The Netsetter: SEO Writing Tip #2: Optimize Your Meta Description Tag

The Netsetter: SEO Writing Tip #2: Optimize Your Meta Description Tag


[Update: A couple of commenters challenged me on the meta description tag as a Google ranking factor, particularly Josh, whose link pointed me to a meta description test. The test is persuasive, so while most what follows on optimization is still valid, it's mainly for clickthrough rate, not indexing and ranking.]

I’m always amazed by how little attention even SEO-conscious writers will give their post’s meta description tag. The meta description is probably the most important on-page SEO factor you control after the title tag. Let’s look at this element in detail, and how you can use it to not only increase your article’s ranking in Google, but also its clickthrough rate.

What is a Meta Description?

When people use the term “meta tag”, they often mean different things. Typically they’re referring to the container in the <head> section for “meta keywords”, whose HTML looks something like:

<meta name="keywords" content="keyword1,keyword2,keyword3">.

Back in the Nineties, Yahoo took meta keywords seriously as a ranking factor. The new kid on the block, Google, ignored it from day one. Two years ago, Yahoo followed suit. Sure, it would be nice if SEO was as simple as telling a search engine, “Here’s a list of keywords I want to rank for . . .”, but that’s obviously not realistic.

The other meta tag is the “meta description”, which is a more natural expression of what the page is about, and is harder to keyword stuff without looking awkward:

<meta name="description" content="This is the meta description tag. Google pays attention to this.">.

In the last article on SEO writing, I mentioned that what appears in the title tag is what appears as the clickable title in the search result pages. The contents of the meta description tag are what appears directly beneath that title: a summary of that search result.

Since Google always includes a summary underneath the title, if you don’t include a meta description tag in your page—and many bloggers and blogs don’t—Google will choose a “random” snippet of the article text for you. Sometimes this is the first sentence; otherwise it’s the sentence or paragraph that includes the first instance of the keyword the user entered in the search engine.

Controlling the Meta Description in WordPress

As mentioned in the previous article, some custom WordPress themes feature an editor that allows you to add your title tag and meta description directly into a form, without having to muck around with the HTML.

The most popular solution, which does the same thing, is a WordPress plugin called the All In One SEO Pack.

You can set the meta description for your site’s home page in the options configuration panel’s “Home Description” field. The plugin’s main use, however, is adding a custom title tag. Before you can do this, make sure the “Autogenerate Descriptions” setting in the options configuration panel is unchecked.

Every time you create a new post, you’ll scroll to the bottom of your editor and add a title tag and meta desription in the All In One SEO form before you hit Publish. What’s the advantage of doing this?

Optimizing Your Meta Description

Since the meta description controls the summary that searchers will see in Google, having a better description than the other search results increases the odds that your result will be chosen. When searchers scan a search result page, what they click on is influenced by three factors:

  • The ranking on the page. Why is this page considered more or less authoritative?
  • The quality and relevance of the title. Does the title accurately reflect the searcher’s intent?
  • The quality and relevance of the summary. Does the sample suggest that this is the most informative page?

It’s best to think of the title and summary (meta description) that people see in Google as a mini landing page that “sells” your content. Your page might have a lower ranking, but if you have a more compelling meta description, you can still get a higher clickthrough rate.

How to Optimize Your Meta Description Tag

Use a maximum of 153 characters. The reason for this is the same as the one for holding to the 65-character limit in the title tag, mentioned in the previous installment. Technically, you’re allowed up to 260 characters, but after 153, the description cuts off abruptly with ellipses, which tends to subtly make readers’ eyes glaze over and drift down to the next search result.

There’s some debate about exactly how many characters are visible. Some SEOs say 150, while others claim (and actually cite Google as saying) that the exact length doesn’t matter as long as Google considers the copy to be relevant. Having tested different lengths extensively, I can tell you that I’ve never once had a meta description cut off if I stayed under 154 characters, and I’d rather not have the formatting subject to what Google might consider relevant.

Include your primary keyword. Even if you use a plugin, it’s possible for Google to ignore your meta description and use another snippet of text. That’s what happens when the meta description doesn’t have the keyword that was being searched. I have this weird fascination with trying to pack as much content is possible within short character limits (which is why I love text messaging), so I’ll often challenge myself to get two or three keywords in the meta description and still make everything read naturally. Here’s an example from Sarah Nagel’s post, published earlier this week (the post is hers, the meta description is mine):

Meta Description Example

Include a call to action. This isn’t always possible, or even always recommended, but one of the best ways to get people to read your stuff is to tell them to. You’ll notice in the above example, in addition to featuring the keywords “building confidence” and “building self-confidence”, tells the reader to “Read on to find out” more about the information contained in the post—all in 146 characters. Look for ways to include action verbs like, “read”, “learn”, “discover”, and “find”. Optionally, precede these action calls with a teaser question.

