Was the meta description for this article written by Google? Or a human editor at Search Engine Land?
You can’t tell, can you? That’s how far machine learning has come. Read on the learn the “shocking” truth.
Auto-generating content summaries. Earlier this year, Google started automatically generating content summaries for Docs users. Google explains the technology behind how it works in this blog post if you want to dive into the natural language understanding (NLU) and natural language generation (NLG) of it all.
In short, based on the text of your document, Google will suggest a summary for you. You can choose to use the summary if it looks good to you, or you can edit the summary to be more to your liking.
This was interesting news because if there’s one thing I know from editing for 20+ years, it’s that people – even some great content writers – have a hard time condensing 1,000+ words into one or two short sentences or ideas that are optimized for search and act as a teaser to entice clicks (without giving away everything).
Testing out Google Docs summaries. I was curious to see how good Google Docs is at generating summaries, so I looked at my five most recent articles.
In short, Google Docs is surprisingly good at generating summaries. It’s by no means 100% perfect – but it’s at a level you’d expect from Google. I’m sure you already have seen Google’s intelligence at work in Gmail, offering responses to an email or suggesting how you should finish a sentence as you’re writing it.
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Here are the summaries Google Docs suggested for my articles:
Human: These tactics will result in fewer recommendations, less views and limited ranking. Learn how to avoid what Facebook considers watchbait.
Google: This article is about how to avoid watchbait in your videos. It’s important to know what Facebook considers watchbait and what you should do to avoid it.
Google’s is slightly long – and I’m not personally a fan of starting any meta description with “this article”. But this is pretty accurate. Swap “Learn” for “This article is about” and you’ve got a serviceable meta description. Thanks, Google.
Human: Many brands already know TikTok drives sales. TikTok search ads could help attract qualified traffic (and get valuable keyword data).
Google: This is a big deal. TikTok is testing search ads, and it’s a big opportunity for brands to attract qualified traffic.
This is probably the strongest summary of the bunch – the most “human” sounding. Also, it’s interesting that Google somehow determined this was a “big deal” because the words “big deal” never appear within the text.
Human: Good news for brands and businesses who use Twitter for customer service: you can now find DMs by searching for keywords.
Google: This is a long time coming. Twitter has been working on a DM search feature for some time, and now you can search your inbox by keywords.
Google’s summary is not the best ever. It’s long and feels a bit repetitive (e.g., using the word “time” twice). But at least it’s not wrong.
Human: This data will help give you some bargaining power, whether you’re negotiating salary for a new role or seeking a raise from your employer.
Google: This survey looked at the median salaries for PPC specialists in the U.S. and the U.K. It was based on responses from 715 respondents.
This was easily the worst summary by Google. It’s boring. But more troubling: it’s inaccurate.
The survey itself didn’t look at only the median salaries. That’s just what I wrote about. Also, my article didn’t mention the UK, so I have no idea where it pulled that from. The survey actually was global.
So this one is a failure on Google’s part. The median salary issue is a “bigger context” issue that’s understandable – it can only output a summary based on what the author (me) has input. But the input/output theory wouldn’t explain the UK mention. That is just an oddball.
Human: Meta is consolidating its products into the Meta Advantage suite, which allows advertisers to automate part of a – or an entire – campaign.
Google: This is just a simple rebrand and making clear which of its products are automated. However, the company is also coming out with a shopping campaign later this year.
Again, not awesome, not terrible, and fairly accurate. With a few tweaks, you’d have a decent meta description.
Why we care. I use Google Docs all the time to write content. But never have I considered it a tool for SEO. Until now. If you struggle to write compelling meta descriptions (or excerpts or summaries) for your website content, simply hit the + button next to Summary in Google Docs. Those auto-generated summaries aren’t perfect, but it is generally a great “rough draft” that can help you write a compelling meta description.
And even if you don’t use the summary Google generates (e.g., because it’s inaccurate, long, or has some other issue), that may be a big hint that you need to give your content another, deeper review. (You may also consider asking a friend, your editor, or someone else to review it.) Does it actually say what you meant or want it to? Because if Google (Docs) can’t understand it, it’s quite possible that when it publishes, neither will Google (search).
Wait! Who wrote the meta description for this article? I did. Google’s was just too long:
“This is a big deal. Earlier this year, Google started automatically generating content summaries for Google Docs users. The idea is to help content writers write compelling meta descriptions for their website content.”
But good to know that Google Docs thinks that this technology is also a big deal.
Summary, take two. The above summary generated by Google was on my rough draft version. After making my final edits, I deleted the summary from Google Docs, curious to see if it would generate a new summary, based on my revisions. It did:
“This is a pretty interesting technology that’s making its way into Google Docs. Google Docs automatically generates content summaries for you. I tested it out with five articles I’ve recently written and it was surprisingly good.”
First problem: too long. Second problem: the technology is already in Google Docs. If we delete the first sentence, it’s good.
And that seems to be the overall pattern for these auto-generated Google Docs summaries: good, but not great.
So, yes, Google Docs can help you write your meta descriptions, but more as a first attempt. Don’t expect Google Docs to generate a great meta description for you (you may have as much luck with a million monkeys banging on keyboards – eventually one of them is bound to produce a meta description worthy of Shakespeare). For now, anyway, human review, analysis, intuition and creativity are still essential job requirements.