By Brad Shorr published February 2, 2012

The Essential Guide to Meta Descriptions that Will Get You Found Online

If you think meta descriptions are no longer important, this post may change your mind. In fact, with the rise of social media, they are more valuable than ever.

Meta descriptions are little snippets of text (about 155 characters) that appear in search engine results and with links shared on social media and bookmarking sites. Although they have very little pure SEO value, meta descriptions are still important for communicating your brand message and for conversions — i.e., getting people to click on your links.

Meta descriptions in action

First, let’s take a look at meta descriptions in action with a recent post on my company’s blog, YouTube Video Optimization Best Practices. This post was originally published without a meta description. When the post cropped up on a Google search engine results page (SERP), this is what you would see:

Notice that for the snippet of text under the link, Google picked up the first 182 characters from the post. This is OK, but in my view not ideal for conveying the primary value of this post or motivating people to click through and actually read it. I added a meta description, and a few days later — after Google had re-indexed the page — the SERP looked like this:

The meta description above has three characteristics I shoot for in almost every situation:

  • A quick summary of the content
  • A reason to read the content
  • Fewer than 155 characters

I’ll get into writing tips for meta descriptions later, but first I want to give you a feel for how meta descriptions look, and where they appear on the most popular social media platforms.

Meta descriptions on Google+

Google+, the latest and greatest social network, picks up meta descriptions on shared links. Again, let’s look at the difference. Here’s what people saw on Google+ before:

And here is the same post immediately after I added the meta description:

I hope you agree that the second version tells a better story, fits the Google+ format by eliminating truncated text, and does a better job of encouraging people to read and re-share the post.

Meta descriptions on Facebook

Facebook displays meta descriptions as well. Here is the post before:

And here is the post after:

Again, a meta description gives your social sharing more persuasive power and an all-around more professional look.

How to add meta descriptions to your web pages

If you’re not sure a published blog post or web page has a meta description, check your browser’s “View Source” option and look for the code contained in the red box (note: the box was added by me — you won’t actually see the box in your code):

If this line of code is not there, it means that search engine and social media text snippets associated with that page will probably default to:

  1. the first several characters of text (as we saw above), or
  2. text surrounding keywords from the page that matches up to the search phrase entered by the search engine user

Any decent content management system (CMS) allows users to add a meta description. We happen to use the All in One SEO Pack plug-in for WordPress, which looks like this in the post editor:

If your CMS does not allow you to add/customize meta descriptions and titles, I urge you to upgrade.

Tips for writing stronger meta descriptions

Use relevant descriptions. A good meta description provides an overview of the page’s core message and purpose. Descriptions should be fully relevant: There is nothing more detrimental to conversion and reputation than setting up people to click through to a link that contains content other than what they are expecting. You never want to mislead users and leave them feeling used and abused.

Highlight a reason to read. A gentle (or sometimes not so gentle!) call to action influences click-throughs. How will people benefit from reading your content? The meta description is an ideal place to tell them. Here are some examples:

  • Learn the essentials about…
  • Discover why…
  • A complete guide to…
  • Order by January 31 and receive…

Leverage your credibility. I once had a client that increased traffic to its remodeling services home page by adding, “BBB approved” to the meta description. For brands that are not household names, phrases such as “since 1975” and “more than 10,000 clients served” may strongly influence searchers to click.

Make it specific. The meta description examples above are powerful because they are specific, concrete and, therefore, meaningful. Empty words and phrases like “innovative” and “world class” are a dime a dozen. They do not inspire confidence and can even be counterproductive in terms of conversion. Make sure you speak to the real benefits that your content provides to readers, in terms of what they want — not what you want them to do.

Keep it short and sweet. Avoid your natural inclination to use all 155 characters. By virtue of its novelty, a short meta description may attract more attention in the sea of lengthy, keyword-stuffed descriptions that are out there.  

