Are your meta descriptions as good as they could be?
While most SEOs agree that meta descriptions aren’t as important for SEO as they once were, and Google outright admitted as much in a 2009 blog post, smart marketers understand that a great meta description can be a hugely valuable asset for your website.
A good meta description can make your content stand out from its competitors in the search engine results pages, increasing user interest. It can also pre-sell your website to searchers, improving click through rates and helping you get a larger share of the organic traffic for your target keywords.
As the owner of a website, this means you can earn more traffic, generate more leads and make more sales, all by improving your meta descriptions. You can also improve your search CTR -- a potential ranking factor that can lead to improved organic rankings for your website.
Before we dig into the strategy of writing great meta descriptions, let’s first look at what a meta description is and how it factors into your website’s search engine visibility.
A meta description is a short snippet that describes the content on your webpage. The point of a meta description is to offer a brief summary of a webpage’s content to the user, providing insight into a page’s topic and subject matter before they click through from Google’s search results.
Below, we’ve included a picture of the meta description for Facebook.com. As you can see, it’s a short description of Facebook’s product, with a call to action at the beginning telling users to sign up or log into Facebook.
The meta description is the final section of the search result -- the text below the title and page URL.
As a marketer, your goal should be to use each page’s meta description to briefly describe the page’s content and encourage users to click your listing instead of its competitors for its target keywords.
Meta descriptions are created using the <meta name="description"> tag. Below, we’ve included an example of the HTML used to create a meta description for a page featuring simple recipes:
<meta name="description" content="Browse 50+ simple recipes, ranging from budget recipes to old favorites that you can prepare at home.">
Good meta descriptions are usually 120 to 155 characters long and provide as much detail as possible about the webpage. Your meta description plays a huge role in determining the traffic each page generates from search, so it’s important to optimize it to get the best performance.
If your website is created using HTML, you can add a meta description to each page using the code below:
<meta name="description" content="Replace this text with your page’s meta description.">
If you use a content management system like WordPress to manage your website, you can add custom meta descriptions to each post and page using plugins like SEO Ultimate or Yoast SEO.
It’s important to keep your meta descriptions short enough to adequately describe your website without going into too much detail. Google automatically truncates meta descriptions of 160 or more characters, so aim for a maximum of 155 characters for each page you publish.
Since meta descriptions describe the content of your page, they play a huge role in informing users of what to expect after they click. Below, we’ve included two example meta descriptions for a website selling running shoes. The first is short, simple and purely descriptive:
As you can see, this meta description doesn’t offer much information. All it tells the searcher is that they can shop online for running shoes. Overall, it’s boring and tells users almost nothing about what to expect after they click, except that they can buy running shoes on this website.
Would you click on this if you saw it after searching for “running shoes” on Google? Unlikely. As it doesn’t offer any insight into the page’s content or benefits, this meta description isn’t going to attract much attention from searchers.
Here’s the second meta description for the same example website, this time with a longer and more detailed description of the page’s content:
Big difference, right? This meta description is still fairly simple and bland, but it at least goes into more detail about what users can expect from this search result. It tells users that they can shop for shoes at the best prices, get instant shipping and buy from leading brands.
Those three bolded items are all benefits, and they’re major motivators for users to click on this search result instead of the other results for “running shoes.” This means that our example page gets more traffic and motivated users, instead of little to no traffic and bored, uninterested users.
See what a huge difference a good meta description can make? A great meta description can result in your website getting 2x, 3x, or even 10x as many clicks as its competitors, resulting in more traffic, more leads and more sales from each of your target SEO keywords.
Writing meta descriptions is both an art and a science. With the right combination of information and benefits-focused sales copy, you can massively increase the percentage of users that click on your page instead of its organic search competitors.
Here are five ways you can write great meta descriptions that act as magnets for visitors, giving your website a higher-than-average clickthrough rate (CTR) and a significant advantage over its organic search competition:
Does your meta description tell users what to do? A call to action is a short statement that tells your target customer exactly what to do next. Here are 17 examples from HubSpot. In order to maximize your clickthrough rate, all of your meta descriptions should include a call to action.
A call to action gets users out of “searching for information” mode and tells them to choose your result specifically. Remember our Facebook example from earlier? Below, we’ve underlined the call to action in Facebook’s meta description:
In this case, the call to action is to “Create an account or log into Facebook,” since Facebook’s marketing objective is to acquire new users. Your call to action should always focus on the goal you want to achieve from the user’s click, whether it’s making a sale or acquiring a new lead.
Good calls to action are clear and specific, like “Shop now!” or “Create your account.” It’s best to avoid using generic calls to action like “Click here,” as they’re so overused that users often just ignore them completely.
What are the benefits of clicking through to your website? Searchers ultimately choose which of the organic results to click on based on the perceived benefits of each website, making it vital to position your website as offering the best benefits to the user.
