Meta Descriptions a Complete Guide [SEO]

Introduction to Meta Descriptions

Meta descriptions don’t affect your search engine rankings and consequently some people overlook them, regarding them as unimportant. However, they have a huge impact on whether users click through to your website from the search engine results pages (SERPs). It is therefore important to have a unique concise, accurate and appealing meta description for every page of your website, and this 101 guide will tell you everything you need to know to achieve that.

What exactly is a meta description?

The meta description is a HTML attribute that gives a concise description of what a web page is about. It is contained within the header portion of the web page’s code, and so is not visible when viewing the page. To see the meta description for a page, right click on the page and choose ‘View page source’:

view-page-sour ce

An example of the code you’ll find somewhere between the <head></head> tag is as follows:

<meta name=”description” content=”This is a description of the web page which will often show up in the search engine results.”>

Uses of Meta Descriptions

Meta descriptions are often used in the SERPs, as highlighted here:

meta-description

However, Google will also sometimes display something different in place of the meta description you’ve written. This might be a snippet from the web page’s content, or from the Open Directory Project (DMOZ), where Google deems that this is more relevant to the user’s search query (and the same applies to your meta title which may also be substituted).

For example, the w3schools.com page on the subject of meta tags currently ranks 2nd in Google for the search term ‘meta description’. The web page has the following meta description:

<meta name=”Description” content=”Free HTML CSS JavaScript DOM jQuery XML AJAX Angular ASP .NET PHP SQL tutorials, references, web building examples”>

This is pretty generic and doesn’t really describe the page content at all. So instead, Google substitutes the meta description with a couple of different sentences from the web page itself:

w3-schools

Do Meta Descriptions Affect Rankings?

Google confirmed in September 2009 that the meta description tag is not a ranking factor for Google’s algorithms and therefore does not impact where your website appears in the SERPs (source: http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.co.uk/2009/09/google-does-not-use-keywords-meta-tag.html#uds-search-results ). Your only objective in tailoring your meta descriptions is, therefore, to increase click-throughs from the SERPs.

meta description not ranking factor

Customising Meta Descriptions

Just because Google sometimes substitutes your meta description with something else, doesn’t mean that you should neglect your meta descriptions thereby forcing Google to simply substitute them with snippets from the page every time. The substitution process is automatic and you may not always like the snippets that Google picks out for you.

You might think of your meta descriptions as a sales pitch to persuade the user to click through to your web page and an opportunity to stand out from the competition. Your meta descriptions therefore need to be as accurate, relevant and informative as possible to give them the best chance of being displayed and of being effective. The descriptions Google generates for you are less likely to entice a user to click through than a well-tailored description that you have carefully written yourself.

It follows that it is also important to try and get your meta descriptions as close as possible to the ideal length, so that your carefully worded enticing description is conveyed without being cut short. The optimal length for your meta description is discussed below.

Blocking Google’s use of Dmoz

As noted above, Google sometimes chooses to display content from Dmoz (Open Directory Project) in the place of your meta description. If this is undesirable, you can prevent Google (and any other search engines that support the meta tag) from displaying your website’s Dmoz entry using the following code in the <head></head> section of your page:

<meta name=”googlebot” content=”NOODP, nofollow”>

Optimal Meta Description Length

Google now calculates how much of the meta description to display using pixel width, rather than an exact number of characters. This makes sense, as some characters (such as ‘w’ and ‘m’) take up far more space than others (such as ‘i’, ‘l’ and ‘v’). For example, both of these rows contain the same number of characters:

vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvv

wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

The meta description is displayed in the SERPs using Arial font (13px) and on the whole, Google cuts off the description at word boundaries following with an ellipsis […] – although this is not always the case and occasionally words are cut off midway though.

The estimated pixel width for your description depends on the device you are using – the team at Screaming Frog offer the following guidelines (source: http://www.screamingfrog.co.uk/an-update-on-pixel-width-in-google-serp-snippets/ ):

  • Desktop: 928px
  • Mobile: 757px
  • Tablet: 1035px

However, Google sometimes adds additional information in the space for the meta description which affects how much of the description is displayed. For example, sometimes it may bold the user’s search term as follows:

bolded-terms

Sometimes the date of the article will be included as a prefix:

date

Additionally, sometimes ‘jump to’ links are included as a prefix, which link through to anchors within the web page:

refugeeks meta descriptions jump to links

(the above is from the Refugeeks Review on SEMrush) NB: sometimes these are also caused by external anchor text.)

