SEO 101: Writing the Best Meta Descriptions
In our first post about SEO Basics, we talked a bit about the different search engine ranking factors, like title tags and URL structure. Now we’re going to go a little bit in a different direction to talk about meta descriptions.
What Is a Meta Description?
Meta descriptions are the most important part of search engine optimization that technically don’t have anything to do with rankings. On the search engine results page, every result is made up of at least three main parts:
- The linked title of the page
- The URL that shows up under it in green
- A line or two of text that describes what’s on the page
That text is the meta description. In most cases, you can make sure the description here says what you want it to by using the meta description tag in your html. This looks like: <meta name=”description” content = “Your meta description”> and you can see it in the html for the website below:
If you use a WordPress site and have an SEO plug-in, you can skip dealing with the html entirely and simply look for the “Description” field when filling in SEO information for each page.
When you add a meta description to all your pages, it makes it easy for Google to decide what to display in the description section of the SERP for your webpage.
It’s important to note that Google doesn’t pull from the meta description you provide 100% of the time. In some cases, it will pull from text on your webpage instead. Nonetheless, providing your own meta description is still a valuable part of on-site optimization for the search engines.
Why Meta Descriptions Matter
As we established before, meta descriptions aren’t given any weight in how search engine algorithms decide which websites to rank for certain terms. Getting that meta description just right won’t make any difference in terms of the search engine algorithm – so why is it still so important?
Because your ultimate goal isn’t rankings, it’s clicks. The whole point of getting a good ranking in the search engines is to drive more clicks to your website, and your meta description gives you the opportunity to persuade searchers to click on your website instead of your competitors’.
A good meta description can increase your click-through rate (CTR). And while Google doesn’t admit outright that CTR is a ranking factor in the search results, most SEO experts are convinced that CTR does influence rankings.
If that is the case, then a strong meta description can directly increase traffic and indirectly increase your rankings – both goals that make spending time on your meta descriptions well worth it.
8 Tips for Writing the Best Meta Descriptions
You don’t have a lot of space to work with for your meta descriptions, so you’ve got to make what you have count. Here are some of the best rules to follow to write meta descriptions that will get the job done.
1. Write a unique one for every page.
Don’t write one meta description for your website and copy-and-paste it on every page. While that might be easy, it would mean wasting opportunities to sell what’s on each individual page to the people searching for precisely the information it provides.
Commit time to writing a unique description for every page on your website based on the content that’s on it and the primary keyword the page is targeting.
2. Pay attention to length.
In late 2017, Google increased the number of characters it displays for meta descriptions on the SERP from around 160 to 320. Then, in May 2018, they shortened them back to 160. That’s the maximum number of characters you should use, or part of your description will inevitably be cut off.
For each page, consider the most important message you should convey to get people to click through to the page. If you only need 100 characters to really sell what’s on the page, then don’t awkwardly prolong your meta description to use the full space. But in a lot of cases, having 160 characters to work with will give you more room to say what you need more persuasively, so take advantage of it where needed.
3. Use your target keyword naturally.
When you look at the meta descriptions in the Google search results, you’ll notice that anywhere the words included in your search show up, they’re bolded.
For the person searching, this can help you more quickly spot which results are most relevant. For the websites showing up in the results, that bolding is a way to stand out and draw the searcher’s eye to your result.
While you can’t predict every specific term your website may end up ranking for, you can increase the odds of having bolded terms in your meta description on the SERP by making sure you include your target keyword in your description. But make sure you use it naturally – don’t force it. Keyword stuffing can make your meta description more confusing than helpful and end up hurting you.
4. Emphasize the value on the page.
The whole point of your meta description is to work as a sales pitch for the web page. For each page on your website, carefully consider the biggest benefit it provides to visitors. That’s what you want to emphasize in your meta description.
Make sure you think about it from the visitor’s point of view here. What problems does your web page content solve for them? What questions do they have that it answers? And importantly, what makes your page better than the similar results they’ll see alongside you on the SERP?
5. Represent the page accurately.
Make sure your meta description accurately portrays what visitors will see when they click through.
Gaining a click because you oversell or misrepresent what’s on the page is never worth it. You risk losing the visitor’s trust and will likely gain an increased bounce rate out of the deal. So make sure that your webpage can deliver on any claims you make in your meta description.
6. Use an action-oriented CTA.
Calls to action often work best when they encourage people to do something active (hence the name). Use some of the characters in your meta description to urge people to click with action terms like “learn how,” “read more,” or “discover.”
7. Use schema markup when appropriate.
One of the biggest changes to the SERPs since Google started has been the rise of rich snippets. While they don’t show up for every search, for a number of types of searches, you’ll now see additional information included in the SERP listing, such as pricing for products or calories for recipes.
Hopefully. you already know to proofread all your web pages and content before they go live, but make sure you remember to do the same for your meta descriptions. If you’re writing dozens or hundreds of meta descriptions, it can be easy to forget this simple step, but if your big sales pitch on the SERP includes an embarrassing error, it could lose you clicks and hurt your reputation.
Meta descriptions are important, but they’re just one small part of doing SEO well on your website. To strengthen your website’s chances of landing those coveted top spots in the search rankings, check out the rest of the articles in our SEO 101 series:
- How Do Search Engines Work?
- How to Write Compelling Title Tags
- What’s the Best URL Structure?
- Best Practices for Website Architecture
Contact HostGator’s expert SEO team for more ideas on how to improve your website’s SEO.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.