Meta Description for Search & Social

Auto-generate your way to SEO success?

Auto generate the meta description for SEO Success?Meta descriptions elements have many uses and can be constructed in several ways. A good meta description entices the user to click, both by the fact that it contains enticing, well readable text and by the fact that it contains the sought for keywords, as that get’s bolded in the search results.

Last week at SMX there was a panel titled “What’s really important for technical SEO?”. In it was Jonathan Hochman, who I later found to be a smart and very likable person, but in the session he touched on one of my 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.

As regular readers of this blog know, I hate that. It’s the single feature in All in One SEO that I hated so much I decided to start building something better, being my own WordPress SEO plugin. You see, while my first paragraph above is pretty good, most bloggers would actually start their article with the second paragraph. The first 150 characters of that paragraph are absolutely not usable as a meta description, and don’t even contain the focus keyword for this post: “meta description”, so it wouldn’t get a bold for that term, nor would it be enticing to click on.

The reason I hate 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. While a good SEO plugin can help you take care of the technical boundaries that might exist, 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.

In an article on SearchEngineJournal today about meta descriptions and content management systems, Ann Donnelly points out that while that might be true for SEO, it’s not true for social, as a bad snippet there would get you low click throughs too. I couldn’t agree with her more, except that the same 150 chars above, would be a very bad snippet for Facebook or other social platforms too. She distinguishes two processes when there is only one: write a decent description / excerpt for your posts, all the time.

Meta Descriptions in my WordPress SEO plugin

In my WordPress 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 my WordPress SEO plugin

Snippet preview, including the meta description, from my WordPress SEO plugin

This is of course entirely different when you’re talking about an e-commerce system. You can use many variables from your products there to create good, readable meta descriptions that offer information the searcher and sharer would be looking for.

Lastly; 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:

http://yoast.com/meta-description-seo-social/

The URL for Ann’s post on SEJ:

http://www.searchenginejournal.com/meta-description-and-content-management-systems-%E2%80%93-seo-and-social-media-factors/28579/

I don’t think I have to argue that mine is a lot 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.

Update: from Chris in the comments, this useful video of Matt Cutts describing how Google uses the snippet:

Yoast.com runs on the Genesis Framework

Genesis theme frameworkThe Genesis Framework empowers you to quickly and easily build incredible websites with WordPress. Whether you're a novice or advanced developer, Genesis provides you with the secure and search-engine-optimized foundation that takes WordPress to places you never thought it could go.

Read our Genesis review or get Genesis now!

56 Responses

  1. Kevin ThomsonBy Kevin Thomson on 15 March, 2011

    According to Matt Cutts at Google, Meta Description is no longer used in the Google ranking algo which causes a lot of people to wrongly dismiss it. As you’ve pointed out it informs the snippet appearing in the SERPS which, in my opinion, makes it very valuable. As you rightly said the snippet and URL go a long way to deciding whether someone will click a link or not. Where can i find your SEO plugin? I’ve been using Headspace2 which i love but i’m always on the lookout for new plugins!

    • ValdetBy Valdet on 15 March, 2011

      Actually I think Matt referenced to Meta Keywords tag, not Meta Description tag. Meta Keywords is obsolete and was misused everywhere with keyword stuffing, negative keywords, typos, you name it.

      I agree with Joost that excerpts are quite important when you write a blog post. What I found from my blogs, is that most of the time, it is exactly the post excerpt that come our as a snipett in Google search engine results.

      • Chuck ReynoldsBy Chuck Reynolds on 17 March, 2011

        Yeah meta keywords I think he means… BUT… Goog has been screwing with adding their own desc snippets regardless of your meta’s… which still pisses me off lol

        • Chris NetpathsBy Chris Netpaths on 18 March, 2011

          Below is a link where Matt Cutts explains exactly how Google uses the meta description as the snippit in the SERP’s. He recommends creating unique meta descriptions, and specifically says it is only useful for improving clickthroughs.

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtSzi2MUegs

          • Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 18 March, 2011

            Thanks for adding that Chris, will add it to the post.