Other important considerations

Speaking of keyword-stuffing, there are other important things you should be thinking about when you create and execute your meta description strategy:

Keywords and SEO. While it’s a good idea to include keywords in the meta descriptions you create for pages that are optimized around high-volume terms, recent changes in search engine algorithms are making this a less important consideration. In many cases, Google and other search engines pull text from the page itself based on the search query, rather than displaying the meta description. Given this fact, along with the more consistent and controllable display of meta descriptions on social media sites, focus on persuasiveness over keywords.

Uniqueness and SEO. Every blog post and site page should have a unique meta description or none at all. Duplicate meta descriptions influence Google to ignore them globally on your domain.

Create “default meta descriptions.” As we’ve seen, Google and social media sites sometimes pick up the first lines of content on a web page in lieu or in the absence of a meta description. For that reason, it is helpful to write those first lines of content so that they can double as a strong meta description, if necessary. For example: Take a look at the first two sentences of this post, which were written with this idea in mind.

Rewriting meta descriptions. Here are some final tips:

  • There is no harm in rewriting or adding meta descriptions to previously published content. If you come out with an exciting new offer, consider adding it to the meta descriptions of your high traffic pages.
  • It’s also helpful to add persuasive elements to meta descriptions on pages with high search rankings but low traffic.
  • You can recirculate old blog posts and web pages on social media with new meta descriptions — this will make them fresh to old and new connections alike. 

Author: Brad Shorr

Brad Shorr is Director of B2B Marketing for Straight North, an internet marketing agency headquartered in Chicago. He is an experienced content strategist, respected blogger, and SEO copywriter. Connect with him on Twitter @bradshorr.

Other posts by Brad Shorr

  • http://twitter.com/WriterRoxanne Roxanne Blanford

    Meta descriptions…seems the ideal way to implement this is in140 characters! Less is definitely more, #content

  • https://twitter.com/#!/EleanorPie Eleanorpie

    This is fantastic. I’m still working on my nuts and bolts SEO, and I appreciate the level of detail you included about the why AND the how. Thanks!

  • Cathy K, web content editor

    Excellent post. This perfect information for teaching other content providers in my organization about meta description.

  • Cathy K, web content editor

    Excellent post. This is perfect information for teaching other content providers in my organization about meta descriptions.

  • http://www.VideoLeadsOnline.com Video SEO Hound

    Very nice summary of Meta Descriptions and up-to-date usage of them in places like GooglePlus. I mainly agree, but would not abandon the use of a primary keyword phrase in them if possible.

    I particularly like your encouragement to use what you call “Default Meta Descriptions” – the purposeful writing of the first paragraph of text knowing that it may be “used” as a Meta Description snippet… write the first 155 characters carefully.

  • Jeff Dobkin

    OY, this is a terrible post.  Just kidding, Brad – very nice. I learned a lot from this short piece, and you know what they say.  Well, you do know, don’t you…

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this great post. I was actually just doing a little research this week on how to do a better job at Meta descriptions. I always thought of them as another opportunity for keyword ranking and tried to fill them with keywords. I’m going to go back and tweak a few of my meta’s.

  • http://twitter.com/bradshorr bradshorr

    Hi All, thanks for the feedback – glad the post is helpful. For a long time I didn’t pay much attention to meta descriptions because their SEO value was close to zero. But when you start looking at how links actually display, it’s an eye-opener. Whether to include keywords, and how much to emphasize keywords, is debated quite a bit in SEO circles. I’m not aware of data that suggests keywords in meta descriptions help rankings, but if somebody has that information it would be quite helpful! A non-SEO reason to use keywords is that those are the (theoretically) the most popular words people use when searching for the content you’ve written. Using those terms in the meta descriptions is really using buzz words – which is good for conversion. 

    • http://www.VideoLeadsOnline.com Video SEO Hound

      @Brad… not only are the Keywords you use supposed to be “buzz words” that contribute to conversions, they will end up being *Bolded* in the text that is displayed if it is seen/chosen as the “Description Snippet” in Google SERP. That bold text draws attention to your Description as it should confirm to the Searcher that they found what they were looking for in your Description.

