SEO Meta Descriptions: The What, Why, and How
7 minute read
When it comes to using content to improve the value of a webpage, it isn’t all about the copy on the page. There are also hidden HTML attributes and metadata blurbs you can add to the back end of a webpage to send useful signals to both search engines and users. An important part of those text snippets are SEO meta descriptions.
What Are SEO Meta Descriptions?
They’re blurbs of text that provide a brief description of a webpage.
This text appears as a meta tag in a page’s HTML code.
The HTML version of the text looks like this.
Text from SEO meta descriptions also appears on search engine results pages (SERPs). The blurb is a part of a larger snippet that also includes a:
- Title Tag: A version of the page title that is added to the HTML. (This page title can be different from the headline that appears on the page.)
- Slug: The URL for the page.
Together, the title tag, slug, and meta description create the snippet that appears on a search results page.
This snippet looks like this.
This copy also appears in a few other places associated with the webpage. The title tag appears in a web browser tab, and the title tag and meta description are often featured on social media posts that share the page.
This is how a page’s title and descriptions look when shared on Facebook.
SEO meta descriptions provide extra page data, but they do far more than simply deliver bonus content. Click & Tweet! Marketers can benefit from using strategic meta descriptions on each of their webpages.
Why Should You Use SEO Meta Descriptions?
While Google has said that meta descriptions are not a ranking factor, this content is still an important part of driving traffic and improving a page’s performance in search.
1. Descriptions are like mini ads for a webpage.
When SEO meta descriptions appear on SERPs and social media feeds, they act as a small promo for the webpage. The copy gives marketers an opportunity to promote the page and tell readers why they should click on it.
2. Defined meta descriptions look better in search results.
When you don’t tell search engines and social platforms which page description to use, they decide for themselves. This could result in an unflattering appearance for your page snippet. Text could be cut off, important details could be missing, and irrelevant page data could appear. Defining the text you want to use allows you to ensure the best, most relevant content appears.
In this example, you can see how distracting it is when the description is cut-off and incomplete.
3. Strategic meta descriptions increase click-through rates.
When properly optimized for audiences, meta descriptions receive more clicks. More users choose the result because they can clearly see that it offers what they need.
4. Higher click-through rates increase search rankings.
While an SEO meta description won’t increase a page’s search rankings on its own, the results of a well-crafted meta description can boost a page’s rankings. When a link is frequently clicked on in search results, it sends signals to search engines telling them that the page is important and a good result that users prefer. This helps boost a page’s rankings in search results.
5. Meta descriptions can be a part of a larger rich snippet plan.
Search engine results aren’t restricted to displaying only a title, slug, and description. There are a variety of other tags (or schema) that can add bonus rich snippets to search engine results. They may be small details such as the data and extra links shown in the example below.
Or, rich snippets could include larger chunks of copy, links, icons, and images as you might find for pages with reviews, recipes, or product information.
Optimizing for other rich snippets is just one of the best practices you can use to highlight meta descriptions and improve the performance of a page in search.
Let’s review the best practices of creating rich snippets and look at a few meta description examples that put these practices to work.
Write a meta description for every webpage. As a best practice, create a meta description and title tag for every landing page and blog post you publish. If you haven’t followed this practice and already have hundreds of pages, start with the most important pages.
An easy way to create text snippets for WordPress is by using the Yoast SEO for WordPress Plugin. Once you install and activate the plugin, you gain access to a feature box that allows you to add a custom title tag, slug, and meta description.
Do not use duplicate SEO meta descriptions. Each meta description and page title you create should be unique. Do not use the same phrases or language for multiple rich snippets.
To check your current site to see if you have duplicate SEO meta descriptions, use Alexa’s SEO Audit Tool. Enter your site and run the complete site audit. Scroll down to the section “Duplicate Meta Descriptions” to see how many pages (as well as a list of the exact pages) that have duplicate content problems.
Write between 135 and 160 characters. The length of meta descriptions that display in search results change based on screen size, device type, and other technical factors, so there is no golden rule for how long SEO meta descriptions should be. But to fit within the most common range of length, write copy that is between 135 to 160 characters.
Include the page’s targeted keyword. Every webpage should include a targeted keyword that the page is intended to rank for. Perform keyword discovery to find the best keyword, and then include that keyword in the SEO meta description.
