[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):
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.
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