What is a meta description?
A meta description is an HTML tag of up to 155 characters that briefly describes your page's content. The meta description appears under the clickable link to your page in search engine results pages. In the HTML code, this is what a meta description looks like:
<head> <meta name="description" content="This is an example of a meta description. This will often show up in search results."></head>
Most search engines like Google claim that meta descriptions are not taken into account by their algorithms, meaning that the ranking of your links is not based around your meta description.
There is, however, an indirect benefit to building a strong meta description for a page. Your meta description should be treated as “ad text” - it is trying to sell your link to the user, so they click on it. A good meta description can add that small amount of detail that your title tag can’t feasibly include, which will draw the attention of the user and eventually net your page a visit. In this way, meta descriptions play a role in the click-through rate of your pages. CTR plays a large role in search engine algorithms since they use it to evaluate whether the displayed pages are getting enough visits. So, just as you carefully craft your title tags to maximize your CTR, you should aim to do the same with your meta descriptions.
Here are some tips to get you started on your meta descriptions:
1. Respect the character limit
155 characters isn’t much, but you need to make sure it’s enough. Going over the character limit will have your meta description truncated, which is more harmful to your CTR than you’d think. If you can make sure that all the necessary information is contained within those 155 characters, you’re already off to a great start. Remember that 155 characters is an upper limit, not a goal. If you manage to make a good meta description in less, do it! The most important thing is to keep things concise and focused.
Google.ca’s own meta description goes over the 155 character limit and is truncated.
2. Treat it like a title tag
Title tags and meta descriptions go hand-in-hand, so it's good to adopt a similar approach when building them. Make sure you are including your usual keywords (especially if there were some you couldn't fit in your title tag) and power words in order to maximize its selling power. Search engines will highlight terms in your meta description that match words in the search query, so keep that in mind when choosing which keywords to implement.
Watch out for non-alphanumeric characters in your meta description, like quotation marks, parentheses, and dashes. These are extremely useful in title tags since they buy you precious space for a low character-cost. Still, meta descriptions will sometimes get truncated at these characters (especially quotation marks), and so it's best to avoid them altogether. It would be a shame to make a good meta description and have it get cut-off because you used the wrong characters.
3. Complement your title tag
It’s good to treat your meta description as a title tag, but you already have a title tag. Sure, make use of keywords and power words, but avoid being redundant. Your title tag should be good enough on its own, but you want to use your meta description to fill the spaces your title tag leaves. An excellent example of this is a call to action. It’s hard to implement them in title tags, but meta descriptions were made for call to actions. It is both easy and effective to add something like “Try now” or “Learn more” at the end of your meta description.
Call to actions are more engaging to readers and make your text less boring to read. You don’t need many characters to write a small call to action, so if you can afford it, make sure to include one!
4. Keep your meta description honest
It can be tempting to write a meta description that doesn't honestly describe your page's content to bait users into clicking on your link. This isn’t a good idea. First of all, it will surely increase the bounce rate of your page, since users who may have clicked on your link because of the meta description won’t find what they clicked for and leave quickly. On top of that, search engines will eventually find out that you’re using a dishonest meta description, and this can negatively impact your ranking on SERPs.
5. One page, one meta description
Avoid reusing meta descriptions for multiple pages. If a user notices the same exact meta description for multiple pages, then it can look lazy and distasteful and drive them away from your page. If your pages, title tags, and meta descriptions are automated, then there is a real risk that some meta descriptions are getting duplicated or reused. If you can’t afford to manually write a meta description for each individual page (which would be ideal), then you can try to find your pages on a search engine and see if there are any meta descriptions appearing multiple times - especially for your high-traffic pages!
6. Address the reader
Even though it's called a "meta description," you don’t want it to be too impersonal and distant.If you can manage to inform the reader about the content of your page while simultaneously addressing them personally, in an actionable way, then you've hit the sweet spot.
Youtube’s meta description is a good example of managing to address the reader while describing what the website offers at the same time.
7. Learn when it's best NOT to write a meta description
Strangely enough, sometimes not writing a meta description is the best thing you can do. It can be tricky. If your page targets a limited number (1 to 3) frequently searched terms of phrases, then its best to write your own meta description and target these terms directly. If, however, your page relates to a larger number of terms, it can be a better idea to let the search engine find a meta description for your page on its own. This way, the search engine will adapt the meta description to the user’s exact search query and can use the appropriate keywords that your page is related to in the meta description. If your page is broad, there’s no way you can write a meta description that will adequately address all the key terms and phrases people will search for. In this case, it’s best to leave it blank and let the search engine do the work for you.
Be careful, because sometimes this can backfire. It’s not very clear how search engines automatically generate meta descriptions for pages, but it's possible for them to take the first chunk of text on the page and use that. Make sure you stay on top of things if you choose to forego writing a meta description, and if something like this happens, you may need to write one manually anyway.