    • http://ctrl.pragma-tech.com Ramy Ghaly

      Hi Brad @twitter-14613357:disqus - Thanks for highlighting the importance of Meta Tags where most definitely are useful and puts your posts apart from others. I’m actually working on a plug-in tool that does this automatically for you. Not only that, it summarizes the text and identify key topics in the post as well.  

      Here is a demo done on this post:

      <meta name="Description" content="TechnologyA good meta description provides an overview of the page’s core message and purpose.The meta description is an ideal place to tell them.By virtue of its novelty, a short meta description may attract more attention in the sea of lengthy, keyword-stuffed descriptions that are out there.In many cases, Google and other search engines pull text from the page itself based on the search query, rather than displaying the meta description.If you come out with an exciting new offer, consider adding it to the meta descriptions of your high traffic pages.You can recirculate old blog posts and web pages on social media with new meta descriptions — this will make them fresh to old and new connections alike. “> 

  • k.b

    Great post. Thanks for going to some depth in clearly explaining meta descriptions. More importantly how to then code into website. 

  • Anonymous

    This is an excellent article.  Meta descriptions are an area that I know nothing about, so giving it recognition for its value is very much appreciated.

  • http://www.theuniuni.com/ Payton_vege

    Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!

  • http://www.copywritematters.com.au Belinda Weaver

    Hi Brad, this is a really great of meta tags in the workplace! As a website copywriter I try and make sure I get my hands on the meta tags as well.

    I always remind myself that the tags are like a mini ad. As you said, focus on persuasiveness. Following this theme I like to sneak in a call to action if I can.

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  • Odettedecrecy

    Thanks for this wanted to share it in Twitter but when hit button was taken to page where I was asked for info to sign up to follow you, like a road block. Not good content marketing

  • http://www.dvdlabelprinter.org/ Bruce

    Hi Brad,
    Just found this post thanks to an email from Erica Stone.
    Very, very useful and also humbling; I’m off to my sites to do some serious re-writing.
    Thanks again

  • Gerhardt

    Exzellent and a lot of fresh ideas!

  • http://www.healthy24.net/ jerry

    Hi Brad, if I change my Meta descriptions again and again, can it make any bad impression on search engines? (Don’t laugh please, I am very new in blogsphere)

  • http://nridubai.com/ uday

    Meta descriptions will be the first piece of information that an online searcher will see when they search for something

  • http://www.facebook.com/jacob.baldwin.9619 Jacob Baldwin

    I am refreshing my website’s meta descriptions and was looking for a few quick best practices when writing the new ones and came across this page. I understand it now that Google takes snippets from the page rather than using the meta description on the SERP. Is there any benefit to optimizing a meta description if it’s not actually going to be selling anything?

  • http://www.ravenousravendesign.com Heather Wood

    I really loved your article. Especially this part:

    Leverage your credibility. I once had a client that increased traffic to its remodeling services home page by adding, “BBB approved” to the meta description. For brands that are not household names, phrases such as “since 1975” and “more than 10,000 clients served” may strongly influence searchers to click.

    I will really take the time to think about what I say in my descriptions. That is a great tip!

  • Chas

    Thank you for this article, I find it helpful. However, you do not seem to follow your own recommendations. Have you re-thought your recommendation? This is from a search on Google:
    Feb 2, 2012 – The meta description examples above are powerful because they are specific, concrete and, therefore, meaningful. Empty words and phrases …

    • http://www.contentmarketinginstitute.com/ Michele Linn

      Thanks for your perspective. We always include meta descriptions with our posts (as I verified this one has). However, as this posts notes:

      “In many cases, Google and other search engines pull text from the page itself based on the search query, rather than displaying the meta description.”

      I think this is one of those cases where the meta description we included is not being pulled by Google.

  • peter inspire watson

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  • http://www.options-trading-training.com Casey Braman

    Thank you for this information. I am working on my website http://www.options-trading-training and this information will help me set up my meta data. I will update you on the progress I make and thank you again.

  • Spook SEO

    The Meta descriptions are very important factor of website in SEO, Meta descriptions that will help you find online. Meta descriptions are little pieces of text that appear in search engine results, with links which shared on social media and bookmarking sites. Blogger you have the valuable information thanks for sharing it.