          • chris netpathsBy chris netpaths on 5 April, 2011

            Yoast

            Feel free to add a link in your post to this reader who suggested Matt’s video :)

          • Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 5 April, 2011

            Fair enough Chris, link added :)

  2. Robert SomervilleBy Robert Somerville on 16 March, 2011

    Couldn’t agree more Yoost. I make sure that I write a custom meta-description for every post. I try in that description to communicate the main reason someone would want to read the post (thereby covering off the marketing benefit) while including the target keyword phrase ( which covers off the SEO benefit).

    GuruBob

    • Gary AndersonBy Gary Anderson on 16 March, 2011

      Funny how I landed here. I am logged in to my WP dashboard carefully crafting a Meta Description when I saw the news of this post by Yoast in my dashboard (I use StudioPress themes, so anything Yoast says shows up in my dashboard).

      Then when I saw Guru Bobs’ comment this was a double treat… both of you guys on the same page… literally and figuratively :)

      Anyway, I was crafting my Meta Description as described by Yoast, then when I seen what you guys were saying, it made me feel good. Apparently I’ve learned something ;)

      Gary Anderson

  3. JustinBy Justin on 16 March, 2011

    The seo plugin was a huge help for me. I feel that a good description under my url link will inform the readers exactly what my blog post is all about.

  4. Chad NicelyBy Chad Nicely on 16 March, 2011

    Hi Yoost.
    Very interesting, I wish Google would just come out and tell us exactly what the rules are as everybody seems to have a differnt point of view. I always try to have a call of action in my description. Cheers – Chad

  5. RednightsBy Rednights on 16 March, 2011

    I think the problem with most people (casual bloggers and the like) is that Googlebot doesn’t pick up on the meta description that they actually write. I for one had no idea why Google wasn’t using my meta descriptions that I was writing until I decided to use the default text field from WordPress and not use the AIOSEO input field. So yeah, it’s just not getting picked up correctly was my experience and why they see such weird incomplete sentences as the description.

  6. James MorrisBy James Morris on 16 March, 2011

    Thank Yoast. As always, good points and I use your plug in on my site. I am in the Laziest profession out there when it comes to SEO… Real Estate. I always appreciate your tips and plug ins

  7. DavidBy David on 16 March, 2011

    This is an excellent article. I have been able to get on the first page of Google for very competitive search terms: thanks to your plugin. The site is only two months old. But I am not getting the clicks. Now I will fine tune the post URL and description. Thank you for your insight and SEO plugin.

  8. Jim RudnickBy Jim Rudnick on 16 March, 2011

    Nice piece here Joost….like the link too to Ann’s blog and about the only comment that I’d have is that from our own SEO practice here in google.ca land – the total # of chars appears to be 156….before any ellipsis usage…

    :-)

    Jim

  9. NormanBy Norman on 16 March, 2011

    I couldn’t agree more. Of course, you need to get the snippet seen in the first place, and make sure you deliver on your promise or enticement, but a well-worded description can make all the difference for click-through! And too many people greatly underestimate the power of a well-worded URL. Why pass up the opportunity to have more Relevant Bold Text show up in your snippet in the search results!

  10. SeanBy Sean on 16 March, 2011

    Nice article, Joost. I’ve started a new site recently using some of your tips and it saves a lot of trouble and headaches to set things up properly (site structure, permalinks, etc) from the start. Meta description is also important to focus on.

  11. FrankBy Frank on 16 March, 2011

    My concern with using my own meta descriptions instead of letting Google do their snippits for my pages/posts is that Google could be often better at pulling/combining more relevent snipits than my own static page description depending on the searched terms.

    • NormanBy Norman on 16 March, 2011

      I think Joost’s point was that you should not use automation to do your own auto fill of the Meta description tag. We all know Google will do whatever they wish and may override your Meta description in favor of text they select. But for cases where they don’t, it is better to spend a little time getting the description right, as you will be rewarded with more clicks. I understand that there is a Meta tag (I think I use it on my site, but can’t recall the details) which specifies to search engines that you want them to use your snippet to display in the search results – however I still believe they will do whatever they wish and may ignore the request / instruction!

