We've written before about the need for search engines to give webmasters more control over their titles and descriptions. Today, I came across another good example illustrating why this is needed -- Google telling me that Chris Pirillo's popular Gnomedex event is happening in 2002, as you see in the screenshot above.
I'm usually not one to do much with screenshots, but I'm jumping into them big time with this post to help illustrate why this problem is happening. Gnomedex is listed in the Open Directory's fairly well abandoned Cyberspace Events category. Here's how it looks there:
Ages ago, some human editor there wrote up a title and description for the then-Gnomedex 2002 event. Now when you search on Google, Google decides to use that title and description rather than pulling information from the Gnomedex home page itself.
This won't always happen. For example, look at this screenshot:
Now the title is different. What happened? Google dynamically decided that using the title from the HTML title tag of the Gnomedex home page was more relevant than using the Open Directory's title of this page. Notice that previously I searched for just gnomedex but in the second screenshot, I looked for gnomedex tech conference. Adding those additional words not only changed the results but also how Google felt it should describe the page.
Now look here:
This time, BOTH the title and description are drawn from the page itself, rather than the Open Directory. What happened? My query changed to gnomedex tech conference enthusiasts. Google again examines the Open Directory's title and description for the page to see if it contains my search words or would be relevant to show. It decides against that and instead turns to using content from the page itself.
There are very good reasons for descriptions to dynamically change. Extracting text from a page that matches what you've searched for can help you know if that's a good page to click through to. That's the primarily reason Google did dynamic snippets/descriptions ages ago.
Nor do you want to always depend on the meta description tag. As I'll show in a future post, many authoring programs can insert this tag (along with title tags) with no descriptions or with no information. That's bad -- and that's one reason why Google depends on the Open Directory information in part.
But enough is enough. MSN Search just introduced a way for site owners to just say no to having the Open Directory information be used to describe their pages. I want the rest of the search engines to climb on board with it. Using that would eliminate the problem above, just as it would eliminate the case we've already written about, where Google is making it seem as an Alaskan gubernatorial candidate has already been elected.
Since I'm doing screenshots, let me spin that one out, as well:
Now Tony Knowles used to be governor of Alaska. The former two-termer wants the job again, so he's running against Murkowksi. He's even got a campaign web site, as you can see in a search for his name:
In fact, you can also see in the screenshot that the Knowles campaign has been so successful that he's already been declared governor of Alaska by Google in the same search results. Look at the second listing, and you'll see the title for the official Alaska governor web site is "Governor Tony Knowles."
What's going on? And why's the description mention Murkowski as governor? Again, it's an Open Directory issue, where Google has decided to use just the outdated title from over there.
This Open Directory category, until recently, used that title for the governor's web site. The ODP has since fixed it after Threadwatch brought attention to it, but it's still floating around in the data stream. For example, here's a search at the ODP showing it:
FYI, this isn't just a Google issue. Over at Ask for tony knowles:
You can see in the third listing that Ask does exactly what Google is doing. But also look at the candidate web site listed first. Isn't he running for governor? Yes, but the OPD still has him listed here as running for US Senate. Ask used both the ODP title and description, making this seem out of date.
Oops -- Tony is both running Alaska as governor currently and also has gone back in time to run for US Senate. The good news is, if he can go back and get elected, then maybe he'll meet with Sergey Brin last Tuesday when other senators refused to at the last minute and help lobby his counterparts in the US House Of Representative not to vote against net neutrality, as they did yesterday. Time travel -- magic!
Seriously, while it's great to have the opt-out, that's only going to help if people proactively use it. Most will not do so until after some big problem is flashed in their face. A better solution these days is probably to stop using the ODP as a data source at all unless people specifically opt-in for using its titles and descriptions.
Well, at least Yahoo doesn't have these types of problems. After all, Yahoo uses stuff from its own Yahoo Directory. So in a search on tony knowles:
Man, can't the ODP get a break? Sure -- this time, it's the Yahoo Directory category that is out of date. Cruise over there, and you'll see that tonyknowles.com is given a description by Yahoo about his senate attempt. That was correct at the time, but since then, Knowles has changed the web site over for his gubernatorial attempt.
FYI, sometimes Yahoo DOES use the OPD as well as its own directory. So a noodp tag would be useful to help things there -- plus perhaps a noyahoo tag as well.
Let's go back to Gnomedex, and I'll finish off with a few things. Here's what Ask is currently showing:
First, the Smart Answer on the top from Wikipedia is pretty nice, I think. But how about the listing of the site itself. What's with this "Gnomedex 6.0" stuff?
That was the title tag on the site the last time Ask was there, which according to the cached page was May 22. Since the title tag has changed since then, the two don't match. That will get corrected the next time Ask goes back -- assuming it doesn't decide to use the ODP listing, for some reason.
As I said, a good first move would be for all the other search engines to get behind the noodp tag that MSN introduced. Honestly, a better solution would be to stop using the ODP information altogether, so this type of stuff stops happening.
FYI, for more background, Proposed Search Engine Standard For Titles & Descriptions on our Search Engine Watch Forums covers a long discussion we had on the topic last year. That led to a live forum discussion on the topic involving search engine reps that's covered here: Session Five: Day Two: Indexing Summit 2: Redirects, Titles & Descriptions.
I've been terribly, terribly remiss in not doing the last follow through myself on what was discussed, including the idea of a "I really mean it -- I'm not just making a mistake" meta tag that tells the search engines to only use material from your web page. I did a short summary of the results here, and next week, I'll finally make time to get things finished up on that. The time is finally right for change, I suspect.
Want to comment or discuss? Start a thread in the Search Engine Optimization section of our Search Engine Watch Forums, and we'll come back and link to it from here.