The answer isn't a simple yes or no, and we intend to explain why meta tags and descriptions STILL matter, although perhaps not in the traditional sense of SEO boosting.
Many years ago, it was encouraged to stuff keywords into your meta tags, specifically for your meta keywords, and meta description. Naturally, internet markets would take advantage of this and stuff as many keywords as possible into these tags.
Eventually, Google changed their algorithm and the value of these meta tags in terms of SEO was greatly diminished. Why did they do this? Because web masters and SEOs starting abusing this concept of keyword stuffing, and would pack in unrelated keywords and terms into their meta tags, Google decided enough was enough and devalued the tags.
What was the original purpose of these meta tags anyways if Google is just going to devalue them? The purpose of these tags still remain the same, although the value of them has dropped off.
Search engines use meta tags in their search results to determine what your site is about (topics of value), how to index it, and how they are displayed on the search engine results page. If done properly, it can have a direct influence on who actually clicks a link to your site from your SERP.
So what does this mean exactly? Let's say for example, you run an online pet blog.
Perhaps you created a nice piece of content for "How to determine if your cat is overweight" with a great internal linking structure, and plenty of targeted keywords within the content, but you decide to put non-relevant keywords or information in your meta description because those keywords are popular and have lots of volume.
What would be the impact of this? Put it this way, if someone is searching for information on if their cat is overweight, and your site gets returned in the SERP, will they click your link if the meta description says, "Free coupons and fat free brownies!"
Chances are no, they will not click your site because the description has no relevance to their initial search. This tactic is really dated, does not work, and should never be used as it will result in a poor click through rate (CTR) and provides nothing of value to the search engines. 99% of people editing their meta descriptions do not do this anymore, but we want to make the point clear.
After listing the reasons above, the true answer has to be broken down into a two part answer:
NO for SEO rankings, but YES for CTR factors.
We already discussed why it does not work for SEO, but to go more into depth about how valuable a proper meta description can be for your CTR, and how to measure it.
First let's take a look at the actual HTML code you should be setting. If your website is a Wordpress site, then there should be individual page or post options to set this. However, even with Wordpress, the source code of the HTML should look something like this:
Keep the description under 155 characters, and within the text, try to give a reason for the person searching to click the link to your site.
The better your description, the higher chance someone will click your link, and improve your CTR.
Basically, if a site is ranking in position 5, but gets a higher CTR than expected, Google might decide to push the position of that page higher in the SERP. It makes logical sense, because Google tries to serve the most relevant information to the end user, and if more people are clicking on a post to satisfy their query needs, Google will recognize this and reward the page with a higher position.
In short, the key point is, the better description you have to lure someone to your page, the higher your CTR will become. And the higher the CTR, the better you will rank within the SERP.
To me, this is just doing standard SEO, and none of any of this information is new.
So let's take a look at Google Search Console to see what kind of insights we can use to determine whether or not our meta descriptions can be improved.
General rule of thumb, if your CTR is below 8%, it means you could be doing a better job. If your CTR is above 8%, then you're descriptions are effective in attracting people to click on your URL. The 8% benchmark is debatable, but that is the goal we aim for at Search Engine Sherpas.
So login to Search Console (if you haven't already set this up for your site, you really should, we will provide an in-depth guide on how to do this if you're not sure) and click your site from the main dashboard.
From there, open up the Search Traffic dropdown, and select Search Index.
This page provides a lot of great information. The first thing you'll want to do, is select the boxes for: Clicks, Impressions, and CTR.
This will give us a list of your top queries that show up in the SERP. From there, you can pick out which queries are getting a strong, or weak CTR. Again, let's take a look at some results from a website that we run and examine the CTR rates for the top queries.
Here are the top 7 queries for this page. If you take a look, most of the queries are performing at an extremely high rate with a CTR of above 30%.
However, the highlighted query shows a poor performing query with a CTR % of 4.92.
If you see this, as mentioned before, it falls below the 8% benchmark that we talked about before, and since the number of impressions is pretty high, this is definitely a query we'll want to focus on.
Sometimes the number of impressions will be quite low, so if your CTR is suffering on a query with barely any traffic, this should not be your focal point of attack. Target the queries with higher impressions.
To get this CTR % higher, change your meta description on the page related to this query to something more engaging, in the hopes of enticing someone to click your site.
You can also take a look at your top pages, and the CTR % and impression volumes for these pages. To differentiate the two sections a bit more clearly:
Queries - The string of text a user types into the search engine. For example "Is my cat obese" would be a search query.
Pages - The page of your actual website that people end up on, after entering their query. For example, let's say someone types in the above query, "Is my cat obese", and the results return your site www.example.com/cat-weight-calculator - that will be your page. It is important to note, that multiple queries can return the same page.
You can also select the radio box for Position on both sections for Queries and Pages. This will show the average position within the SERP that your query or page appears at.
Now that you know what to look for in terms of CTR, you can start fixing the weak queries that lead to your pages. It is also a very good idea to keep track of your results. You can check your progress by filtering the Date radio button. You can actually compare your results from the last 7 days, last 28 days, or a custom date range. This is particularly useful to determine whether or not you're progressing in the right direction.
The above screenshot is a real example of a data set for the last 28 days of search traffic, compared to the previous 28 days before that when the meta descriptions were poor, or non-existent.
As you can see, all the categories have improved: Total clicks, Impressions, and Avg. CTR.
This improvement was attributed simply by changing the meta info on a bunch of pages that had poorly written descriptions, or no description at all. This is one of the easiest, and most effective tactics to improving your organic traffic!
So to recap everything in a nutshell: