The meta description is a snippet of up to about 155 characters – a tag in HTML – which summarizes a page’s content. Search engines show the meta description in search results mostly when the searched-for phrase is within the description, so optimizing the meta description is crucial for on-page SEO.
What does a meta description do?
The meta description is an HTML tag, which looks like this in the HTML code for the page:
<meta name="description" content="A page's description, usually one or two sentences."/>
The purpose of a meta description for your page is simple: to get someone searching on Google to click your link. In other words, meta descriptions are there to generate click-throughs from search engines.
Search engines say there is no direct ranking benefit from the meta description – they don’t use it in their ranking algorithm. But there is an indirect benefit: Google uses click-through-rate (CTR) as a way of working out whether you’re a good result. If more people click on your result, Google considers you to be a good result and will – based on your position – move you up the ranks. This is why optimizing the meta description is so important, as is optimizing your titles.
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Characteristics of a good meta description
Just about every article on meta descriptions will include some of these, but I have combined all characteristics that make sense to me here:
1. Up to 155 characters – and sometimes more
The right length doesn’t really exist; it depends on the message you want to convey. You should take enough space to get the message across, but keep it short and snappy at the same time.
Every now and then, Google changes the length. Nowadays, you’ll mostly see meta descriptions of up to 155 characters, with some outliers of 300 characters. At least, try to get crucial information in the first 155 characters of your meta description.
2. Actionable and written in an active voice
Of course it should. If you consider the meta description the invitation to the page, you can’t just make it “A mixed metaphor describing a non-existent, yet implicitly high level of qualification.” That’s a dull description and people won’t know what they’ll get. I’ll explain this further with some examples later on.
3. Including a call-to-action
“Hello, we have such and such new product, and you want it. Find out more!” This overlaps what I said about the active voice, but I wanted to emphasize it. It’s your sales text, where your product is the page that is linked, not the product on that page. Invitations like Learn more, Get it now, Try for free come in handy here.
4. Containing the focus keyword
If the search keyword matches a part of the text in the meta description, Google will be more inclined to use that meta description and highlight it in the search results. This will make the link to your site even more inviting.
5. Possibly showing specifications
For example, if you have a product for the tech-savvy, focusing on technical specs of the product could be a good idea – manufacturer, SKU, price, things like that. If the visitor is specifically looking for that product, chances are you won’t have to convince them, and the presence of information like the price will trigger the click. Note that you could, of course, try to get rich snippets for this as well.
6. Matching the content
This is important. Google will find out when meta descriptions trick visitors into clicking and might even penalize the sites that do this. But apart from that, misleading descriptions will probably increase bounce rate. It’s a bad idea for that reason alone. You want the meta description to match the content on the page.
If your meta description is the same as those for other pages, the user experience in Google will be hampered. Although page titles might vary, all pages will appear to be the same because all the descriptions are the same. If you intentionally want/need/are tempted to create a duplicate meta description, you’d be better off leaving the description blank. Google will pick a snippet from the page containing the keyword used in the query.
Visit Google Webmaster Tools > HTML Improvements or use Screaming Frog SEO Spider to check for duplicate meta descriptions.
Examples of a good meta description
While researching this post I read many articles covering meta descriptions, and while I found plenty of wisdom, there were almost no examples. But there’s nothing like actual examples to make it easier for you to learn to construct a proper meta description. Let’s take a look at a few, taking the seven numbered points above into account:
The right length
This meta description describes what you’ll find on the page and stays within 155 characters.
In an active voice
Active, motivating and addressing you directly. And you’ll know what you’ll get!
Including a call-to-action
‘Learn how to use it to your advantage’; that’s the call-to-action!
The electrical heart sensor, that’s what I wanted to know. I don’t need that sales stuff here; I just want that watch.
Containing the focus keyword
The focus keyword and variations: note that Google sometimes highlights synonyms like [Academy Awards] as well when searching for [Oscars]. This will make your search result stand out even more.
Want to see this in your own snippet preview as well? In Yoast SEO premium you can add synonyms of your focus keyword.
Adding a meta description with Yoast SEO
If you’re on WordPress and using Yoast SEO adding a meta description is easy as pie. You can create it in the Yoast SEO snippet editor, just like the SEO title and slug. Moreover, you can check immediately what it looks like in the snippet preview:
Want more of this? Marieke also wrote a detailed explanation on how to create awesome meta descriptions with Yoast SEO.
I’ve got lots of pages; where to start?
Do you feel like you need to change all your meta descriptions? But not sure how to fit that in your schedule? Google has the answer:
If you don’t have time to create a description for every single page, try to prioritize your content: At the very least, create a description for the critical URLs like your home page and popular pages.
You can check which of your pages rank highest with Google Search Console. Simply take it from there. And be sure to add meta descriptions to all-new content from now on.
Troubleshooting meta descriptions
I’m sure you can think of others, but I think these are the two main issues:
1. My meta description isn’t showing
Your meta description is a suggestion to Google. So they probably made something up for you, as they felt the meta description you created didn’t represent the content of the page, or is a duplicate, for instance. Here you’ll find all possible reasons why your meta description doesn’t show.
2. Another description for social sharing?
Do you have Yoast SEO? In that case: check the social tab in the Yoast SEO meta box below your post or page. You can add a separate description for your social media channels there. In Yoast SEO Premium, you even have social previews! If you don’t have Yoast SEO, add OpenGraph tags or Twitter Cards to your website and use any description you want.
Read more: How to optimize a blog post »