      • KristofBy Kristof on 17 March, 2011

        I agree with your point Norman — even though Google can and will override a meta-description, it’s important to put some effort into manually creating meta descriptions. In a best case scenario, when Google does use your metadata description, it acts as a call to action — enticing people to click on the link.

        Regarding URs, I believe it’s important to note that even though yoasts’ URL is easier to read, the majority of links shared on social networks are shortened. So the main benefit becomes one of SEO. I’m also really surprised that a URL on searchenginejournal.com – a site about SEO – has such a non-search engine friendly permalink.

  12. ValerieBy Valerie on 16 March, 2011

    Since you brought up your URL, can you let me know how you get the post title after your domain in WordPress? Oh, looks like you’re not using WordPress. I’ve just read all over that WordPress requires a constant like a date after the domain name and before the title.

    Thanks…

    • NormanBy Norman on 16 March, 2011

      Valerie, I use WordPress exclusively and get great SEO benefit from carefully selected URL language. For self-hosted WP sites, under Settings=>Permalinks, select Custom and use /%postname%/ as the custom setting. That will give you a page URL of http://domain.com/title-of-post/

      Pick the right post title and you are helping your search results immensely! I’m not sure where the debate rests with hyphens these days, but I personally use them all the time as they make the URL more readable and spread out the bold text (text in your snippet matching the search term the user entered) in the search result more! Just my 10c worth!

    • Chris CreeBy Chris Cree on 17 March, 2011

      Valerie, up until the latest version of WordPress (3.1) there were potential significant performance issues if you used a non-number field such as the date or post ID first in your URL. It wasn’t much of a problem if your site had a small number of pages.

      The performance issues can be mitigated by folks who know what they are doing, but it’s a little involved.

      Starting with WP 3.1 any static string can be used to avoid the potential performance issue, so text strings can be used. For example

      /article/%postname%/
      /blog/%postname%/

      will be fine and avoid potential performance issues. If you choose to use a permalink structure like /%postname%/ or /%category%/%postname%/ know that there is potential for performance problems as your site grows, unless of course you know what you are doing.

      • Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 17 March, 2011

        It’s called caching, and no site that takes itself serious should be without it.

        • ValerieBy Valerie on 17 March, 2011

          Does the caching make it ok to use /%postname%/ or is there something else that people who “know what they’re doing” do? Just curious…

          • Joost de ValkBy Joost de Valk on 17 March, 2011

            Yes. :)

          • ValerieBy Valerie on 17 March, 2011

            Yes to both? To caching only? I’ve just always wanted to only use /%postname%/

  13. Marcin CzekajBy Marcin Czekaj on 16 March, 2011

    Snippet Preview works great in powerful WordPress SEO plugin. Thanks! It’s like working with AdWords. I decide what is in the ad.

  14. Alex AguilarBy Alex Aguilar on 17 March, 2011

    Nice post. I like how your URL looks when you do a search for Met Description SEO and Social in Google. It is short and to the point and looks better for the user to click on. Not to mention you are #1 and Search Engine Journal is #2 for the article they wrote on the similar subject.

  15. Dave DoolinBy Dave Doolin on 17 March, 2011

    It’s nice to see the “enticement factor” emphasized. The last time I actually looked at Google’s website concerning descriptions, indeed, they did not weight them, and they may not return them on a query if the search term isn’t in the description, but they really do support a good title when written well. And I believe that does drive traffic. Certainly helps me choose to click through or not.

  16. zimbrulBy zimbrul on 17 March, 2011

    I absolutelly love your SEO plugin with all the additional features such us robots, indexation and so on but I’m not using it on my website for a simple reason: it messes up with the theme I use. I’ve noticed that with some other themes I’ve tryied: all the articles from one point onward have the same name! You may want to look at this in the future. This could be as a result of changing the tag in header.php.
    Otherwise, I use your SEO plugin everywhere apart from the themes that bring the bug to life.

