Welcome to our series on the basics of SEO! We know that SEO is a field in which there are a lot of words and phrases thrown around that won’t mean much to the average Joe. The thing is, though, plenty of people can benefit from some basic SEO knowledge. So, whether you’re just getting started in the SEO world, or want to gain a stronger understanding of optimisation in order to take your business to the next level, Supersede Media is here to help!
This month we’re covering an aspect of SEO that all content writers should be familiar with: meta descriptions. Let’s get started with the lesson!
A little bit about metadata
You can’t start a discussion on meta descriptions without covering metadata, so here we are. Metadata contains important information about a webpage, but is not displayed on the page itself. It’s included within the source code to help search engines and page crawlers understand more about a page. They are able to read this information via metatags, examples of which include <title> and <description>.
There are a lot of metatags out there, and it’s very possible to go overboard—so use them sparingly! Meta descriptions, however, are one of the most useful types of metadata, so don’t leave these out.
What is a meta description?
Meta descriptions briefly describe what a webpage is all about. Here’s a more detailed explanation from our friends over at Moz:
“The meta description is an HTML attribute that provides a brief summary of a web page. Search engines such as Google often display the meta description in search results, which can influence click-through rates.”
Where do they appear?
Image source: Benjamin Dada (via Unsplash)
Let’s use the brand Patagonia as an example. If you go digging into the source code of their website’s homepage, the meta description looks like this:
<meta name=”description” content=”Patagonia is a designer of outdoor clothing and gear for the silent sports: climbing, surfing, skiing and snowboarding, fly fishing, and trail running.”/>
A detailed yet succinct description of what you can find on the site, right?
The fact that it serves this purpose well means that it comes in very handy for search engines. After all, Google, Bing and the rest of the pack have the task of providing relevant search results based on a user’s query. In this case the website just made their job much easier! Indeed, in many cases search engines will display the meta description under the URLs and page titles that appear on search results pages. You can see that in action here:
Along with the SERPs, meta descriptions may also be displayed by social media platforms when webpages are shared on their sites. Here’s what happens when you share the Patagonia page on Facebook:
Do it yourself
It’s in your interest to create good meta descriptions, because it gives you some control over how your pages are described when shared on SERPs and social media. If your page has a poor meta description (more on this later), or none at all, the crawlers will select other bits of text they find on your page, and this might not represent your site well.
Worried that you don’t have the coding skills to write your own meta descriptions? Not necessary! Most content management systems have plug-ins that can do most of the work for you. A popular choice is Yoast SEO on WordPress. Give it a whirl!
How long should they be?
Image source: Diana Polekhina (via Unsplash)
This is a question SEOs ask themselves on an almost yearly basis. There’s a good reason for that—the recommended parameters are always changing, albeit ever so slightly.
Of course, technically, your meta description can be any length. That being said, if it’s too long or too short, it’s not optimised to do its job properly and may be skipped over by search engines in favour of other text from your site.
It is generally agreed that your meta description should be roughly between 50 and 160 characters long. You need to include enough words so that it provides a decent description. Once you get to the 155-160 character mark, however, Google tends to cut them off on search results pages.
To save you counting the characters yourself, sites like Spotibo have nifty little tools that will do it for you. This one even takes into account any updates that may alter the optimal meta description length. Handy!
What is the purpose of meta descriptions?
You’ve probably figured this out by now, but the main purpose of a meta description is to help people and page crawlers understand what a webpage is about. As they often appear on SERPs, the descriptions more specifically aid searchers in deciding whether a particular page is relevant to their query.
Are they a ranking factor?
A good meta description entices users to click on the link to take them to a particular website. As a result, meta descriptions are an important factor in click-through rates. If Google notices that a particular search result has a high click-through rate, it takes it as confirmation that the page is relevant and useful for particular searches, and so in turn this can boost its ranking.
To sum up: while not a direct ranking factor, your meta descriptions act as a crucial relevancy signal, so optimising them is vital for on-page SEO.
What makes a good meta description?
You now know the main purpose and ideal length of meta descriptions, but there are a few more factors that you need to take into account to become a meta description master.
Keywords are key
Keywords are a major aspect of SEO, so it’s no surprise that you should include them in your meta description. When someone searches for a particular term, Google will actually highlight it in bold on the meta descriptions of the results that are displayed. This means you have more chance of drawing the eye to your snippet if you include the keyword you’re targeting.
On top of that, Google has recently begun highlighting synonyms and other words related to the keyword being searched. You can see this in some results when you search for ‘meta description’:
Despite ‘meta tags’ not being part of the search query, it has been highlighted, presumably because it is a related term.
Keep this feature in mind when you are writing meta descriptions. Be sure not to go overboard, though, as this will make your result look spammy.
Hit the right tone
You only have 2 sentences to work with, so you need to make the most of the words you have! Good meta descriptions are readable, compelling and reflect natural speech. It can be a bit of a balancing act, as you want to speak directly to the user and motivate them to click on your link, while at the same time avoiding sounding too salesy.
Include calls to action (CTAs) without being too forceful. For instance, if the page in question is a blog article, you can encourage users to ‘read more!’. Or, if you have products that are on sale, you can invite people to ‘check out our great deals!’. The level of subtlety you aim for may also be influenced by your brand’s existing tone of voice.
It’s all in the details
Always keep user intent at the forefront of your mind. Providing an accurate description of what can be found on the page is the main priority here. If the page you are working on is selling a particular product, it can be really helpful to include its specifications within the meta descriptions, so users immediately know if it matches their needs. Leaving this information out may increase your clicks, but your bounce rate is likely to be very high, which can cause search engines to downgrade your page in the rankings.
What makes a bad meta description?
All good SEOs know the importance of high quality content, and it’s no different when it comes to meta descriptions. Don’t be temped to sacrifice readability for the sake of stuffing as much information as you can into the snippet. Your description should be clear, concise and well-written.
The meta description must provide an accurate summary of what users will find on the webpage. Stick to the topic in question and don’t add any false information in an attempt to draw more clicks. As we mentioned earlier, this can affect your bounce rate and you will eventually be penalised by search engines. Furthermore, it undermines the integrity of your brand and damages audience trust.
To save time, some sites use the same meta descriptions across multiple pages. The first issue with this approach is that a one-size-fits-all description is probably going to be fairly vague and unhelpful. The second issue here is that it confuses web crawlers. If a search engine recognises that a site contains duplicate meta descriptions, it will default to pulling text from somewhere else to use on the SERPs. You have no control over the text that is selected and it is unlikely to be eye-catching or compelling.
And there you have it! You should now have a good understanding of meta descriptions. We’ve just covered the basics here, but you can find more advanced explorations of SEO topics like meta descriptions on the Supersede Media blog. Continue the learning journey there!