All of these modifications and additions can all affect how much of your description is displayed. It is therefore not possible to know exactly how many pixels you have to work with every time, because you won’t know what search term the user will enter to find your page (although you can take a best guess), or whether the date/other information will be prefixed. There are, however, a couple of tools that can help you measure and optimise your meta descriptions to be as close to the ideal width as possible, factoring in keywords and prefixes. These are:

Approximate number of characters

Because we all need to start somewhere when writing meta descriptions, as a very rough guide, around 155 characters is about the right length. Given all of the above, this is extremely rough and best used as a starting point before you run your site through one of the tools to get a more accurate indication of whether you need to increase or reduce the description.

Auto Generated Meta Descriptions

Contrary to what you might expect, Google’s webmaster guidelines actually encourage programmatically generated meta descriptions for larger database driven websites such as product aggregators (source: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/35624?hl=en). Google recognises that for such websites, individually hand-written descriptions would be impossible and therefore recommends programmatic generation in such cases, recommending that page-specific data is used.

Prioritisation

Google also makes the suggestion that if you don’t have the time to create an individual description for every single page, you should prioritise your content and create descriptions for the critical URLs as a minimum. For large database driven websites you could consider a combination of programmatically generated descriptions and individually written descriptions for the most popular/key pages.

When not to customise meta descriptions

There are some instances where it is better not to create a meta description and to allow the search engines to display a snippet from the page. An example is where your page is targeting long-tail traffic (e.g. three or more keywords). Where the search engines take a snippet from the page to display, they will generally pick one that includes the searcher’s keywords and the surrounding words – and so, the auto generated snippet is more likely to be relevant than a forced meta description which may detract from the relevance the search engine naturally detects.

This only applies however for long tail search – an example would be a site with hundreds of pieces of academic work that students can use as examples, or a website containing the texts of popular plays and poems:

example-long-tail

Other Tips Regarding Best Practice

Social Media and meta Descriptions

Before making the decision not to individually write a meta description for each of your pages, consider also that social sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+, and bookmarking sites like Digg often make use of the meta description tag for sharing:

refugeeks meta description usage on facebook posts

The meta description, if provided, is usually used in full, but in absence of the completed tag, they will often just insert the first text they can find, cut short with an ellipsis. You can edit the description for Facebook and LinkedIn when sharing but not everyone sharing your page will do this. This may lessen the value of social shares as they won’t be as enticing without a properly crafted description, so if social sharing of your content is likely but individually crafted meta descriptions are unrealistic, you might instead want to consider programmatically generated descriptions for long tail content, rather than no description at all.

Avoid duplicate descriptions

As with title tags, it is important that the meta descriptions on each page are unique. Google advises to differentiate the descriptions for different pages since identical or similar descriptions on every page ‘aren’t helpful’ and they are less likely to display duplicates – which is not what you want if you’ve spent time working on these to get a better click through rate. In fact, in 2013, Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s web spam team, said that it is better to have no meta descriptions at all (so that Google has to generate auto-snippets), than to have duplicate meta descriptions across pages (source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4gr88oHb-k).

Structured Data in Meta Descriptions

Your meta description doesn’t have to be a plain sentence – you can also include structured data. Blog posts, for example, can include the author, byline or date of publication and product pages might include price and manufacturer. In the following example, information about a book is clearly tagged and separated:

<meta name=”Description” content=”Author: S. Spencer,

Category: Books, Price: £8.50,

Length: 74 pages”>

Quotation marks

If you use double quotation marks within your meta description, it will cut off the description. For example:

<meta name=”description” content=”This is a meta “description” right here.”>

If you need to use quotes, you should therefore only use single quote marks, like this:

<meta name=”description” content=”This is a meta ‘description’ right here.”>

HTML Code in Meta Descriptions

Note that with regard to common escaped items such as & ” etc. within the meta description, it appears that Google un-escapes any escaped HTML before performing a pixel width calculation on the text to see if it needs truncating. For example:

Despite the current trend to segment your audience as much as possible it&#x27;s still easy to overlook the art of meta description writing.

becomes

Despite the current trend to segment your audience as much as possible it’s still easy to overlook the art of meta description writing.

At the time of writing, less common escaped items don’t appear to be escaped before the calculation is performed. It is therefore perhaps a good idea to remove any uncommon non-alphanumeric characters from your meta descriptions as possible to prevent truncation and make it more predictable as to how much of your description will be displayed.

