A meta description is an HTML element that provides a brief summary of a web page to search engines and users. It is meant to give them an idea of what the content page is, and how it relates to a specific search query.
The goal of providing a specified meta description to search engines is for them to display your desired meta description in the search engine results page (SERP) rather than whatever random text the search engine may decide is relevant.
What Are Meta Descriptions and Why Are They Important?
If you’ve ever searched for a product, topic, or business using Google or another search engine, you’ve seen a meta description. Here is an example of a meta description from an Eight Oh Two Marketing website landing page:
The meta description is a bit of information situated just below the page title on the SERP that lets readers know more about a web page. Although the meta description is not a direct ranking factor in the Google algorithm, it can affect the web page’s ranking indirectly by swaying the reader to click onto it or not. A well-written and optimized meta description can increase your brand awareness, improve your click-through rate (CTR), and establish trust.
- Brand Awareness: When a meta description appears in the SERP, it introduces readers to your business and gives them their first impression of your website.
- CTR: A thoughtfully composed meta description influences users to click on your page; this positively affects the page’s rank in the SERP.
- Trust: A meta description that provides an accurate representation of what people will find when they open your web page instills trust in your brand from the start.
How To Write Effective Meta Descriptions
We’re finding the best strategy for writing an effective meta description at this moment is to take optimized copy right from the web page, whether it's the opening sentence of a blog post, the subhead on a product page, or the first sentence in a category footer. Not only will this summarize your web page intent to satisfy the search engine, but it also eliminates the need to write a separate meta description. Conversely, you can compose a fresh meta description first and then make it the opening sentence of the page copy to serve as a quick, optimized introduction.
Is This a Shift in Our Approach?
Yes. Over the last couple of years we’d been noticing that despite providing a specific keyword-rich meta description to search engines, more and more Google was choosing other language from the web page to use instead of our desired version.
Notably, Google will sometimes grab copy from the web page to use as a meta description if it determines the unique meta description we chose does not accurately represent the landing page.
While we have long known about this, seeing it more often made us reassess our strategy and approach to meta description composition. Here was an earlier ‘boilerplate’-style version of the meta description for a product category, that once displayed in the SERP:
Shop Orvis Essentials for Traveling With Dogs. Enjoy convenience, comfort, and safety on the road with our seat protectors, travel crates, and portable dog….
At some point Google decided to use other language from the category page. So we tweaked a sentence to make it closer to what Google was using. We in turn adjusted the footer copy block on the landing page to make our new meta description the opening sentence:
While this strategy is not 100% guaranteed to work, it appears to have in this instance, as shown in this screenshot from the SERP:
And we’re finding the overwhelming majority of the time it does work.
How This Paradigm Shift Is Changing Our Approach to Other Copy
Changing our approach to meta description composition is just one piece of our evolving strategy. Because more and more we’re seeing Google decide for us what best represents a landing page, we’ve experimented some with making changes to copy on the landing page itself. In the case of the Orvis example, this seems to be working most of the time. Here is an example from Pure Hockey where Google chose some language seemingly randomly, from the bottom of the product page, to use as the description:
Going back to the product page, we find these variables listed about halfway down it under a product video:
Meanwhile, the top of the landing page has nothing especially useful for Google to grab it thinks might represent the page:
Here is the boilerplate-style description Pure Hockey implemented but that Google chose not to use:
Shop CCM Tacks AS-V Grip Composite Hockey Stick - Senior from Pure Hockey. We offer the largest selection of Composite Hockey Sticks at the lowest prices, guaranteed.
This shift suggests we ought to pay closer attention to what Google likes, and then think about the best way to optimize a web page when we’re writing new copy, or auditing existing copy, to improve the chances Google will pull clean, user-friendly copy into the description. In the hockey stick example, Google evidently decided a few variables about the stick best represented the page and were most helpful to the user. But it’s not the best, cleanest presentation in the SERP and represents an opportunity for ecommerce businesses.
How Long Should a Meta Description Be?
