Ah, the lowly meta description. The 160 character sales pitch. Why do we obsess so hard over a couple lines of text that in and of themselves admittedly don’t impact how the search engine rates the relevance of your content to a search? Is it really that important? I don’t need 160 characters to answer that, I need three. YES.
What is a Meta Description?
People reading this have varying degrees of internet marketing experience, from professionals who do nothing else with their time to small business owners who are experts in their field but know little more about the web than how to find a good pizza joint. So not making the mistake of assuming everyone knows what a meta description is, here you have it. Any page listed in the organic area of a search engine results page is displayed in a “snippet” which has three main components:
- First, in blue, the title tag, the designated title of the page shown
- Second, in green, the URL, the address of the web page, your “Uniform Resource Locator”
- Third, in black is the meta description, a >160 character description of what the user will find on the page if he clicks through
Easy enough, right? It’s the line of text you want users to read telling them what’s on the page you want them to visit.
Why is the Meta Description So Important?
Google has repeatedly said that the content of a meta description is not used as a ranking signal, meaning you don’t need to stuff it with your favorite keywords, but if that’s true why is it so important? Three words. Click through rate.
Thinking of click through rate only in the sense of what it means to increased traffic is a good place to start. If I’ve done all that work to get a web page to rank for a particular search, and what my snippet says fails to attract the searcher to come through to check me out, all that work is wasted.
Do the math. If I appear in search 10K times and achieve an average 1% click through rate, 100 people visit my website. Doing nothing more to improve my visibility, if I just do a better job talking to the searchers, and improve that click through rate by no more than half a percent, suddenly 150 of the same 10,000 searchers visit my site. Think about that. Achieving the same results with visibility would mean you would have to appear in 50% more searches or 15K.
What is the Purpose of SEO?
The purpose of SEO, the reason we do it is NOT “to show up on the first page of a Google Search for a particular keyword.” That’s a desired result, but it isn’t the purpose. The purpose is to improve the quality and quantity of visits to the site from organic (unpaid) sources. So, if all you accomplish is to be visible on in position 1-10 for “Widgets in Dallas, Tx” and you don’t actually end up selling any more widgets, what’s the point? One might say the purpose is to sell more widgets, but I think when you consider “Quality” along with “Quantity” you see that in the end, that’s what the statement means. I want more people on the site, but I want them to be quality visits, meaning, I want more of them to buy widgets, so I want them visiting knowing what I sell, and I want them to be the kind of people who are likely to buy my widgets.
Meta Descriptions and SEO
Suddenly the titanic importance of the lowly meta description starts to make sense. This isn’t just about getting visible, it’s about what happens when you appear. But WAIT! There’s MORE!
Remember when I said that Google has said that the content in the meta description isn’t a ranking factor?
CLICK THROUGH RATE IS.
In fact when Moz published 2017’s Local Search Ranking Factors, on the list of the top 50 Local Organic Factors, click through rate from search results is #7.
Prolific internet marketing blogger, Inc. magazine columnist, Wordstream founder and CEO of Mobile Monkey, Larry Kim has been beating this drum for years, long before the rest of the industry caught up. We’ve always known that click through rate was the single most important factor in the Google Adwords quality score, so even though Google never actually said it, of COURSE they were using click through rate in organic results as a ranking factor.
Think about it. It makes sense. It’s the most human factor the algorithm can measure. If the human being on the other end of the screen clicks on a result with greater frequency than other similar results in that same position, then it must be a better result for that search. Conversely, if a result is ignored more often than other similar results, it must not be as good a result as the algorithm thought it was.
SO, a good click through rate will not only improve visits to the site from an equal number of appearances in search, it will also help you improve the number of appearances
Meta Description FAQ
I’ve often called the meta description “your 160 character sales pitch.” It’s a good way to start to think about it. Here are a few of the questions I hear most:
What is the proper length for a meta description?
A meta description can be any length, but it’s important to remember that Google will truncate anything in the snippet longer than the max length which for the meta description is 160 characters. So you can write the most beautiful plea in the world explaining why a searcher should visit your site, but if you don’t get the message across in those first 160 characters, you’re falling on deaf ears. You should use as much of the 160 characters as possible, but don’t feel like you need to use characters for characters sake. If it truly only takes you 100 characters to describe the content on your page and convince a user to visit, and nothing more would have any positive impact, you’re done. That said, You can usually find a positive use for those extra 50-60 characters.
Should I Use My Keywords in my Meta Description?
This is a fun one. Anyone who’s used the SEO tool Yoast for any amount of time knows that Yoast will ding you if you haven’t’ used your focus keywords in your meta description. But go back to Google, who says that the content of a meta description does not impact rankings, now it sounds like you don’t need to. There is, however, a good reason you should.
See that? Every word a user searched for shows up bold in the Meta Description and draws the user’s eye to it. So if your page is aimed at people looking for Widgets in Dallas, the words “Widget” and “Dallas” will show up nice and bold in your meta description when a user searches for that, and a meta description without those words in it is more likely to be ignored.
Do I have to write a Meta Description?
According to the rest of this blog, of course you do! But the truth is actually, no. Many pages of your site may be pages in name only, blog categories for example, or your conversion tracking ‘thank-you’ page and are not intended for visibility in search. Even on standard content pages or posts, if you do not specify a meta description, the search engine will pull a piece of content from the web page, normally the first sentence or so. Normally, you want to specify what the snippet should display, not allow the search engine to choose, but it won’t remain blank if you don’t.
How to Write a Meta Description that Clicks.
When writing a meta description for a page, think about the purpose of what you’re doing. Approach this in a similar way to how you approach ad text in your AdWords campaigns. This is the ultimate “why choose me” statement.
Your page title is a call out to the searcher. By its nature, it reflects the search and tells the searcher “read here” The meta description needs to make the connection and invite the user further in.
Why should the user click on you instead of anyone else on the page? What will he find on your web page that will help him with the problem he is searching for an answer on? Remember that a web page should fulfill the promise of the meta description, so approach honestly, but make sure you are using the character budget wisely.
Use call to action language, encourage the searcher to take the desired action — “Click here and you’ll find the answers you’re looking for.”
Do use the main target keywords in the meta description so that they show up bold and promise the user that you have a page of information specifically about what they’re looking for.
Stand out a bit, be different and interesting. If your description is the same as the three ahead of it, how does that motivate the searcher to skip the pages ahead of you?
Appeal to emotion. What is the searcher’s emotional connection to the reason they are searching? What is it about your page that can appeal to that emotional connection? Stating the facts about what’s on your page is one thing, but understanding that someone is searching for what you offer because they’re angry, or upset, afraid or frustrated and appealing to that emotion while offering solutions is much more effective.
Feel free to experiment. Since the content in the meta description is not in and of itself a ranking factor, you can be somewhat experimental with the text and not worry about the disastrous consequences a similar experiment might have if you tried something like that with the title tag. When you try something new, remember not to look for the results in the page ranking, you’re looking for results in the click through rate for that particular landing page.
Finally, don’t make promises your page doesn’t’ keep. Don’t, for example, mention a discount that isn’t immediately visible on the landing page. The meta description is exactly that, it should describe what the user will find, not try to fool the user into a useless click. The value of the content on the page is by far the most important thing, so this has to be first and foremost.
The Not So Lowly Meta Description
Good SEO is not and will never be about just one thing or another, it’s about continually improving what you can to prove your page is the best result for a search your page should appear for. But I do think this is one not so little thing it’s a great idea to spend a little more time effort and energy on than many people do.