Keyword Highlighting

As noted above, Google bolds the user’s keywords in your meta descriptions:

bolded keywords in meta descriptions refugeeks

If the user sees the keywords they are searching for within your meta description, this makes your listing more appealing to the user who can instantly see the relevance to their search query. It therefore makes sense to consider the keywords a user is most likely to type in to find your page and use these in your description.

However, take care not to stuff your meta description with keywords. Remember that the meta description isn’t relevant for rankings and so isn’t going to help you rank for any particular keyword. It’s all about click throughs and if your meta description is a string of keywords, you’re unlikely to entice the user and it probably won’t be used by Google anyway.

Usage of Calls to Action

Calls to action are words that tell the user what you’d like them to do. Including a clear call to action anywhere – in an email, on a web page, in a text – is more likely to get the user to exhibit the behaviour you want.

Meta descriptions can also contain calls to action – telling the user exactly what they can do if they click through to the web page. Use action-oriented words followed by the details of what the user can do if they choose to click on your link, in terms of solutions and benefits. Here are some examples:

  • ‘Learn about how to write effective meta descriptions…’
  • ‘Grab our free 101 guide to writing powerful meta descriptions…’
  • ‘Discover the ideal length for a meta description…’
  • ‘Download our free ebook on meta descriptions…’

Using Phone numbers

For some businesses, the goal is to get customers to call up and buy a product or use a service. In these instances, including a phone number in your meta description may cut out the need for the user to load your website. This is ideal, for example, where the user wants a quick contact number (such as for a local taxi firm) and can help gain you an advantage over the competition.

Robot Text Exclusions

You will some times see pages in the index with the snippet:

“A description for this result is not available because of this site’s robots.txt”

As the message says, the robots text file is blocking the page from being properly crawled. When a page is blocked at robots.txt level, the spider will not go beyond the url, although it would still index the page. In that case, the spider does not see the content or the meta description in order to return it, and as such triggers the above message in the SERPs. Here is an example we caused in the SERPs:

refugeeks on Matt Cutts site

Deception

If your meta description doesn’t accurately describe the content of your web page, there’s a very good chance the user will hit the ‘Back’ button to return to the search results. This increases your website bounce rate (i.e. the number of instances where users leave your website from the entrance page, without interacting with the page).

Although Matt Cutts has denied in the past that bounce rate is a ranking factor (source: http://www.webpronews.com/matt-cutts-google-doesnt-use-bounce-rate-2012-06 ) most SEOs would agree that user engagement matters and some would go so far as to say that strong user engagement can help protect a site from being negatively affected by certain Google algorithm updates such as Panda. Indeed, Google suggest that if you look at only one metric, bounce rate might be your best choice (source: https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/1009409?hl=en ). It’s therefore important to ensure you don’t use your meta descriptions to deceive users as to the contents of your page to keep bounce rates low and user engagement high.

Split testing Meta Descriptions

If you’re really serious about optimising your meta descriptions for click through rate, you might want to consider split testing different variations to see which bring the best results. Google doesn’t allow split testing of meta descriptions for click-through rate, and comparing metrics from different time periods is unreliable. One solution is to create a test using the SERP Turkey tool. You can set it up with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk if you’re in the US (more info: https://www.distilled.net/resources/optimize-your-serp-snippet-ctr/) but you’ll have to set this up manually with your own testers if you’re in the UK as MTurk requires a US-registered credit card. You may wish to test different description phrasing, lengths and positioning of keywords.

Meta description tools and resources:

Google’s own Webmaster Tools software provides feedback on your meta descriptions under Search Appearance > HTML Improvements. This identifies duplicates and descriptions that Google regards as too long or too short:

webmaster-tools-improvements refugeeks

The SEO Mofo Snippet Optimiser (http://www.seomofo.com/snippet-optimizer.html) or Screaming Frog’s SEO Spider (http://www.screamingfrog.co.uk/seo-spider/) will help you optimise your meta descriptions to be as close to the ideal width as possible. The latter is free for sites of up to 500 pages.

If your website uses WordPress, Yoast’s free WordPress SEO plugin makes editing your meta descriptions in bulk easy, and you can also configure an auto generated template if you haven’t got the time to individually write descriptions for each page (link: https://yoast.com/wordpress/plugins/seo/).

Rishi has been a consultant in online marketing for over 10 years, specialising in SEO, PPC, Affiliate Marketing, Email and Social Media. Over the years he has worked with many brands as well as many small businesses.
Using URL Shorteners, 301 and 302 Redirects to Spam Google

Using URL Shorteners, 301 and 302 Redirects to Spam Google