A good meta description should clearly list the 2-3 biggest benefits of using your website. Going back to our Facebook meta description example, we’ve underlined the main benefit of Facebook that’s included in the meta description:
In this case, the benefit is to connect with friends and family. Your website’s benefit could be the lowest prices and best value, the highest quality, or anything else. Mentioning your main benefit in your meta description is a great way to motivate users and get a higher organic search CTR.
Inspiring curiosity is a great way to increase your search CTR. Below, we’ve written two meta descriptions for an example website dedicated to losing weight. Which meta description makes you feel more curious and motivated to click through to the website?
This meta description is useful and descriptive, explaining what users can expect after they click through and land on the page. But does it make you feel curious? Since it’s such a simple meta description, it doesn’t inspire much curiosity about what the page is likely to contain.
What about this meta description? Instead of just describing the content on the page, it inspires curiosity by mentioning a “ridiculously simple technique” that users can use to lose weight. Since users want to discover the technique, they’re far more likely to click on this search result.
If you mislead users with a meta description that doesn’t match the content of your website, you can expect a great clickthrough rate and an equally high bounce rate.
Users are unlikely to trust a website that tricks them with an inaccurate meta description. While an exciting, persuasive meta description might result in a high CTR, it could end up hurting your website’s conversion rate by discouraging users from buying your product or filling in your form.
Be clear and honest about the content on your website and you’ll achieve a strong CTR as well as a great conversion rate. Remember that your meta description and website are both part of the same process, and any mismatch between one and the other will affect user trust.
If you mention a 50% off discount in your meta description, you had better offer the same 50% off discount on your website. If you mention practical, actionable advice, you’d better follow up with great on-page content that gives the user what they’re expecting.
As well as being honest and non-manipulative with users, it’s important to be honest to Google and other search engines. By all means, include your target keyword in your meta description, but avoid obvious keyword stuffing that’s more likely to hurt than help your results.
Your page title and meta description act as a cohesive unit that, when used effectively, can help you stand out from your competitors. Imagine you’re searching for a divorce lawyer in New York and only want to work with the best. Which of the two results below would you click on?
The only differences between the first and second result are the page title and meta description used to describe each page. The first result is generic and bland; the second result is dedicated to explaining exactly why it’s the best choice for the user.
In this case, the emphasis is on quality. However, you can stand out from your competitors by mentioning your offer’s value, the speed at which you can deliver your product or service, your great reviews from previous customers, or even your unique approach or specific benefits.
If you’re struggling to attract the clickthrough rate you’d like from your organic search keywords, spend an hour or two studying your competitors. You may spot a weakness in their page titles and meta descriptions that you can use to improve your clickthrough rate and get more traffic.
Before you start optimizing your meta descriptions using the tips above, it’s worth checking that you aren’t committing any obvious errors. The three meta description mistakes listed below are all alarmingly common -- so common that they’re worth checking for on your website right now:
If you don’t add your own meta descriptions to your pages, Google will automatically generate its own snippets using what it believes is the most relevant content on your page. While Google sometimes gets it right, more often than not you’ll end up with a subpar, low-CTR description.
For example, the article below has a fantastic title that inspired curiosity, but doesn’t have any meta description. As a result, the meta description that Google auto-generates isn’t as relevant as it could be.
Make sure each page you build has a unique and helpful meta description, even if it only targets low traffic keywords. Even a quick and simple custom meta description is better than nothing at all, particularly from a CTR standpoint.
Google has made it clear that meta descriptions aren’t a major ranking factor, and that including keywords in your meta descriptions isn’t likely to help with SEO. Despite this, many SEOs stuff their meta descriptions with their target keywords in the hope of a quick rankings boost.
The end result is usually the exact opposite. Google’s algorithm is smart enough to know when you’re trying to manipulate it, and stuffing your meta description with your target keyword is far more likely to result in your website being penalized than it being launched to the top ranking.
On average, Google will display a maximum of 155 characters from your meta description in its search engine results. Anything beyond that length will be truncated, meaning information you write after the first 155 characters will be invisible to searchers.
For example, the meta description below accurately describes the content of the article, but is so long that Google truncates it, leaving users without a compelling call to action or complete description of the website.
There are some exceptions to this rule, particularly for East Asian languages such as Japanese and Chinese, but for the most part, 155 characters is the limit.
Avoid writing overly long or verbose meta descriptions, since every unnecessary word is a lost chance to include useful information that can improve your CTR. Keep your description as brief and focused as possible, since brevity means more room for benefits and a great call to action.
Ready to start optimizing your meta descriptions? A good meta description can double, triple or even quadruple your clickthrough rate from Google’s search results, giving you more traffic and better results even without any movement in your rankings.
If you believe your meta descriptions aren’t as good as they could be, apply the five principles above to increase their relevance for searchers, advertise your website’s biggest benefits and stand out from your organic search competitors.