Meta Descriptions

A meta description is an HTML attribute that gives a brief explanation of the contents of a web page. These are often used on search engine results pages to give a preview of the given page.

Code Sample:

{% highlight html %}

{% endhighlight %}


What's a Meta Description?

Although not important to search engine ranking, meta descriptions are incredibly important to click-throughs from search engine results pages. These brief summaries of your page are your opportunity to advertise content to search engine users, and let them know exactly whether or not a given page contains the information they are searching for.

The meta descriptions should make intelligent use of keywords, while also creating a coercive description that makes a user want to click. A good meta description is both relevant and unique to the page. Ideally this description is between 150-160 characters.


Best Practices

Compelling Copy

The content of your meta description is essentially your advertising copy. In most cases, this is what users see on search engine result pages, and therefore are an exceptionally important part of your marketing. Creating a coherent, interesting description, that contains important keywords, can drastically increase the click-through rate of a webpage.

Recommended Length

Meta descriptions can be any length, although search engines typically truncate descriptions long that 160 characters. As well, if a description is too short, a search engine may display other content from the site in hopes of giving users a more accurate snippet on results pages. In fact, at the time of writing, that's the case on my homepage. My current description is "I do web stuff". This is not nearly long enough. More at that shortly.

Avoid Duplicates

Just like title tags, it's important to have each meta description be unique.
Truncated Titles and Duplicate Descriptions You can see in the above image, that the title are truncated, and the descriptions are identical. If these were posts on my website, the user would have no clear way of understanding, at a glance, what the content of the page might be. A nice way to make this work is to generate dynamic or programmatic descriptions for automated pages. For example, on my site, the meta description for each post, is the same excerpt that I use on my homepage. I know that it is the appropriate length, and unless I've duplicated my own posts, it's also unique.

Not a Google Ranking Factor

It's true! In fact, Google doesn't use keywords as a ranking factor either. They do however, use these meta tags for other things. Again, this is what they usually use as the preview snippet search results pages. They also use meta descriptions to gather results when a user uses advanced search functions to match meta tag content.

Quotes Kill Descriptions

As soon as Google finds a quote in a meta description, it gets cut off. It's just the way their crawlers function. To avoid this issue, it's best to remove any non-alphanumeric characters from your meta description. If you must have quotes, using single quotes is a safe way to prevent truncation.

Sometimes You Can Skip It

I honestly don't know that I agree here, but I read it somewhere, and the thought intrigued me. The idea is, if your page only focuses on 1-3 keywords, it's easy to fit them into a meta description. However, if your site potentially has hundreds of articles or blog post, or a large product listing, than it might be a better idea to let the search engines extract the content themselves. When a search engine pulls content, they always display the keywords (and neighbouring text) that the user has searched for. If you force a meta description, that could actually draw away from the choice of text the search engine would have made on its own. For this reason, I might actually be better off not adding a longer meta description on my homepage.

Whether you choose to write a meta description or not, another thing to consider is social media. Facebook, for example, commonly uses a page's meta description when the page is posted on their site. Without this, social media sites may just use the first text on your page, and that might create a negative user experience. For this reason, I think I actually like my "too short" meta description. It means Google will display the most relevant content, based on the search term, while sites like Facebook will show my meta description: "I do web stuff".