Avoid keyword stuffing. Keyword stuffing isn’t just the inclusion of many keywords. It’s the inclusion of many keywords unnaturally, where they don’t flow in a grammatical sequence. Here’s an example of an article that outranks WorkAwesome for “building confidence” by two spots, but was also published a year earlier:

Notice a few things in this result. On the positive side, the meta description includes the word “free”, which is great for increasing clickthroughs. It also contains quite a few keywords: “self-confidence”, “assertiveness skills”, “assertiveness skills training” and “assertiveness techniques”. Very impressive.

But the listing also has some problems. First, the title is in lower case, which statistically gets lower clickthrough rates than title case. Second, you can see the effects of overrunning the character limits in both the title and meta description: they look incomplete. Third, while the meta description is technically grammatical, it doesn’t flow grammatically. It contains three intransitive descriptions that are subjects without predicates, and therefore lacks a call to action: “Free self-onfidence [sic] and assertiveness skills training theory”, “self-confidence and assertiveness techniques”, and “plus more free articles and training for …”.

The Power of On-Page SEO

One last observation, which regards the title tag rather than the meta description. Notice that the title tag doesn’t have the exact match keyword “building confidence” in it. How does it rank if exact match keywords in title tags are supposed to be so important? This is because the page has 40 links, and is a PageRank 5 result. WorkAwesome has nearly caught up to this search position with no PageRank (not even PR0, although WorkAwesome’s home page is currently PR6) and only five links within only three days of being published.

Granted, this is on Page 3 in Google, not the first page (yet), but it underscores two points: (1) pages with PR5 and higher are considered “authority” pages by Google as a function of their backlinks, as Wikipedia pages prove repeatedly, and (2) pages that are PR4 and under benefit greatly from on-page optimizations like exact match keywords in title tags.

So while backlinks are still the most important factor in SEO, don’t ignore the power of optimizing on-page factors like your title tag, meta description tag, and, as we’ll cover in the next installment the post itself.


Popular search terms for this article:

seo meta description, seo description, meta description seo, seo meta description tips, meta description character limit, meta description, meta description tips, writing meta descriptions, seo description character limit, seo meta description character limit

Andre Kibbe currently works as a content analyst for Internet Brands. He can be found on Twitter: @andrekibbe
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Discussion

  1. Glen Bartstrom on the 22nd October

    Description meta tags are almost entirely useless, they have no bearing on your rank in Google results at all.

    • Andre on the 25th October

      Glen, what you’re referring to as the “meta tag” part of the distinction I address at the beginning of the article. You’re talking of about the meta keywords, which I even mention in the article aren’t counted by Google. The meta description, on the other hand, is a recognized on-page factor.

  2. Azzam on the 22nd October

    Thanks Andre.

    Very simple rules to follow really. I know you have taken up to All in One SEO pack and it is indeed a popular plugin, however were you aware that Yoast is bringing out his own version. With this WordPress kingpin coming out with is own plugin for SEO which will combine all the other plugin he uses it will make this all a little easier.

    if I recall one of the features will be Google search preview for posts. Check it here;
    http://yoast.com/wordpress/seo/

  3. susan on the 22nd October

    Thank you Andre for this well written post. It is one of the most clear on the details and background of the meta descriptions.

    @Azzam thanks for the heads up on Yoast’s SEO plugin

  4. Karl Staib - Work Happy Now on the 22nd October

    It’s amazing what a little SEO can do for a blog. I noticed a lot more people coming from Google and Bing when I improved my descriptions of each post.

    The best tip I can give is try to put yourself in other people’s shoes and try to think how people would be searching for a topic then try to implement that into your SEO.

    Great article!

  5. Andre on the 22nd October

    That’s an awesome alternative. I love the snippet preview feature. Thanks for the link!

  6. Ryan Boots on the 22nd October

    I responded to some of your points here:

    http://ryanboots.com/meta-description-not-for-better-rankings/

    Short version: I agree that the meta description is important for organic CTR, but I think you’re giving it more weight than it really deserves.

    • Andre on the 25th October

      This is hardly the first time I disagree with SEOMoz, which mentions the meta description “not being a ranking factor” in passing without qualifying their judgment. Market Samurai, to name just one example, includes it as a ranking factor in its Competition module, along with header tags, title tags, etc. The fact that the keywords in the meta desciption are bolded should indicate that Google does pay attention to it, not to mention the fact that what gets chosen as a snippet if a manual tag isn’t provide is the body text with the first instance of the keyword.

      The Google Webmaster passage you quoted in your article conspicuously lacks any mention of truncated meta descriptions. It simply admonishes SEOs to stop obsessing over the length, and pay more attention to relevance. Nothing in it contradicts my observation about the 153-character limit. Like I said, I’ve never had a single instance of my meta descriptions cutting off, and I don’t see how minding a simple character limit is being too pedantic about formatting.

  7. tcdesign on the 22nd October

    Yet another great article Andre!

    Very informative and helpful, thanks!

  8. Gabriele Maidecchi on the 23rd October

    Very nice tips, especially the one about including primary keywords in your meta description is something even I often forget to do, and it’s so obvious if you think about it.
    Glad I ran into this post of yours.