  17. Brenda AllenBy Brenda Allen on 17 March, 2011

    I enjoy both reading and learning from your articles. Although I am a novice, your explanations are quite clear and easy to understand. I now understand the importance of using meta descriptions and will apply this technique to my websites. Thanks again for the wonderful post.

  18. darioBy dario on 17 March, 2011

    I have a question about the post title:

    I notice that you have the domain (without the www) and then the post tilte WITHOUT any category before it. So,

    1.) Why is their no category before it? Something like:

    http://yoast.com/seo-posts/meta-description-seo-social/

    Note: I did read your article on link structure, but I don’t see my answer there.

    2.) Why do you omit the “www”?

    Thank you, Joast.

    • darioBy dario on 17 March, 2011

      Just a clarification:

      I do understand the “how” i.e. that you are using a custom permalink structure like /%postname%/ and that you are cashing as described in your post on

      http://yoast.com/top-wordpress-plugins/

      My question is “why”? Are there SEO benefits to that?

      Thank you.

  19. Mal MilliganBy Mal Milligan on 18 March, 2011

    Any time I might be able to control something like a snippet, I try. And it is very time consuming. I’ve used All in One successfully a few times but after reading this article I’m definitely going to flight test your SEO plugin Joost – thanks! I was also unaware of potential problems with using the post ID first in your URL… I’ll look into that (Thanks Chris !)

  20. Adam HumphreysBy Adam Humphreys on 18 March, 2011

    There’s also the NOODP factor that people tend to forget about. I mean really how often does a site actually get into the DMOZ directory. I recently was trying to figure out why the rankings were off slightly only to find that one of my sites made it into the directory. With that said it really makes sense to be proactive regardless of whether you expect to get in or not because you never know if you’re going to win the DMOZ lottery.

    The one thing I really like about your WP plugin is that it allows you to diversify your title and meta description. One of the things that works well is even throwing the phone number in the meta-description. I hope you can build relative for Drupal 7

  21. TimBy Tim on 19 March, 2011

    I’ve been using your plugin and reading your posts for a few months now and have to say that I’m learning a ton. Thank you Joost for doing what you do, and sharing it. Just really good stuff.

  22. Steve S.By Steve S. on 19 March, 2011

    Hi Yoast. I tried your SEO Plugin with great interest against the AIO Plugin. I like to run my url’s through the Bruce Clay Page Optimizer to see if I have my page optimized.

    http://www.bruceclay.com/web_rank.htm

    When I run a page using your SEO Plugin, it does not seem to pick up the keyword data especially. Wondering what your take is on this?

  23. John LombaerdeBy John Lombaerde on 20 March, 2011

    You hit the nail square on the head! Title Tags may be the most important item for SEO on a web page, but Meta Descriptions should be generated specifically for readers. This is what will entice searchers to click on your link instead of a competing one.

    Both the title tag and the meta description should be well crafted and optimized for content as well as length to maximize effectiveness.

    Of course, keywords should be used at the beginning of a post. The meta description however, is not an introduction, but a content summary. Who starts their post with a summary? There is no auto-generated solution that can possibly match the skill of an SEO copyrighter.

    • Andy MerrettBy Andy Merrett on 31 March, 2011

      “Who starts their post with a summary?”

      People who follow general article writing advice which suggests the first paragraph should tell the reader what the article is about / what they will learn about / what the main points are.

  24. bcarterBy bcarter on 20 March, 2011

    Excellent post, and your SEO plugin has been an excellent tool for me. Thank you for your efforts within the WordPress community and web development in general.

  25. OndrejBy Ondrej on 21 March, 2011

    He meant that caching makes it OK. Pick for instance W3 Total Cache. The developer “knew what he was doing” for you :-) Although a bit of knowing it too on your part will help you fine tune the cache to your needs.

  26. Van Ambruce LigutomBy Van Ambruce Ligutom on 21 March, 2011

    a very clear explanation about mete description. I am always waiting for your new content to be posted since I find it very helpful for the fact that i just started blogging using wordpress. I am using your SEO plugin and i get new updates on my wordpress dashboard.

