Way back in 2009, Google announced that they no longer use Meta keywords and description tags as ranking factors, but that doesn’t mean that they should be ignored. We still use the keywords tag as a means of organizing and mapping our keywords to the pages they focus on. And, I could argue (and will) that while Meta descriptions are not a direct ranking factor for Google, they are an indirect factor and need to be taken seriously.
Let’s first back up and answer the general question…
What is a Meta description?
In the example below, the blue box is surrounding the Meta description that is returned when a person searches for “Pug Puppies.” In the search engine results page (SERP), Google displays the Meta title, in this case “Pug Puppies for Sale | PuppySpot”, the corresponding website URL, and the Meta description.
This Meta description is 121 characters with spaces, and while in December of 2017, Google increased the character limit to 320, they shortly thereafter lowered it back down to 160-170 characters.
Do Meta descriptions matter?
As I mentioned earlier, Google no longer considers a Meta description a ranking factor in their algorithm. HOWEVER, the click-through-rate (CTR) of your website is a ranking factor and a well-written Meta description can affect CTR. The Meta description sells clicks. In addition to CTRs, bounce rates are also a ranking factor. Not only are Meta descriptions what sells a click, they tell the user what they will find on the page they click to (or at least they should). So, yes… Meta descriptions matter!
Here are 6 things to consider when writing descriptions:
1. Make sure the copy connects to the webpage
The Meta description is essentially nothing more than advertising for a particular page. That said if people click on your webpage in the SERPs only to find that the page has nothing to do with your advertising (or Meta description) then they will likely leave right away (you can see how quickly people leave your site with other Google Analytic metrics such as Bounce Rate and Time on Site – more on that later). Be straight-forward and accurate to what the page content is, and you’ll improve your CTR and subsequent rankings.
2. Don’t forget to use your keywords
With any smart SEO effort, you’ve developed a list of keywords you want to rank on. Be sure to use them (wisely). You should really only target two, similar broad keywords for each webpage on your site. Use them in the Meta title and descriptions. When I searched for “Pug Puppies”, you’ll notice in the above example that Google bolded the keyword I searched for in the Meta description for that page. That helps the searcher quickly identify the page relevance. If I had searched for “Pug Puppies for Sale” (likely the main keyword for that page), that entire string would have been bolded. You can support expanded keywords in the page copy but keep your Meta description focused on the broad terms. Expanded keyword examples: buying pug puppies, breeding pug puppies, potty training pug puppies, why pug puppies are great pets, etc.
3. Be careful of duplicate Meta descriptions
Having duplicate Meta descriptions for pages on your site simply means that you’re not taking them seriously since each page on your site is obviously different from the others. If you can’t take the time to write relevant and unique Meta descriptions for each page on your website I recommend leaving the field blank. When you leave the field blank Google will automatically scrape your site for a description, which may not be ideal, but is better than duplicates.
4. Be unique, interesting… anything but boring
It doesn’t matter what you sell or provide, you’re competing with other websites for that click. You may, in fact, be competing with hundreds or thousands of other webpages for a given search so you need to write copy that stands out and gets noticed. And it should have a call-to-action to encourage response. “Click for more!” or “Try for free now.” These CTAs do not take up many characters and help drive a more actionable user directive.
5. Consider structured data and rich snippets
Depending on your business and what you sell, rich snippets provide, well, a richer user experience. It provides additional information to the searcher, such as ratings, the number of reviews, etc. In the case of the example below, a steak recipe marinade, it even provides a picture, calorie information and the time it takes to make.
This additional information can go a long way in getting a user to click through to your page. They are visually more appealing and much more content rich. You’ll need to add structured data to your site in order to use rich snippets and have the content needed to make them relevant.
6. Consider your social media networks
Social media channels, like Facebook, pull the Meta description when you share a page – article, blog, press release, etc. – on your channel. This means you’re not just writing to get someone to click through when they conduct a Google search, but also when they come across your social media feed(s).
One interesting caveat worthy of sharing
While I’m a firm believer that Meta descriptions are valuable, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share some interesting insight from Moz on when it’s okay to not use Meta descriptions:
Although conventional logic would hold that it’s universally wiser to write a good meta description rather than let the engines scrape a given web page, this isn’t always the case. Use this general rule of thumb to identify whether you should write your own meta description:
If a page is targeting between one and three heavily searched terms or phrases, write your own meta description that targets those users performing search queries including those terms.
If the page is targeting long-tail traffic (three or more keywords), it can sometimes be wiser to let the engines populate a meta description themselves. The reason is simple: When search engines pull together a meta description, they always display the keywords and surrounding phrases that the user has searched for. If a webmaster writes a meta description into the page’s code, what they choose to write can actually detract from the relevance the engines make naturally, depending on the query.
Some final thoughts…
Writing Meta descriptions are worth your time and energy. While not a direct ranking factor for Google search, they do affect other ranking factors like CTR, bounce rate, and time on site, and that’s as good a reason as any to spend some time making them right.
Also, just as it’s important to update your keyword list to reflect changes in searcher intent, it’s important to revisit your Meta descriptions (and titles) periodically as well. Not every month or even every other month. We usually revisit our client keyword lists and on-page ranking factors like Meta data every 6 to 9 months depending on the industry they reside in.
Lastly, to keep up with Meta data for your website it’s always a good idea to establish a process so that your new pages go live optimized. Press releases, blogs, and other on-the-fly dynamic content are crucial for improving SEO for your site. The problem is that they often go live un-optimized. Make sure your blogging team and your PR folks (and anyone else tasked with creating web content) follow a process of routing content through your SEO team. Here at C4, we call that GapSEO™ because it plugs a huge gap in your drive for website SEO success.