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.
Editor’s note: Meta descriptions aren’t the only forms of metadata that can impact your content marketing performance. For more answers, advice, and best practices, check out our Metadata 101 guide for content marketers.  

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.

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