The meta description is a snippet of up to about 155 characters – a tag in HTML – which summarizes a page’s content. Search engines show the meta description in search results mostly when the searched-for phrase is within the description, so optimizing the meta description is crucial for on-page SEO.
What does a meta description do?
The meta description is an HTML tag, which looks like this in the HTML code for the page:
<meta name="description" content="A page's description, usually one or two sentences."/>
The purpose of a meta description for your page is simple: to get someone searching on Google to click your link. In other words, meta descriptions are there to generate clickthroughs from search engines.
Search engines say there is no direct ranking benefit from the meta description – they don’t use it in their ranking algorithm. But there is an indirect benefit: Google uses click-through-rate (CTR) as a way of working out whether or not you’re a good result.
Characteristics of a good meta description
Just about every article on meta descriptions will include some of these, but I have combined all that make sense to me to come up with this list.
- It can be up to 155 characters — and sometimes more.
There is no ‘right number’ of characters here because your description may be cut short depending on what Google adds to your search result. Google may, for instance, add the date to an article, which reduces the number of available characters. Also, Google changes the length every now and then.
- It should be actionable and written 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 this further with some examples later on.
- It should include a call-to-action.
“Hello, we have such and such new product, and you want it. Find out more!” This overlaps what I said about 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 in handy here.
- It could contain structured content.
For example, if you have a product for the tech-savvy, focussing 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, the chances are you won’t have to convince them, and the presence of information like the 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 out meta descriptions that try to trick the visitor into clicking and might even penalize the site that do this. But apart from that, misleading descriptions will probably increase bounce rate and is a bad idea for that reason alone. 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 highlight it in the search results and that will make the link to your site even more inviting.
- The meta description should be unique.
If your meta description is the same as those on other pages, the user experience in Google will be hampered. Although page titles might vary, all pages will appear to be the same because all the descriptions are the same. If you intentionally want/need/are tempted to create a duplicate meta description, you’d be better off leaving the description blank and Google will pick a snippet from the page containing the keyword used in a search. Visit Google Webmaster Tools > HTML Improvements or use Screaming Frog SEO Spider to check for duplicate meta descriptions.
Examples of a good meta description
While researching this post I read many articles covering meta descriptions, and while I found plenty of wisdom, there were almost no examples. But there’s nothing like actual examples for making it easier for you to learn to construct a proper meta description, so taking the seven numbered points above into account, let’s take a look at a few:
The right length
Adding the date to the snippet preview
People often ask us about this. The option ‘Show date in snippet preview?’ in the Titles and Metas area in our Yoast SEO plugin doesn’t add the date to the description in Google. It just adds it in the snippet preview in our plugin itself.
But it will help you decide on the right length of your meta description. Check the option if you find Google adding the publish date to your articles.
Google might display different text
Note that the actual meta description inserted in the above page was only 76 characters, which is probably why Google decided not to use it.
In an active voice
Get Yoast SEO for WordPress training. Nuff said.
Including a call-to-action
There are two, actually. ‘Learn more now’ and the site link ‘Buy Now $ 399.00’. Both encourage clicks.
Including structured content
8 MP Camera, that’s what I wanted to know. I don’t need that sales stuff here; I just want that phone.
Containing the focus keyword
But I’ve got lots of pages – where should I start?
Do you feel like you need to change all your meta descriptions but are worried about the time it might take to change all those pages? Google has the answer:
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 think of others, but I think these are the two main issues:
- My meta description isn’t showing.
Google probably made something up for you, as they felt the meta description you created didn’t represent the content of the page, or is a duplicate, for instance.
- I want to use another description for social sharing.
Do you have Yoast SEO? In that case: check the social tab in the box on Edit Pages. In Yoast SEO Premium, you even have social previews! If not, add OpenGraph tags or Twitter Cards to your website and use any description you want.
Read more: Stopwords in your focus keywords? »