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The Reality of Meta Descriptions – How Important Are They?

8 min read

Are you at the end of the line with ways to increase your Google ranking in 2019?

Meta descriptions have been misunderstood as a Google ranking factor. Since it appears right under the title in a search result, I would think that it’s a crucial factor too.

But the truth is – it isn’t a direct contributor to your ranking.

Assuming that your description should help you jump in ranks instantly would be wrong.

But, should you spend more than 5 minutes writing the meta description of your site pages?

Absolutely.

A killer meta description may not please the machines, but it will please your readers. Click To Tweet

Here’s what the machines see in the meta tags:

Your Title
<title>Title text here</title>
Your websites description
<meta name=”description” content=”This is where you put a summary of your sites content”/>
Keywords that describe your site
<meta name=”keywords” content= pets, dogs, cats, leash  etc”/>

Here’s what a user sees:
how meta descriptions appear to users

When people search for things, they don’t just click on the first result. They take time to understand which result is the most relevant to their search query. It is very likely that your reader will see the description and choose your site because that little piece of content under the title spoke more to them than the other search results.

Sometimes, subconsciously choosing a result purely because of the language they prefer.

This means that a good description has the potential to increase your CTR exponentially.

And CTR is definitely a significant ranking factor for SERPs.

Is the connection that straightforward?

Unfortunately, no.

Google does not always pick the description that you write for a page.

Occasionally it will pick sentences with keywords that a user is searching for from within the content.

Google picks random sentences from content as meta description
For example, for this website, Google decided to pick parts of the meta description to display to a user.

The original meta description is: From dog collars and reflective dog harnesses to leashes with a little bling, PetSmart has everything you need to keep your pet safe and looking great. Check out our holiday selection!
same meta description
But for another particular result, it decided to pick the same meta description as the original.

Original Meta description: Keep your dogs strutting in style with a variety of Petco’s dog collars, harnesses, and leashes. Enjoy the benefits of stress-free walks with your dog.”

That’s strange.

We agree, but so is SEO. And Google has mysterious ways of optimizing content for its users continually.

Occasionally it scrapes away at the content of a website and displays sentences with those keywords in the description.

See how “dog” and “leash” are displayed in bold in the description of each site.

Here’s what you can do to optimize your meta description to boost your ranking:

Optimize Meta Descriptions to Boost Ranking!

#1 Write It for the Reader

Write the meta description keeping in mind that it is a 4-second pitch to make a user click on your link.

For example

“This site sells carpets and curtains of all range and sizes. Come visit us to see our full range of products.”

Could be replaced with

“We sell custom carpets and curtains at affordable prices. Find the perfect options to complement your home decor. Avail our free home delivery offer now.”

Make sure that you summarise the best of your offer and use an active voice to talk directly to an individual.

If your website is not for selling products but meant to be an information guide, then you could write your description to include specific information too.

For example:

Painting by (example name). An analysis of the artists’ thoughts behind his work called ‘shades.’ Added comments by Telegraph daily and other noted artists.

The idea is to bring together all the relevant information under one small likable description.

It helps to treat it as an ad copy.

#2 Don’t Forget About the Title

When a search result is displayed, a user will read the title first.

Even Google will read your title before the description and try to rank your page with the help of the title (because it is a ranking factor).

A strong meta description is of no use if Google or the user don’t see value in your title. They won’t even get to the meta description.

When you are writing a title and a description, don’t forget to:

  1. Treat the meta description as a continuation of the title. Keep the same messaging throughout.
  2. Use the keywords without being repetitive.
  3. Focus on writing for the readers and use an active tone
  4. Don’t confuse your readers with cryptic or puzzling language

#3 The Length Matters

Google in the past showed between 135 to 160 characters from a meta description which meant that you had very little space to create an offer that seemed like a good deal to your customers. The end, if more than this limit, would be chopped off.

But an announcement in 2017 changed the above scenario.

Barry Schwartz from Search Engine Land confirmed that-

“Google recently made a change to provide more descriptive and useful snippets, to help people better understand how pages are relevant to their searches. This resulted in snippets becoming slightly longer, on average.” (Source)

Now you can find snippets as long as 230 characters on an average.

But there isn’t any guarantee that it will pick more characters than usual.

