hat to Kathryn Katz.

#28 bwelford

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Posted 31 March 2008 - 10:36 AM

This is getting to be a hot story even on Sphinn.

I finally understood the small problem I had with the image I showed previously for a SERP result for my blog site from a visitor in Brazil. The date shown at the start of the Google snippet was not in French but in Portuguese. fev was an abbreviation for Fevereiro and not the French février.

Another visitor the other morning from a country I cannot identify came via the following SERP item:

googlesnippet2.jpg

The date is clearly in the language of the searcher. Does anyone know what language that is?

Looking more intensively at snippets, I'm finding that for 5 out of ten blog posts I checked, the snippets now start with the date. In English, this takes up 17 characters including the ellipsis (...). This seems to leave 138 characters and spaces for text that can come from the Description meta tag. So if you really want to control the snippet content, you may only have 138 characters to use for that. This means an extra step to check whether your blog post is shown either with or without the date in typical SERPs. I give more details on this here.

What I don't understand is why some blog posts have snippets starting with the blog post date and some don't. There's no obvious logic. It may be that blog posts that come up often in SERPs get the date treatment, but even that isn't always true. Can anyone come up with the possible logic for this behavior?

#29 Guest_emoty_*

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Posted 31 March 2008 - 12:19 PM

Hey Barry, I thought the all the mods were meditating and contemplating today.

icon_meditating.jpg

#30 bwelford

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Posted 31 March 2008 - 01:40 PM

:thinking:

#31 bwelford

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Posted 01 April 2008 - 09:16 PM

Assuming we're now back to 'business as usual', perhaps some might like to see the present status on this Google snippet rule change for blogs:

For a group of high traffic blog posts I'm finding 100% of the Google snippets now have dates at the start. For other blogs with less visible posts it's running about 25% with dates at the start. It looks as though Google may be progressively rolling this out.

Edited by bwelford, 01 April 2008 - 09:17 PM.


#32 BillSlawski

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Posted 02 April 2008 - 01:21 AM

A couple of additional thoughts on snippets...


query dependent and query independent snippets

The Microsoft patent filing discussed the idea of "query dependent" and "query independent" snippets.

Query independent snippets are snippets often (but not always) taken from the meta description, that are displayed regardless of the query term used to find the page.

Query dependent snippets are snippets that attempt to use the keyword terms being searched for within the snippet.

A statement is made in the patent filing that Microsoft prefers to use query dependent snippets when ever they can.

Anchor and associated text as snippets

The Microsoft patent filing anchor text and snippets focused upon the possibility of created snippets from anchor text and possibility text near or associated with that anchor text, from pages pointing to the page showing up in search results. But, it would do that only when the query terms don't actually show up on the page in the search result, but rather when returning pages that are found relevant for a term because the page is linked to with that anchor text.

When you look at the snippets for a "click here" search in Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, the snippets shown are different for each. Yahoo shows the description of the Adobe page from the Yahoo directory, rather than a snippet taken from the adobe reader download page. Microsoft points to the adobe flash download page for that search, and instead of using text from that download page, shows the error message "We are unable to locate a Web player that matches your platform and browser." :)

In the "click here" search at Google, the snippet is a list of words from the navigation of the Adobe reader page - not a very good list at that, and not one that includes the phrase "click here." Adobe doesn't have a meta description for that page. :D

#33 bwelford

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Posted 02 April 2008 - 09:08 AM

Those are good thoughts to bring out on this, Bill. Given the long tail nature of searchers' queries, many queries will have a curious mix of keywords. In consequence, the snippet needed to support the relevance of a particular item in a SERP may require text even from the link text on back links.

My approach on this is to look at the keyword phrase that brings the maximum traffic to a web page and optimize the Description meta tag for that. Part of it may then be used for other 'off target' keyword searches, but you really are in the lap of the gods (or the Google automatic snippet creator) as to what appears. :)

Edited by bwelford, 02 April 2008 - 10:16 AM.




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