So much has changed in search engine optimization over the years. Yet the meta description tag is still important, especially for organic search traffic. Even though the meta description may no longer be a direct factor in search ranking, it's a mistake to ignore that field in your SEO plugin settings.
In this article, we'll explain why meta descriptions are of great importance. We'll also share the five simple, straightforward rules for writing compelling meta descriptions that will help entice new search users to click on your link instead of the competition.
What purpose do meta descriptions really serve?
So why does it make sense to add meta descriptions to your website? Meta descriptions are added to your page's HTML source code via the hardworking “meta” tag, like so:
<meta name="description" content="This is my meta description" />
Once upon a time, the text in this field had a direct impact on on-page SEO and thus that page's rankings in organic search engine results pages (SERPs). That's no longer the case. Much the same as was the case with meta keywords, the field was deleted from search engine algorithms as a ranking factor some time ago. So if it doesn't get counted towards rankings, why is the meta description important? Because this is how it shows up in SERPs these days:
In short, this is what search users see in their SERPs. And the meta description in particular shows up as the preview text. When you don't provide your own, specially crafted meta description for your pages, the search engines are left to do their own thing. Unfortunately, in this case, “their own thing” can mean any of the following:
- The first 150-155 characters of your content, whether that's the actual post itself or some other element of your page, such as your byline or categories, depending on how your WordPress theme is coded;
- Some string of 155 characters that the search engine bot decides is the most important part of your content (whether it's actually the most important part or not); or
- A random string of characters that makes no sense in the context of the search results.
In other words, the meta description is your last and best chance to convince a search user to click on your link, as opposed to all those other links above and near it. To maximize this invaluable opportunity, follow these five simple rules…
- Pay attention to keywords
- Stay within character limitations
- Make each meta description unique
- Include your USP
#1: Pay attention to keywords
The first rule of meta description club is: Use the right keywords. Your content is only showing in any hypothetical set of SERPs because it matches the search query's keywords. And these days, with search engines such as Google highlighting the exact match, latent semantic indexing, and close-match keywords in the meta description, search users can get a feel right away for how closely your page fits their search.
Be transparent and honest. The meta description must actually match the content. Don't try optimizing for something you didn't actually write about. Otherwise, the user will bounce quickly from your page, causing your bounce rate to skyrocket and tanking your rankings. So if you want people searching for that phrase to click on your link, focus on making sure your content is actually about those keywords. Then incorporate those keywords into your meta description.
#2: Stay within character limitations
Each meta description has a specific character limit, usually around 155 characters including spaces. It's crucial to obey that limit and make sure the content of your description fits wholly inside those parameters. If it doesn't, the search engine will only display the field up to that limit, then follow it with ellipsis, as shown below:
There's no guarantee that an abbreviated description will make any sense to your search user, so your best bet is to stay inside the limits each and every time.
Remember that the purpose of the meta description is to get the searcher to click on your headline and link, instead of all the other links surrounding it. Persuasive copywriting is a complex topic, but don't think that just because you have a short character count available you can't possibly be persuasive in your meta descriptions. That's just not true.
Consider the tweet, for instance. At 140 characters it's 1-2 words (or more) shorter than the space available for your meta description. But look how powerful a great tweet can be!
Use action words – specifically, think about verbs. What do you want this user to get out of your page? Use active verbs wherever possible: learn, discover, explore, play, try for free, etc. The more active the verb, the more persuasive the punch your description will pack. By the same token, power words will create more of an impulse to click your link than weaker, less energetic words.
#4: Make each meta description unique
Each page of your site has a unique, specific purpose (or at least, it should). So why would you copy and paste the same description for each and every page? Each meta description should be carefully targeted and customized for its specific page, and no other — and certainly not solely the site as a whole. So take the time to analyze the purpose of each page on your website, then craft a unique description for each. This is not only beneficial for your rankings, but may also increase the CTR.
#5: Include your USP
In this context, the USP — or “unique sales proposition” — is the answer to your search user's question: “What's in it for me?” In other words, ask yourself: What is the benefit you want to convey to this user? What will they get from visiting your page and reading or otherwise consuming its content?
The page USP is that specific benefit, and the meta description is really your only chance in SERPs to communicate that to the search user. But you have to convince them that your promise of that benefit is reliable — that they can and should trust you, at least enough to click the link. This is why it's so crucial to master the art of persuasive copywriting (see tip #3, above).
Conclusion: Write effective meta descriptions
Don't leave your meta descriptions to chance, and don't dash them off at the last minute before you publish your post, article, or page. Instead, be strategic and thoughtful about the description. It's an essential part of your on-page SEO checklist, so don't give it short shrift.
And finally, play around with the description on your most popular content. Test out various formulations and copy to see which strategies and approaches work best for your content and your targeted audience. How do you approach meta descriptions? Do you have a favorite tip or tactic we didn't mention? Share them in the comments below.