What is a meta description?

What is a meta description?

A meta description is an HTML element that provides a brief summary of a web page. A page’s meta description tag is displayed as part of the search snippet in a search engine results page (SERP) and is meant to give the user an idea of the content that exists within the page and how it relates to their search query.

Meta description examples

HTML code example

<meta name="description" content="This is an example of a
meta description. This will often show up in search results.">

You can find your page’s meta description within the <head> section of the page’s HTML markup.

Find meta description in HTML

Most CMSs will allow you to edit this markup and change your meta description either directly within the code or via the meta description field within the page’s metadata settings.

Edit meta description in CMS

SERP example

The meta description appears as part of the SERP snippet, just below the page’s breadcrumb path and clickable title tag.

Meta description appearance in SERP

Optimal meta description length

Meta descriptions can technically be any length, but Google generally truncates snippets to ~155-160 characters. It’s best to keep meta descriptions long enough that they’re sufficiently descriptive, so we recommend descriptions between 50 and 160 characters. Keep in mind that the “optimal” length will vary depending on the situation, and your primary goal should be to provide value and drive clicks.

Why are meta descriptions important for SEO?

Do meta descriptions affect search rankings?

Yes and no. Google announced in September of 2009 that neither meta descriptions nor meta keywords factor into Google’s ranking algorithms for web search.

The meta description can, however, impact a page’s click-through rate (CTR) in Google SERPs, which can positively impact a page’s ability to rank.

These short paragraphs are the webmaster’s opportunity to “advertise” content to searchers, and the searcher’s chance to decide whether the content is likely to be relevant to their query and contain the information they’re seeking.

Because meta descriptions have an indirect impact on search rankings and especially because they can significantly impact user behavior, it’s important to put some effort into writing them.

Meta descriptions in social shares

Social sharing sites like Facebook commonly use a page’s meta description tag as the description that appears when the page is shared on the site.

Without the meta description tag, social sharing sites may just use the first text they can find. Depending on what that first text is, this might not create a good user experience for people encountering your content via social sharing.

Facebook description pulling from HTML meta description

How do I write a good meta description?

Include compelling ad copy in your description

The meta description tag serves the function of advertising copy. It draws readers to a website from the SERP, and thus is a very visible and important part of search marketing.

A page’s meta description should intelligently employ the page’s target keywords, in a natural, non-spammy way that compels the user to click through to the page.

Google and other search engines often bold keywords from the user’s query in the description display, which draws the eye of the searcher.

Try to match your descriptions to valuable search terms as closely as possible without over-optimizing them.

Meta Description written as ad copy

Avoid duplicating meta descriptions

As with title tags, each page’s meta description should be directly relevant to the page it describes and unique from the descriptions for other pages. Otherwise, you’ll end up with SERP results that look like this:

Avoid duplicate meta descriptions example

One way to combat duplicate meta descriptions is to implement a dynamic and programmatic way to create unique meta descriptions for automated pages. If you have the resources, though, there’s no substitute for an original description written specifically for each page.

Avoid double quotation marks in descriptions

When double quotation marks (“…”) are used within meta description HTML markup, Google recognizes them as signals to truncate the description from that point and will automatically cut off the rest of the text from the SERP snippet.

To prevent this from happening, your best bet is to remove all non-alphanumeric characters from meta descriptions.

If quotation marks are important in your meta description, you can use the HTML entity rather than double quotes to prevent truncation.

Why won’t Google use my meta description?

Search engines frequently overrule pages’ meta descriptions, displaying different text within the SERP snippet from what is declared within the page’s HTML.

It’s hard to predict exactly when this will happen, but it often occurs when Google doesn’t think the existing meta description adequately answers a user’s query and instead uses a bit of text from the same page that it believes is a more accurate or compelling response to the search.

This can be frustrating, especially when you’ve spent time carefully crafting unique descriptions for each page, but that frustration can be avoided in some cases by leaving the page’s description entirely up to the search engine. 

Although conventional logic would hold that it’s universally wiser to write a good meta description rather than let Google scrape the page and display their own, this isn’t always the case.

When deciding whether to specify a meta description, ask yourself how many valuable search terms the page is targeting.

If the page targets between one and three heavily searched terms or phrases, we recommend writing your own meta description to attract users performing search queries that include those terms.

If the page targets long-tail traffic (three or more keyword phrases), it may be wiser to let the search engines populate a meta description themselves.

The reason is simple: When search engines pull together a meta description, they always display the keywords and surrounding phrases that the user has searched for as closely as they can.

If a webmaster writes a meta description into the page’s code, what they choose to write can actually detract from the relevance the engines interpret naturally, depending on the query.

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