Yet another post about meta descriptions, you think. I hear you think. Still, this is one of the issues my team often gets support questions about after doing a site review. The thing is that everyone gets the idea, but few of us actually take the time to write a proper meta description. Where to start? What’s right and wrong?
In this post, I will try to explain our approach at Yoast.
First, let’s be clear about the function of a meta description for your page.
Its main purpose is to get the visitor in Google to click your link. In other words, meta descriptions are for generating click-throughs from search engines. For SEO, it holds little value. I’m not saying NO value, as a meta description can influence bounce rate, for instance if it doesn’t match the text on your page.
More on that later.
Characteristics of a Good Meta Description
I think every article on meta descriptions will tell you some of these, but I combined the characteristics that made sense to me and came up with this list.
- It should be around 130 to 155 characters. There is no exact right number here. It depends on what Google adds to your search results and how much they want to show. Google might, for instance, add the date to an article and that will reduce the number of characters. Bearing that in mind, rule of thumbs is that 130 characters is usually fine. Lately, we have even seen meta descriptions that contain over 250 characters.
- It should be actionable, in an active voice. Of course it should. If you consider the meta description the invitation to the page, you can’t just make it “A mixed metaphor describing a non-existent, yet implicitly high level of qualification.” That’s a dull description. I’ll explain using some examples later.
- It should include a call-to-action. “Hello, we have this and this new product and you want it. Find out more!” This overlaps the active voice, but I wanted to emphasize it. It’s your sales text, where your product is the page that is linked, not the product on that page. Invitations like Learn more, Get it now, Try for free come to mind.
- It could contain structured content. If you have a product for the tech-savvy, focusing on technical specs of the product could be a good idea. Manufacturer, SKU, price, things like that. If the visitor is specifically looking for that product, chances are you won’t have to convince him. Things like price will trigger the click. Note that you could of course use rich snippets for this as well.
- It should match the content. This is important. Google will find the meta descriptions that trick the visitor into clicking and might penalize the site that created the meta description. Next to that, it will probably increase bounce rate and is a bad idea just for that. You want the meta description to match the content on the page.
- It should contain the focus keyword. If the search keyword matches text in the meta description, Google will be more inclined to use that meta description and bold it in the search results. That will make the link more related already.
- The meta description should be unique. If your meta description is duplicate, user experience in Google will be poor. Although page titles might vary, all pages seem the same as all descriptions are the same. If you are enticed to create a duplicate meta description, you’d be better off leaving the meta description empty and letting Google pick a snippet from the page containing the keyword used in search.
Visit Google Webmaster Tools > HTML Improvements or use Screaming Frog SEO Spider to check for duplicate meta descriptions.
Adding the Date to the Snippet Preview
We often get questions about this. The option ‘Show date in snippet preview?’ at Titles and Metas in our WordPress SEO plugin doesn’t add the date to the description in Google. It just adds it in the snippet preview in our plugin itself.
It will help you decide on the right length of your meta description. Check that option if you find Google adding the publish date to your articles.
Examples of a Good Meta Description
In the preparation for this post, I have checked some of the various articles that mention meta descriptions. I found a lot of wisdom, but almost no examples. I think actual examples will make it easier for you to construct a proper meta description for yourself. Taking the 6 bullet points above in account, let’s go over some examples.
The Right Length
Personally, I like my meta descriptions like this. Dated and two lines of text.
Over 250 Characters
Note that the actual meta description inserted in that page was only 76 characters and Google probably decided not to use it for that reason.
Includes a Call-to-Action
There’s two, actually. ‘Learn more now’ and the site link ‘Buy Now $ 399.00′. Both entice that click.
Include Structured Content
8 MP Camera, that’s what I wanted to know. I don’t need that sales text here, I just want that phone.
Containing the Focus Keyword
Also, remember to add variations. Note that Google highlights Academy Awards as well when searching for Oscars. This will make your search result stand out even more.
Where to Start, I Have so Many Pages?
Feel like changing all the meta descriptions after reading this? That might be a burden, with all the pages you have. And where would you find the time for that? Google actually answers this:
If you don’t have time to create a description for every single page, try to prioritize your content: At the very least, create a description for the critical URLs like your home page and popular pages.
Simply take it from there. And be sure to optimize all new meta descriptions from now on.
Troubleshooting Meta Descriptions
I’m sure you can come up with more, but I came up with two main issues:
- My meta description isn’t showing. Google probably made something up for you, as they feel the meta description you created isn’t representing the content of the page, or is duplicate, for instance. Another issue might be that Google prefers the DMOZ description of your site / page. Simply add
<meta name="robots" content="NOODP">to your
<head>section. Or check the option in WordPress SEO > Titles & Metas, of course. I’m not sure if Yahoo! Directory (noydir in the robots meta tag) still has a role in this.
- I want to use another description for social sharing. Do you have WordPress SEO? In that case check the social tab in the box on Edit Pages. If not, add OpenGraph tags or Twitter Cards to your website and use any description you want.
Show Me Yours
I am really looking forward to the best meta description you have created, or cases where you are totally in the dark about what to add to that page – please drop me a note in the comments and I’d be happy to give it a shot.
This post originally appeared on Yoast, and is re-published with permission.
Featured Image: Image by Aki Libo-on
All screenshots by Michiel Heijmans. Taken January 2015.