As per Danny Sullivan from Google – “Don’t go expanding your meta descriptions. It’s a more dynamic process”.

Danny Sullivan's Tweet about meta description
Writing short sentences describing an offer in an active tone maybe the best solution keeping the above advice in mind.

Take a look at this description that can seem incomplete or frustrating because you cannot read the end of its offer.
incomplete meta description that can be irritating
This could be a marketing maneuver to make users click on your deal, but it isn’t free of risks.

You can quickly lose out to another site that has a compact and straightforward description. Which also makes a brand look more honest and trustworthy.

#4 Employ Keywords Smartly

Meta tags were used for ranking purposes some time back. Since 2009 it hasn’t been the case.

One of the reasons was abuse.

Keyword stuffing, copying descriptions from other websites, and writing for the machines rather than the user were proving to be more commonplace than imagined.

Therefore, Google removed it as a ranking factor to make sure only the best content makes it to the top.

Today while writing a description, make sure that the keywords you target are representative of the content on your page. It is a way for you to control the narrative around your site.

One of the reasons for Google to ignore your description and scrape the page for other pieces of content can be the lack of keywords in your meta description.

For example, this result popped up on page 2 for the search ‘how to be more productive.’
meta description result for how to be more productive
The original meta description is this:

“We’ve all known that person who always seems to be getting things done. Whether a friend or a colleague, this is the person whose work is always done early. The one who somehow manages to finish hour-long tasks in 20 minutes. The one people describe as a robot or machine because surely no simple human […]”>
See what Google did there.

It picked the sentence from the article that has the word ‘productive’ in it while completely ignoring the original description of the site.

Here are the results from page 1 –
meta description results for page 1
If you look carefully, you can tell that their original meta descriptions are on display.

They aren’t random sentences from the article.

They make complete sense to a reader as well as to Google.

#5 Add Rich Snippets

There a variety of rich snippets that you can add to your meta description.

For example, having the ratings for a product as part of its meta description makes total sense.

Take a look at this example:
rich snippets like reviews with meta description
Say you were looking for pizza but didn’t think about looking at the reviews while typing.

This meta description takes into account the next step in your search. Which would be looking for reviews, and answers it even before you considered opening the link.

My guess is the next step would be opening this link to see the location and the menu.

Rich snippets can also aid in answering a question-based search query accurately.

For example, using an HTML table to describe a phone’s specifications is a favorable strategy.
HTML Table with Meta Description
This option doesn’t just specify the specs but also offers added value with a comparison to another phone.

Not surprisingly it’s the first result for an ‘iPhone X specifications’ search.

If you want to know more about rich snippets, here’s a useful article I found online.

#6 Don’t Duplicate Descriptions

For some sites, it’s easier to generate a description for each page, especially if the site is a blog or a news media source where every piece of content is handwritten. For such sites, it is highly recommended to stay away from duplicating the descriptions.

You could simply ask your content writer to create a separate description while writing the article itself.

If you still think that creating a unique description for each page is too taxing right now, then prioritize.

Start with critical pages like the Home page, About us page, core offering page or the popular pages.

You could even leave the description blank (more about it below) than using duplicate ones.

This problem intensifies when you have database driven sites like product aggregators. It’s nearly impossible to write unique descriptions for each product.

What you could do is look into creating a template and making minor changes to it for each product.

For example:
meta description template with minor changes

Is it OK to not write a description at all?

Although it is highly recommended to write each description, sometimes it’s OK to leave it out for various reasons.

If your page is targeting heavily searched for phrases or terms, like “men’s t-shirts” or “Digital Marketing schools” then it is best to use those keywords in the description that you write.

If your page is targeting long-tail queries, for example, ‘how old do I need to be to join a digital marketing school?’, it can sometimes be smarter to let the search engine decide the snippet. The search engine will display sentences best suited to the user’s query by picking up content from your page with the keywords in it.

If your description is not well thought out, it can be detrimental to the natural selection of the best content by the search engine.

The only catch is that if you decide to leave out the description, social media handles can pull the first bit of text from what they find on the page. If the beginning of your article is not supporting your title well, it will lead to fewer clicks on the social link.

Wrap up

As marketers, we’re all trying to build and sell a story. Use the description to convince a user to choose your story above everyone else’s and to increase your CTR.

Feel free to share with us the most compelling meta description you have ever come across.

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