There is no specific rule governing meta description length, but Google will truncate a description longer than about 155 characters in the SERP. For example, the complete meta description for the page in the example below is 179 characters:
Get the best deals on Pet Gear Dog Strollers when you shop the largest online selection at eBay.com. Free shipping on many items | Browse your favorite brands | affordable prices.
Google clipped the last four words of the meta description in the SERP to read:
The length of a meta description will also vary based on the web page you’re summarizing; 150 characters might be enough for what you want to say, or maybe 130 characters are plenty. Convey the most important keywords and other terms as clearly and succinctly as possible in the meta description.
Should a Meta Description Be Optimized With Keywords?
Yes, you should include the target keywords for your web page in the meta description, even though Google stopped using meta descriptions and meta keywords in its ranking algorithms in 2009. In the past, some marketers loaded their meta descriptions with trending keywords for clicks—even if they had nothing to do with the web pages they represented. So Google excluded keywords as a ranking factor in its algorithm to discourage this “keyword stuffing” practice.
But as we have seen, Google often chooses for us based on what it believes a web page is about. So the best strategy is to implement the target keywords, and as soon as possible, in the opening sentence of copy and thus in the identical meta description. And because it can influence a user to click through to the page (or not), the meta description does make an indirect impact on a page’s ranking. This is called the click-through rate (CTR) and it can positively affect the page’s rank. So you can think of the meta description as a juicy carrot to dangle in front of the user.
It should still effectively encapsulate what’s on the page it describes. When a user searches for a specific keyword or phrase, those words show up in bold typeface in the SERP, drawing the eye and letting the searcher know the page includes the information they’re looking for. If someone who wants to learn more about wellness tourism types these terms into the search field, they may find this in the results:
Now they can navigate to that page with a fair amount of confidence it’ll give them some useful information about wellness tourism.
If the reader is tempted, clicks through, but then arrives at a page that does not reflect their search intent and thus does not help them, they’ll bounce. A website's users will be happier the less often they encounter misleading descriptions that inspire them to bounce. And while Google does not specifically use the bounce rate as a ranking metric for a web page, it does likely use it as a way to gauge user satisfaction, and search engines reward high user satisfaction. So a high bounce rate is still undesirable.
Should a Meta Description Have Call To Action (CTA)?
A call to action (CTA) in a meta description is not required, but including a call to action in the meta description is a good strategy to use on some types of pages to drive traffic to your site, for example a product category page. The consumer is searching for something, and a CTA encourages them to ‘shop’ or ‘explore’ or ‘browse’ for it. It takes only a minor change to update the first sentence of your copy to include a CTA.
If the opening sentence of your web page reads:
The Pretzel Place offers gourmet salted, unsalted, and flavored pretzels, available in pop-top cans or resealable pouches perfect for on-the-go snacking.
Then add a CTA and use it as the meta description:
Browse The Pretzel Place for gourmet salted, unsalted, and flavored pretzels, etc.
For blog posts and other types of content, a well-written, optimized sentence without a CTA can be enough to entice the reader to click through:
Common Mistakes To Avoid in Meta Descriptions
Avoid these potentially costly mistakes in your meta descriptions:
- A poorly written or confusing meta description inspires a would-be buyer to skip your web page and choose the next option on the SERP.
- A meta description that does not match the page title makes it harder for the search engine to understand what the page is about, which can result in poor ranking.
- Stuffing a meta description with too many keywords can make the description hard for both the search engines and the user to understand.
- Meta descriptions that do not accurately depict the web page they represent can diminish trust in your brand.
Our post on common meta tag mistakes takes an in-depth look at these and other missteps and offers suggestions on how to fix them.
In summary, a thoughtful, well-written, optimized meta description that accurately represents the web page helps users find you in the SERP; adding a CTA to some types of meta descriptions can help speak to customer intent; and keeping the character length under 155 makes the search engines less likely to truncate your description, which makes for a cleaner listing. We’re SEO experts: Contact Eight Oh Two today to learn how we compose the most effective meta descriptions and other optimized content to improve your web pages’ performance.