  9. Josh on the 18th November

    Hi there,

    I just read an article saying the exact opposite to what you are saying and i noticed some industry heavyweights posting in there. They ran some tests to prove/disprove this and concluded that meta description does not influence rankings!

    The other thing with this article is that it was in response to a misquote on Twitter from someone at a SEO/Webmaster conference listening to Vanessa Fox from Google who was a guest speaker.

    She even comments in the discussion on this topic in this blog post (comments section after article) and reiterates that it is not a ranking factor. And Google webmaster tools make it pretty clear that it doesn’t.

    So it would be safe to say if Google, a top Google employee and a bunch of professional SEO’ers say it doesn’t make any difference any more, then it doesn’t!

    I have been searching for the truth on this as i like many would like to write my meta description for my customers benefit and to increase click-through rather than rankings and until today, I like many people out there did not think i could do this.

    There is no shame in thinking what you did and admitting you were wrong as most people did believe this and it certainly used to be the case…but not any more, for Google at least! And accurate info is what people are after so let your readers know that there has been a change and to write what they really want too!

    Cheers,

    Here is the link:

    http://searchmarketingwisdom.com/2010/06/meta-descriptions-now-count-for-seo-says-google/

  10. Andre Kibbe on the 18th November

    Hi Josh,

    After checking the results of Alan Bleiweiss’ Meta Description User Test, it looks like you’re right, and I’m wrong!

    The test placed “Google is messing with meta descriptions” in the meta description, but not on the page; so Googling “Google is messing with meta descriptions” should bring up the page in the serps if the keyword is indexed, but it doesn’t.

    This runs counter to my experience of seeing the opposite: keywords appearing in the meta description, but not on the page. In hindsight, I think that probably has to do with a match between the meta description text and a keyword anchored backlink. I could probably alter the test results by pointing a link to the test page with the anchor text “Google is messing with meta descriptions”, but that would defeat the purpose of the test.

    While I certainly won’t backpedal on the issue of the meta description being a ranking factor, I should point out that all of the practices in my article should still be followed: 153 character limit, avoid keyword stuffing, include the primary keyword (though for relevancy to the user, not Google), include a call to action.

  11. Josh on the 19th November

    Hi Andre,

    Good post! And i agree with a lot of what you are saying. Everything including what i believe i have seen with my own eyes tells me it is a factor….except Google, their employees, the expert SEO’ers and the testing they have done :)

    I still haven’t changed my meta description to what i want though….but i do intend to do it in the next 24-48 hours though ;)

    Cheers,

    Josh

  12. Lassar on the 22nd August

    Google does not like the word free in the description.

    I have tried it, and google did not use my description.

    I got rid of the word free and google used my description.

  13. FredBlogs on the 3rd September

    Hi I experienced a tiny issue looking at your site but regardless it’s a really awesome site

  14. SEO Service USA on the 18th October

    Rare information about proper use of meta tag.people will get great advantage from your post. Thanks

  15. masum on the 28th January

    i can not change my selected meta keywords. i submit my keywords but it is not showing in my page source and admin panel

  16. Anna on the 27th April

    Hi Andre, Does Google count Meta descriptions now?

    Love your easy language. Thanks for the post. :)

  17. manas on the 7th June

    o , that’s great essay on meta description… usually new description writer commits
    mistakes but this is the best way that guides you how to avoid mistakes while writing meta description… cheers

    manas

  18. Cyrus on the 2nd July

    Great Information! I also use all in one SEO pack. With Meta’s description, I just copy the first paragraph of article content and paste it in description, is that OK?

  19. jo zane on the 26th August

    Thanks andre .. A really nice post you have shared with us.. Before i dont use meta description on my blogs but after reading your post i would like edit all my posts again. Thanks once again :-)

  20. ritu on the 4th September

    Indeed this is a good and very valueable information related to Meta Tags ,
    Thank you for sharing

  21. Ali on the 17th October

    How to place links? whether you said 40 links gives PR 6 but which type of links? Sites have 1000′s links on google?? :) sorry for stupid question.

  22. Ben on the 22nd October

    Google doesn’t even use the meta description anyway?! Doesn’t it just pull what ever content from the page it needs to show what has been searched for? None of my meta descriptions show with all in one seo and googles rich snippets tool testing tool says the description will depend on what is searched.

  23. Chiranjeev on the 18th November

    Hi Andre, Really nice writing on Meta Description. Optimizing meta description tag is really very helpful for SEO. Thanks for sharing the knowledge.

  24. citkar on the 1st December

    Thank you Andre for this well written post. It is one of the most clear on the details and background of the meta descriptions.Its help us to develop SEO knowledge.
    Go ahead Andre ..

  25. SEO tips on the 29th May

    Thanks for this. It was a very handy article. I read that social media is getting more and more important for SEO, and that the more fans and followers you have on accounts linked to your website, the higher you rank in google. Is that true?

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