Meta Description Best Practices

Cara Bowles    By under SEO.

Search engines use meta descriptions to create snippets for users to read about the page before they visit it. While Google and other search engines typically generate automatic snippets if there is no meta description, you can use the meta description to have more control over what users see and entice them to click. Let's talk about best practices for meta descriptions.

Google's Guidelines On Meta Descriptions

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Google's guidelines for webmasters say that this is what meta descriptions should be used for:

Use this tag to provide a short description of the page. In some situations this description is used as a part of the snippet shown in the search results.

The example they give of a meta description is:

<meta name="description" content="A description of the page" />

The meta description should be found within the <head> of the document. In this example, "A description of the page" is the text that Google would consider displaying in your search snippet.

It's important to understand meta descriptions aren't always used by search engines. Google explains that search snippets don't necessarily use the meta description you provide:

  • Snippets are automatically created from page content to preview the page content most related to the user's search, meaning that the snippet might be different for different searches.
  • Google sometimes uses meta tag content for snippets, if Google believes the meta description is a more accurate representation of the page than a snippet taken directly from the page content.

So, first and foremost, make sure that your meta description accurately describes the page.

They go on to say:

  • Meta descriptions should inform and interest users with a short, relevant summary of the page.
  • Ideally every page should have a meta description.
  • Make a meta description unique and relevant for each page. Don't use boilerplate text because it doesn't inform the user what they will find on the page, and Google may ignore it.
  • For appropriate pages, include author names, publication dates, product manufacturers, prices, and other information that might be scattered throughout the page that would be useful to see in the page preview.
  • Programmatic descriptions can be appropriate for very large database driven sites, but they should list relevant information for the user that is human-readable and diverse, not a string of keywords.
  • Meta descriptions should be genuinely descriptive and high in quality since this can improve the relevance and quantity of search traffic that is willing to click on your snippet.

Generally Accepted Best Practices For Meta Descriptions

Meta Description Length

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Google does not have a specific limit for the length of meta descriptions, because snippets are displayed at different sizes on different devices, and because the amount of text used is based on the actual pixel space the text takes up, rather than on the number of characters.

However, Google usually truncates meta descriptions at about 155 to 160 characters.

For descriptions to be adequately descriptive without taking up too much space, a generally followed best practice is roughly 50 to 160 characters.

Keyword Use

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The text within meta descriptions isn't used by most search engines to rank pages for authority or relevance to a search, so it should be written entirely from the perspective of enticing clicks from users and being relevant enough that the search engine uses it instead of an automated snippet pulled from text on the page.

For this reason, you shouldn't use keywords within the meta description with the intent of manipulating your rankings in search results. That means no stuffing lists of keywords in your meta descriptions.

However, if a word the user searched for (or a synonym) turns up in the search snippet, Google will bold the keyword to highlight the relevance for the searcher. This can boost clicks from users since it may make the page appear more relevant.

Use one or two of the most relevant keywords in your meta description, bearing in mind that synonyms and other variations will most likely end up bolded even if they aren't an exact match. Do not simply list keywords, include them within a useful description of the page.

Meta Description As Ad Copy Or Call To Action

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From a marketer's perspective, the search snippet is essentially an advertisement of the page. The goal is to convince the searcher that the page is the best fit for their search so that they will click on it. The elements discussed so far, such as using a keyword that will be bolded and providing an accurate summary of the page, will help accomplish this.

But there are other best practices for ad copy that apply, such as:

  • Match User Goal: This means seeing past the keyword or the specific information being searched for to the ultimate goal that is motivating the user. It's important to phrase copy in a way that appeals to their ability to reach their goal, not just to demonstrate that the page is relevant.
  • Include Numbers Or Statistics: Numbers and statistics give the user something concrete to latch onto that promises the information on the page won't be too abstract.
  • Appeal To Entitlement: Word your copy in a way that appeals to the idea that the user deserves something that they are finding difficult to get.
  • Appeal To Emotion: Searches are information driven and snippets should promise to deliver on the information, but emotion is still what motivates people at the end of the day.
  • Preempt User Objections: In this context, this is about anticipating what kinds of search results users are avoiding and reassuring the user that this isn't one of those search results.
  • Focus On Benefits: Rather than a dry summary of what is on the page, a good meta description will put more focus on why accessing the page is beneficial for the user.
  • Active Voice and Commands: Active voice is "the cow jumped over the moon" as opposed to "the moon is jumped over by the cow." Using command language starting with a verb, like "jump over the moon," is often even better. Active voice emphasizes what is doing, rather than what is being impacted, and it tends to be more engaging than passive voice. Command language emphasizes what is being done, with the assumption that it is the user who will be the one doing it, and this means it's very frequently an even better option.

Conclusion

Meta descriptions give us some control over what users know about our page before they visit it. Use these best practices to pull more visitors from the search results.