Back to basics time this Friday, and this time, it’s all about the only meta tag that still has relevance; the meta description tag. Meta descriptions have three primary uses:
- To describe the content of the page accurately and succinctly
- To serve as a short, text “advertisement” to click on your results in the search results
- To display targeted keywords, not for ranking purposes, but to indicate the content to searchers
Great meta descriptions, just like great ads, can be tough to write, but for keyword-targeted pages, particularly in competitive search results, they’re a critical part of driving traffic from the engines through to your pages. Their importance is much greater for search terms where the intent of the searcher is unclear or different searchers might have different motivations.
There’s a few good rules to follow when writing meta descriptions that take advantage of their use in pulling in search traffic:
- Always describe your content honestly – if it’s not as “sexy” as you’d like, spice up your content, don’t bait and switch on searchers or they’ll have a poor brand association.
- Character limits – currently Google displays up to 160 characters, Yahoo! up to 165 and MSN up to 200+ (they’ll go to three vertical lines in some cases). Stick with the smallest – Google – and keep those descriptions at 160 characters (including spaces) or less.
- Write with as much sizzle as you can while staying descriptive – the perfect meta description is like the perfect ad – compelling and informative.
- Just like an ad, you can test meta description performance in the search results, but it takes careful attention. You’ll need to buy the keyword through PPC so you know how many impressions it received over a given timeframe and can track your CTR.
- Unlike an ad, the motivation for natural search click is frequently very different than that of users clicking on the paid results. Don’t assume that a successful PPC ad will transition into a good meta description (or the reverse).
- It’s extremely important to have your keywords in the meta tag – the bolding done by the engines can make a big difference in visibility and CTR.
- You shouldn’t always write a meta description. Although conventional logic would hold that it’s universally wiser to write a good meta description yourself, rather than let the engines scrape your page, this isn’t the case. I use the general rule that if the page is targeting 1-3 heavily-searched terms/phrases, go with a meta description that hits those users performing that search. However, if you’re targeting longer tail traffic, for example with hundreds of articles or blog entries or even a huge product catalog, it can sometimes be wiser to let the engines themselves extract the relevant text. The reason is simple – when engines pull, they always display the keywords (and surrounding phrases) that the user searched for. If you force a meta description, you can detract from the relevance the engines make naturally. In some cases, they’ll overrule your meta description anyway, but it’s not always wise to rely on that.