Learn SEO: Meta Descriptions & How To Optimise Them

In part one of our Learn SEO series, I discussed Title Tags and how to optimise them for your website. Today’s post is all about the Meta Description tag and how to use it correctly to improve click throughs from the search engines to your webpage (that’s right, click throughs – more on that in a minute!).

So, let’s start with the basics.

What Is The Meta Description?

The meta description is a tag which is placed in the head of your html page to provide a synopsis of the content contained in the document. The tag looks like this: –

<meta name=”description” content=”This is a meta description tag. The text contained within me may show up in search results” />

Why Do You Need It?

The content of the meta description tag is often used by google and other search engines as a summary (or snippet), underneath your title link

It looks like this (the black text).

meta description tag

I say often used as, depending on the query, google may decide to display other text from within your webpage as the summary if the algorithm decides it is more relevant.

How Should You Optimise Your Pages Meta Description?

In the early days of SEO, the content of the meta description tag was used as a primary ranking factor – so using your keywords in the tag would help to boost your rankings for the phrase. This was easily manipulated and subject to abuse, so things quickly changed and these days the meta description tag has no direct effect on rankings.

That’s right… the tag doesn’t effect your search engine rankings in the slightest, but you should still take your time to optimise each and every one. Here’s why!

An Example

Lets say our web page sells red table tennis bats. If we were lazy we might pop in ‘buy our red table tennis bats’ to the Meta Description box in our CMS and move on to populating the next product. This would give us a search result like this: –

Red Table Tennis Bats – Table Tennis Store
Buy our red table tennis bats

Our competitor also sells red table tennis bats and is ranking at position two in the search results (we’ll say we’re at number one as we’ve done everything else right SEO wise). So, you would expect our result to get a lot more clicks than our competitor right? Surely higher rankings = more traffic? Well, lets say they have taken the time to write a proper meta description tag for their web page and their search result looks like this: –

Red Table Tennis Bats – Competitor’s Table Tennis Store
Our range of finest quality red table tennis bats, available in 5 different styles. Free next day delivery on all orders.

Which result is more enticing and likely to generate more clicks?

Hopefully you will agree it is the second one and unfortunately, even though we are outranking our competitor, they are ending up with way more traffic and sales. Sucks to be us!

A Meta Description Is An Advert

Your meta description tag is your advert; your chance to sell your product or service and entice people to click your link. Once you get your webpage onto the first page of the search results for a keyphrase, a well crafted meta descriptions can dramatically increase your actual click through rate. No point being number one if no one is clicking through to your site!

How Long Should A Meta Description Be?

Best practice is to keep the meta description to between 150 and 160 characters as anything above this length will likely be truncated in the search results. Doesn’t sound much, but you can say a lot in a couple of sentences, as anyone who is on twitter (140 characters per tweet) will attest to!

Summary

  • A pages Meta Description is often displayed as the snippet in google’s search results
  • Does not directly effect rankings, but –
  • Think of it as your advert in the search results
  • Maximum length of 160 characters

Take the time to write well crafted, enticing meta descriptions and you should see a good increase in your pages click through rate and traffic.

That’s it for part 2 of our Learn SEO series. Next time I will be discussing other on page ranking factors. As always if you need any clarification, have questions or want to add your own advice, drop me a comment below.

Also In Our Learn SEO Series

Learn SEO Part 1: How To Optimise Your Title Tag

For more on SEO and how it works, read my guide to SEO in 2014.

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About the Author

I'm a web developer, programmer, blogger and SEO expert from Glasgow, Scotland, with over 15 years experience in the industry. When I'm not writing about marketing and SEO you'll find me strumming the guitar in my band or listening to Revolver on repeat. Follow me on twitter, connect with me on google+ and add us on facebook to keep up with all the latest trends in SEO and online marketing.

Leave a Reply 10 comments

Lahaul Seth - July 3, 2013 Reply

Agreed. Meta description has no role in ranking factor these days. But a good meta description does give a good user experience and tells the reader what exactly the post is about.

Enstine Muki - July 3, 2013 Reply

Hi David,
Just discovered your blog and I love the SEO content. I’ll hang around for a while and read some of it.

Thanks for the engagement on BE

    David McSweeney - July 3, 2013 Reply

    Thanks Enstine, you have a great site too!

yogesh pant - July 3, 2013 Reply

Hi David,
it can not be stated that meta description has nothing to do with the SEO.
Google updates its algorithms frequently and nothing can be denied for the upcoming updates.
Thus, we should have a habit of providing a good meta description to every post we write.
-Yogesh

    David McSweeney - July 3, 2013 Reply

    Hi Yogesh, thanks for your feedback.

    Yes, absolutely we should provide a good meta description (for the reasons I have specified above), but I find it highly unlikely that google would ever go back to using it as a ranking factor. It’s far too easy to spam and would be a massive step backwards.

    In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say they definitely won’t use it to rank websites ever again.

    And now I’ve said that it will come back to haunt me as google release their Koala update and it suddenly becomes the single most important ranking factor!

Chadrack - July 3, 2013 Reply

Hi David,

I agree with you totally on optimizing the description meta tags. Today the search engines do not use this as a ranking factor but not optimizing is sabotaging your articles on the SERPs. The reason why I optimize mine is what you referenced on the post, description meta tags are your articles’ advert on the search engines. Craft something that is eye catching, just like a classified ad, and you will see more visits from the search engines.

Thanks for sharing.

    David McSweeney - July 3, 2013 Reply

    yep, that’s exactly it. Spend the time on it and you will see the results

Rituparna - July 3, 2013 Reply

“A Meta Description Is An Advert” – I really agree with you. Nice article for newbies.
Thanks man

    David McSweeney - July 3, 2013 Reply

    Thanks Rituparna! I’ll check out your site too

Sourav - July 4, 2013 Reply

Great explanation about the use of meta description nowadays. It gives the user(Google searcher here) a better idea about what to expect from the site. As you said, it’s like a free advert.

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