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A meta description is a short synopsis of a webpage that displays in search, underneath the title of the corresponding page.
If you search for anything, the search engine results pages, or SERPs, will display every webpage with its title, and a meta description underneath the title:
A meta description — on the surface — is a brief synopsis of a webpage. However, a truly optimized meta description is much more calculated than that. While it may not directly affect search rankings, a description that is properly optimized for users increases the chances that they will click through to your site — which is a positive indicator to search engines that you’re providing useful information. An excellent meta description will involve both sending the right signals to search engines, as well as users. To do so, it may help to understand exactly what it is, and how it fits into your SEO strategy.
A meta description will not be seen by visitors on your webpage, but will be seen in the SERPs. As such, a meta description should provide a brief description of your page, while appealing to a user enough to get them to click through to your site. A meta description will require critical thought, keyword research, and succinct, yet compelling language. Overall, a strong meta description should:
Meta tags are necessary to insert information within the code of your site. A meta tag can include metadata such as keywords relevant to the page, a title tag, a meta description, indicators for search engine robots, and schema. If you right-click on any page in-browser and select the option to view the page’s code, you can see how the site uses meta tags. Here, you can perform meta tag analysis — an essential step in competitive analysis. Understanding how your competitors are using meta tags in your competitive field can help you mirror the same strategies, or execute them better.
Meta tags differ from meta descriptions in that meta descriptions will be seen by (and should influence) a user to click on your article. Meta tags will work behind the scenes, hidden in your page’s code for search engine bots to crawl and determine how to categorize the content on the site.
For instance, the meta tag for a meta description will look similar to this: <meta name="description" content="This page is about meta descriptions.">. Meta tags for title tags and keywords will look similar to the following:
Meta tags and the metadata between them will work behind the scenes to let search engine bots know the nature of a webpage, and classify it as such. It should also be noted that meta tags don't necessarily need to be coded into a page by hand. Content management systems like WordPress will provide custom fields where you can enter a title, meta description, and keywords for the pages you craft.
A Google Webmaster Central Blog Post written by Raj Krishnan, states that:
“We want snippets to accurately represent the web result. We frequently prefer to display meta descriptions of pages (when available) because it gives users a clear idea of the URL's content."
This is evidence that a well-crafted meta description also can be used as a snippet in the SERPs — increasing the chances of improving your site's click-through rate.
When written appropriately, a meta description will signal to search engine robots that your page can satisfy a searcher query, while at the same time prompting the user to visit the site. There are several things to keep in mind when writing a meta description to demonstrate what your page can do for a potential visitor — for both the visitor and search engines.
To keep your reader's attention, and so Google won't cut it short and provide an ellipses, meta descriptions should be no longer than 160 characters. While it can be longer than this, to provide the best summary of your page to readers, 50 – 160 characters is still recommended.
Google is constantly testing how many characters it will display for a meta description, and if it will even take this information for a snippet. Depending on what type of device you’re using, the results may be displayed differently. Desktop SERPs have been known to show up to 300 characters for some queries, with mobile SERPs displaying 200-250. The reason that a 160-character limit is still considered a best practice is because it’s impossible to determine when a search engine will decide to display more characters than that.
To better indicate to search engines what your page is about, you will need to do a bit of keyword research. You'll want to understand how people are searching for things in your industry and implement this not only in your content strategy, but in your meta description as well. Especially if the page’s purpose is to address a keyword query, keywords should be included.
For instance, if someone is searching for information on how to improve their credit score, keywords such as "credit, improve, improve your credit score, etc." should be included. This not only shows the reader of the value of your page, but will also indicate to search engines that your page will provide information to satisfy said searcher intent. Keywords may come naturally if you are accurately describing the page.
While keeping character length and keywords in mind, you will also want to use the correct language for a meta description. Think of a meta description as an advertisement for your page. During the 160 characters allotted to you, a meta description should make a reader understand what your page is about, and how clicking through to the page and reading the information can help meet their search needs. To captivate the reader and urge them to click through to your site, address the reader through actionable language, and make a pitch to the user instead of a hard call to action.
Consider these two examples below of a good and not-so-good meta description. First, the well-crafted meta description:
This meta description is concise, yet expresses its value to the reader — namely that it will help the reader to write compelling meta descriptions to increase their CTR. In the same breath, it describes what this page is about. Additionally, this meta description makes great use of keywords as well.
Now for a less optimal example:
Besides having a long title tag, this meta description is also too long. Since it was cut off, it can’t demonstrate the value of the page to the reader. Secondly, this meta description does not summarize what the page is about, and spends too many characters setting up reader interest. The keyword “meta description” is mentioned, however, it could be better implemented by assessing how a user might search for this keyword.
Meta descriptions are essential to your SEO efforts. Understanding what meta descriptions are, and what they can do is only the first step. It may help to search for some key terms in your industry, see what comes up, and analyze the results to understand how to craft a great meta description.