Search engines highlight terms in results when they match the user’s search phrasing by bolding the words. So when you incorporate words in your description that searchers are using, users will notice them more easily. As you can see in this example, the results for a search for “marketing” bolded the related terms.
Don’t use quotation marks. Because SEO meta descriptions are included in the HTML, you must be careful not to use characters that will break the HTML language. One of the characters that most commonly causes problems is a double quotation mark. Double quotation marks (“quote”) can cause problems in meta descriptions, so avoid using them. If you must use a quote, use a single quotation mark (‘quote’) instead.
Include value propositions. Give readers a reason to click on a link by explaining the benefits they will receive by visiting the page. Highlight the value they will get, the things they will learn, and the problems they will solve.
In this example, the publisher tells the reader how the post will help them (“consistently produce quality blog posts”). They also tell audiences that the post includes a template that provides additional value.
Maintain the active voice. Passive language, when the subject of the sentence is being acted upon, is boring and drab. Active language, when the subject of the sentence is taking action, is interesting and easy to visualize and understand. Therefore, an important content writing tip is to maintain the active voice as much as possible. Write meta descriptions in active voice to help engage readers and hold their attention.
Include a call to action. Treat your meta description as a piece of your customer’s journey and use language that guides users to take the next step. Include a call to action that encourages them to act.
Don’t try to trick the audience. While you should use your meta tag information to pull readers into your copy and encourage them to click to read, you must always do it in an ethical way. Never use misleading language, outrageous claims, or unrelated copy to promote your content or try to attract attention. Using incorrect statements to lead readers to your page will disappoint and push away readers, and can even negatively impact your SEO rankings.
If the content on a page does not match the page’s meta information, search engines may penalize the site. Plus, the high bounce rates that are created from users landing on the page and quickly clicking away can also send negative signals to search engines, telling them that it is a bad or useless page.
Support meta descriptions with strong page titles. Unlike meta descriptions, meta title tags do have an impact on SEO rankings. This SEO content also plays an important role in catching the attention of searcher and readers. So to support your meta descriptions, you also need to use a strong meta page title:
- Use the keyword but don’t overuse it.
- Place the keyword near the front of the title.
- Focus on readers, not just search engines.
- Show benefits and value.
- Include your brand name when relevant.
- Write 50 to 60 characters.
- Write unique page titles for each page.
As with meta descriptions, you should not use duplicate title tags for any of your pages. For help with identifying existing pages on your site that may have title tag problems, go back to the Alexa Site Audit Tool. View the portion of the report that identifies pages with missing or duplicate meta title tags.
Don’t worry about meta keywords. Like a meta title and description, meta keywords are terms that are tagged and placed in a page’s HTML. But unlike titles and descriptions, meta keywords have very little impact on the value of the page for search engines or users. Major search engines have publically stated that these hidden terms are not ranking factors. Also, meta tag keywords are not visible to users, so don’t exert energy adding these extra terms to your pages.
Use different rich snippets for Facebook and Twitter. Social media platforms typically use a page’s defined meta description as the blurb for their featured posts. But you can adjust this. By using a tool like the Yoast SEO plugin, you can change the text that will appear when the page or post is shared through social media.
This gives you more options for customizing your page data to best fit the platforms it is shared on.
Optimize for other rich snippets when you can. If other schema markups are relevant to the content on your page, add structured data to your page to improve the look of your search engine results listings. This is useful if your page features reviews, recipes, products, event information, and videos.
Double-check your work. Once you add metadata to your post to optimize it for SERPs, check to make sure you hit all of the best practices. Use Alexa’s On-Page SEO Checker to scan your page. The report highlights any errors that exist on a page as they relate to overall on-site SEO. It also includes a section specifically for SERP appearance.
Use details from the report to check on-page SEO and identify places where you may have missed optimization opportunities for both your meta description and title tag.
It’s Time to Review and Improve Your SEO Meta Descriptions
As you can see, SEO meta descriptions are more than bonus content blurbs. They are a part of a larger strategy that can help you attract readers from search results pages, increase your rankings, and draw extra traffic from social media platforms.
So don’t overlook this data on your webpages. Create a plan for adding unique metadata to each of your new pages and go back and review your existing pages to ensure they meet the standards and best practices for SEO meta descriptions.
For help with identifying errors in your current metadata structure, try out Alexa’s Site Audit Tool and On-Page SEO Checker by signing up for a free 7-day trial of Alexa’s Advanced Plan.
This post was originally published on Alexa