Meta Description - Why and How You Should Write Meta Attributes

Here's how and why you need to be taking advantage of meta description data.

I discussed the importance of writing unique, compelling title tags in a previous post. Now we're going to look at the second most important HTML element: the meta description.

Before you get any further into this, I want to dispel the rumors that awful search engine optimizers may have pumped into your head. Do NOT use the meta description as a place to cram keywords. It will hurt your page rank. Google probably won't even show it. Real-life people aren't going to click on your link.

Keyword Overload = Page Rank Suicide

Are we on the same page now? Good. Let's figure out how meta descriptions should really be used.

What is the Meta Description

Sans technical jargon, the meta description is a brief sentence or two that tells search engines and people what they should expect to find or accomplish on a webpage. Google, Bing and Yahoo! all display meta descriptions in search results to tell real-people what the search result link contains. To get a better picture of what that looks like, do a Google search for anything. Below each result, in smaller print is the meta description.

Check out Google's definition for a more technical understanding of meta descriptions.

How Long Should a Meta Description Be?

There isn't a universal rule for how many characters your meta description should contain, but a safe bet is right around 156. Sometimes search engines will display more or less depending on their super secret algorithms, but don't get too lost in the technical details. Shoot for 156 characters including spaces and you'll be just fine.

The Elements of a Compelling Meta Description

Above all else, your meta description should be written in a manner that sounds natural, almost as if you were having a conversation with the person searching for your page.

1. Be Informative

Tell readers what they should expect to find once they click on a link to your site. If your webpage talks about how to fertilize a garden, tell readers you'll teach them how to fertilize a garden. Never try tricking someone into thinking they'll find information that doesn't exist on your webpage. Those meta descriptions will never be shown and you'll destroy your website credibility.

2. Capture Attention

Do you want to come across like a boring professor or someone who's exciting, providing new insight, and better answers to a problem? Use a variety of attention grabbing intros for your meta descriptions:

  • pose a question: e.g. Did you know blueberries can boost your IQ?
  • provide some startling fact related to your search phrases: e.g. "3 people are killed every hour in Detroit" (I made that up, but you get the point). Play off the element of surprise, human curiosity, and drama.

Don't capture attention with text styling. Don't use all CAPS. Don't use a million exclamation marks!!! Those meta descriptions will be rejected.

3. Encourage Clicks

After you've drawn your reader in with some great info and attention grabbing phrases, encourage them to visit your link. Tell them more of what they're looking for is just a click away. e.g. "Learn more!", "Get a free quote", Find out XYZ!", etc.

4. Optimize for Keywords and Phrases

Okay, okay. I know I started this out with a rant about not keyword stuffing but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do a little bit of optimization. Use the primary search term you're targeting one time, then try to incorporate a synonym to that keyword. Use key phrases in a way that reads naturally. Start getting too keyword happy and you'll have wasted all of your meta description effort.

The actual inclusion of keywords (according to Google) won't influence your rank on a search results page but they will be bolded according to the words someone is searching. Think about it as some extra attention grabbing-oomph, as opposed to search engine optimization.

Make Every Meta Description Unique

Don't let yourself fall into the habit of copying and pasting the same meta description attribute into every page. All you'll be doing is wasting your time. Google's bots are smart enough and fast enough to realize your meta descriptions are useless. There's nothing confirmed, but doing so could signal to search engines that you're trying too hard (or not at all) and no one wants to raise red flags.

Do You Absolutely Need the Meta Description?

No, but you'll be better off having them. Your website isn't going to crash, you won't be penalized in search, and you won't be banned from the internet, for not writing page descriptions.

Should you have meta descriptions? Yes. Remember, this is your chance to accurately tell people what's behind your link. It's the only opportunity you have (aside from the title) to convince searchers that you're the result they're looking for.

Google isn't Displaying the Meta Description I Wrote. Help!

Did you do something wrong? Nope. There will be times when Google and other search engines decide to display text from the body of your page instead of the description you wrote. It doesn't mean you wasted effort, it just means Google thought there was something else on the page more relevant to the particular search phrase someone entered.

Don't take it as an insult. In fact, it actually means you're doing an excellent job writing great page content.

Keep Reading: Other Great Meta Description Info

Yoast (I love their plugin and I'm sure you'll hear me talk about it later): How to create the right meta description
HubSpotHow to Write an Effective Meta Description (Yes, They Still Matter)
SEO MozMeta Description

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