    I have few questions though:
    I am mentaining 2 blogs both using wordpress with different hosting company and domain registrars. On my main blog (technology,sports music ) which is linked on my name above, I also created a direct link to my other blog on blogroll which is specifically a blog for android devices. In addition, my main blog has and RSS update of my android blog which is posted on my sidebar and vice versa with my second blog.
    My question is : Is it a bad thing that when I search a certain topic that my main blog (ambruceli.com) contains, it also displays the other blog because that certain topic is also found as rss display on my sidebar?
    My purpose for that concept is to at least link my blog to my other blog… IS it wrong SEO speaking? please enlighten me

  27. TheoBy Theo on 21 March, 2011

    Thank you for another great article!

  28. David Michael ColorezBy David Michael Colorez on 21 March, 2011

    Just ready to learn as much as I can from Yoast.

  29. Aditya KaneBy Aditya Kane on 22 March, 2011

    I must agree with you that All for One SEO plugin did have a lot of chinks and have been using your SEO plugin for 4 months now without complaints.

    Also auto-generating meta description is a terrible idea and it shows up really ugly when links are shared socially. And yes any good blogger will not ideally describe his post in the first 150 chars. :-)

    • Andy MerrettBy Andy Merrett on 31 March, 2011

      I really don’t get all this negativity about the All in One SEO plug-in. I’ve been happily generating crafted meta descriptions with it since it was installed. Just because it has the option to auto-generate descriptions, that doesn’t make it bad. Blame the user. :)

  30. Steve HartBy Steve Hart on 22 March, 2011

    Great article.

    I’m a big believer is using the meta tags to their fullest even if Google MAY dismiss them. Friendly URLs are a must and using the permalink feature in WordPress is an easy answer.

    From a large site development standpoint one key reason to use the meta data tags is for fending off SEO consulting vendors. They will convince some SEO novice in your company that your SEO is bad because you don’t have these tags. Even if you do have them, they’ll tell you the tags are incorrectly formatted. Useful of not? put them in there its not that much additional work. If you can script it, even better!

  31. Guven PaternosterBy Guven Paternoster on 22 March, 2011

    Love the plugin, but i have just discovered that none of the meta descriptions for my pages are actually being posted on google. Just wondering if anyone has had the same problem as I would agree that auto-generated meta descriptions do not attract as many visitors.

  32. Saeful UlumBy Saeful Ulum on 23 March, 2011

    Excellent post.. i used All for One SEO plugin. whether it is enough for success in SEO?

  33. ArticlescolumnBy Articlescolumn on 27 March, 2011

    I was using your plugin with all in one seo but I encountered many problems …specially all my title had “-” in the end and when I removed your plugin all titles were back to normal.Whats the eason?

  34. Brian DuffyBy Brian Duffy on 31 March, 2011

    Hi Yoast, as always a great article. I have one question..

    My wordpress site uses a page hierarchy with 3 levels – which means that my pages urls also includes the url of the 2 parent pages.

    E.g. mydomain/parent1/parent2/child_url
    I would like to be able to fix up the permalink so that the two parent pages are no longer contained in the url

    E.g. mydomain/child_url

    I found a plugin that is supposed to do it (Permalink Editor) but it created an error to do with too many redirects.

    Anyone got any idea how I can resolve this problem?

    Kind regards,
    Brian

  35. ps3 expertBy ps3 expert on 5 April, 2011

    Great article, it taught me a lot about the basics I still need to learn about SEO.

  36. IrinaBy Irina on 5 April, 2011

    Hi Yoast!
    Thank you for nice article.
    I have one question, about your SEO plugin. Is it possible to add META-tags for Home page? Because now META-tags for the last article on my site and META-tags of Home page are the same. I think, it is not very good…

  37. nicoBy nico on 7 April, 2011

    Great article joost, after I read your article I immedietly change the meta description for some of my post.
    Suprise-2, all my post have shown better in SERP and people tend to click my post, thank you.

  38. Cambiar IPBy Cambiar IP on 10 April, 2011

    Thanks!. Very intresting, I will try to optimize my meta´s, i guess the important thing is to keep it small (15 words) and focused on subject.

    Is always good info comming from matt