Meta description elements have many uses and can be constructed in several ways. First and foremost, a good meta description entices the user to click. It does that both by the fact that it contains enticing, well readable text and by the fact that it contains the sought for keywords, as that gets bolded in the search results.
Our view on that meta description really hasn’t changed that much over the years. Way back in 2011, Joost wrote about attending an SMX panel titled “What’s really important for technical SEO?”. In it was Jonathan Hochman. Jonathan touched on one of our pet peeves: he mentioned retro-fitting an old CMS to have meta descriptions, by auto-generating the meta description using the first 150 characters of each article. We’re no fans of that solution. As a matter of fact, it was one of the features in All in One SEO that Joost hated so much he decided to start building something better, being the very basis for our current Yoast SEO plugin.
Most of the time, the first paragraph of an article is an introduction leading towards the conclusion in the article. It doesn’t contain a summary of the article or a trigger to continue to read. At Yoast, we agreed on making that first paragraph into a combined intro and summary. Our SEO analysis will tell you if the focus keyword you picked is in that first paragraph. We really feel that the first paragraph of any article should be on-topic already. If you don’t make sure it is, the first 150 characters of your first paragraph are most probably not usable as a meta description. It will most probably not even contain the focus keyword for your post. That means you won’t get a bold for that term in the search result pages, nor would it be enticing to click on.
The reason we dislike this “auto-generation” idea so much, especially for content sites, is that it makes people think that SEO is something you can do on auto-pilot. You simply can not. For sure, a good SEO plugin can help you take care of the technical boundaries that might exist. But creating link worthy content is the process that will help you get rankings, all the time. Auto-generating a meta description has never served any purpose to anyone just yet.
One might argue that while auto-generating meta descriptions isn’t the best practice for SEO, it might help your social efforts. On the other hand, for social media goes the same as for meta descriptions. Bad snippets would get you low click-throughs too. Using the first 150 characters as the description at your Facebook post is probably not the best practice either. You should really write a decent description and/or excerpt for your posts, all the time. It will help both your mentions in Google and on social media.
Meta descriptions in the Yoast SEO plugin
In our Yoast SEO plugin, the meta description gets a lot of emphasis. It gets that emphasis for a reason: it changes things. A good meta description, combined with a good title and a good post URL make for a result that people will want to click on.
Snippet preview, including the meta description, from our Yoast SEO plugin
This is of course entirely different when you’re talking about an e-commerce system. In that case, you can use many variables from your products to create good, readable meta descriptions that offer information the searcher and sharer would be looking for.
Social descriptions in the Yoast SEO plugin
Nowadays, the Yoast SEO plugin has built-in support for specifying social snippets as well. This means you can add platform-specific descriptions for Twitter and Facebook as well as tailor-made meta descriptions. The social snippets use the meta description in case these social snippets are left blank, but keep in mind that Twitter, for instance, uses 140 characters and your meta description could be a bit longer.
Obviously, the best practice is to manually insert both an attractive meta description, a well-written tweet and an inviting Facebook text. Accompany that text with tailor-made illustrations or images that fit the dimensions the platform at hand prefers. You can also test whether your audience responds best to a longer descriptive Facebook text (which will get a “See more” link in Facebook timelines) or a shorter description with a clear call to action.
A meta description is a suggestion
In all this, we’d like to add one very important fact about meta descriptions. Even in 2009 Google mentioned that the meta description you insert is a suggestion. If Google finds it better than the snippet they would have picked, they will display it. The snippet that Google picks is a snippet containing the keyword people used in Google, so you really should make sure that (focus) keyword is in your meta description as well. If your meta description isn’t displayed in Google’s search result pages, see what snippet they use. And how you can use that snippet to improve your own meta description!
Bonus video: Matt Cutts of Google explaining how they treat your meta description (2009).
One more thing
If you worry so much about meta descriptions, please do worry about what the rest of your snippet will look like too. The URL for this post is
https://yoast.com/meta-description-seo-social/. Keep it short and on-topic. It’ll make sure your URLs are easier and nicer to share in social and to look at in a search result page. You see, good SEO takes thinking about all of these aspects and can not be replaced by a simple substring command.