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Meta Descriptions

Meta Descriptions

Contents:

Meta descriptions are your sales message to the world for a web page, they are an indirect ranking factor and a very powerful one. As such there is lots you can do to utilise your Meta descriptions to full advantage.

What are Meta Descriptions?

The Meta description tag acts as a summary or an abstract for contents of pages within the search engine listings (SERPS). Good descriptions are crucial to entice users to click a search engine listing, think of the Meta description tag as your marketing copy when users are reviewing which sites to click through to from the search engine result page.

Although not a direct ranking factor, Meta Descriptions do impact CTR which is a direct ranking factor, so it is crucial to have optimised Meta Descriptions on your site.

The below image is an example of the Raptor’s home page Meta Description shown within the SERPs:

Meta Description

Every page should have a Meta Descriptions and ideally these should target the keyword/s that page targets.

Use a tool like Raptor if you want to download all of your Meta descriptions, as well as all other Meta data from your site. This also highlights some of the common mistakes detailed later in this article.

How to Use Meta Descriptions

Meta descriptions should exist within the head section of the source code of each webpage. The correct code for Meta Descriptions is as follows:

<meta name="description" content="Example meta description goes here”/>

When writing Meta description tags, the following guidelines should be observed:

Relevance

  • Place important keywords at the front of sentences – these will be highlighted in some search engine listings and will be the first thing that the user reads
  • Meta Descriptions should reflect and be relevant to content on the page. Keywords in the Meta Description should be within the page content.

Length

  • Meta description should be kept below 155 characters (or approximately 18 to 23 words long). Longer descriptions may be truncated on search listings
  • The character length limit includes spaces, punctuation and symbols such as pipes.

Optimisation

  • Meta descriptions should be as clear and concise as possible.
  • Have a strong call to action, use USP’s, benefits, essentially treating this as a sales message to potential customers.
  • Ensure consistency in Meta description structure throughout the whole site
  • Where possible, meta descriptions for the website should be written as a “pitch” for users to entice them to click through the search engine listing

Uniqueness

  • Use unique Meta descriptions for all pages across a website. Each page on a site is different; and because the Meta descriptions should accurately reflect the content of each page, they should all be unique.

Seasonal Messages

As with page titles, it can also benefit a website to use seasonal messages, especially where search trends indicate increased consumer intent and / or search volume.

This is particularly valuable for the Home Page which may target several top tier products, product categories or groupings of keywords. For example, if one product is more popular in summer and another product is more popular in winter, consider tweaking the Meta description to take advantage of this.

It may not be cost efficient to change every Meta description two or three times a year, but certainly for high value pages this can be effectively managed with a spreadsheet or Google Docs.

Special Characters (Unicode Characters)

The idea of using special characters is to capture the eye of searchers and increase your visibility within the SERPs. Special characters, otherwise referred to as ‘Unicode Characters’, are symbols like the follow few examples:


©

®

These are just some of many characters that can be used in Meta descriptions, and page titles. Sensible and rational use of such characters can elevate a Meta description and make it stand out from competing messages. If a Meta description is similar to all of the others in the SERPs, consider punctuating the message with a relevant symbol.

When done well, this technique can improve CTR, having a direct impact on traffic and, in the long run, rankings also.

Wikipedia have a comprehensive list of Unicode Characters that you can read this here. We have included below a list of the most common special characters for Meta descriptions below:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As always, use common sense and be sparing when using special characters, otherwise the end result can be quite spammy.

Testing

For high value pages, conduct tests to try and improve the performance of your Meta descriptions. Once you have enough data to establish a baseline for a test, and limit testing to outside of atypical periods of the year. Ensure that all factors are considered such as:

  • Checking keyword rank in a tool - Traffic will be affected by your position as will CTR, so you will need to compare ‘apples with apples’. If, of course, your rankings improve shortly after testing a new Meta description, it may be that the CTR improvement was such that it has increased in position.
  • Check average position in Google Webmaster Tools
  • Be consistent with other marketing channels in both the baseline setting & testing periods. For example, do not run a load of display advertising and Search network advertising targeting the same keywords as the test in just one phase. E.g. if you run paid advertising in the baseline period, run similar levels in the testing period.

Common Mistakes

Missing

Missing Meta descriptions are commonplace, they can be overlooked by web developers when building websites. Google will make a Meta description from the content at the top of the page and outside of H titles if there is not one in place.

Duplicate

Having duplicate Meta descriptions can result from a whole host of problems, all of which should be addressed. This will likely reduce CTR and be less enticing to users and ultimately wastes an opportunity to strategically target your audience.

Too Long

This will result in truncating the Meta description and thus renders part of the message redundant.

Too Short

Depending on how short, if it is just a few words, then you may be missing the opportunity to create a more compelling message with a stronger CTA (Call to Action).

Placeholder Text

Having place holder text is very bad, having “enter meta description here” show up in the SERPs is not going to encourage anyone to click on your listing. Often this problem can be site-wide or affect a large portion of a site.

Use of Quotation Marks

Quotation marks “” within a Meta description will cut it off, instead use a single quotation >‘< instead.

Force Google To Use Your Meta Description

NOODP Robots Tags

Google may use descriptions from the open directory project within the SERPs in place of the page title and Meta descriptions that have been specially created for that page.

Since Dmoz listings are factual and not very attractive for CTRs, it is recommended that we prohibit the DMOZ data from appearing in the SERPs. This is done with the use of the NOODP robots tag.

Visually check the source code of the homepage for the existence of a code below entry in the <head> content.

<Meta name="robots" content="NOODP">

NOYDIR Robots Tags

Google may use descriptions from Yahoo within the SERPs in place of the page title and Meta descriptions that have been specially created for that page.

Since Yahoo listings are factual and not very attractive for CTRs, it is recommended that we prohibit the Yahoo data from appearing in the SERPs. This is done with the use of the NOYDIR robots tag.

Visually check the source code of the homepage for the existence of a code below entry in the <head> content.

<Meta name="robots" content="NOYDIR">

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