The meta description is a code tag in HTML, that summarizes a page’s content in about 250 characters (updated to reflect the December 2017 changes for longer descriptions). Search engines show the meta description in search results below the Title tag for organic search results. Optimizing the meta description is very important for on-page SEO.
In the screenshot above, you will see a few examples of what comes up in a search when “Dog walking” was typed into Google. Notice the format is always the Title, below that is the URL of the website, and then the Meta-Description.
I will be using these as examples as I go through the article to point certain aspects of what might happen with your meta-descriptions.
What’s Going On With The Meta Description Tags?
It’s basic SEO practice to make sure that the meta-description tag is written properly, but things have gotten complicated around this essentially one sentence piece of code.
It used to be that Google (and other search engines) always used this -user written- data to deliver this below the Title tag description to a search query exactly the way it was written. It also used to be that Google used the keywords within the meta-description as a data point for it’s algorithm.
Both of these are now no longer true. Google does not use the meta-description for any determination in it’s rankings. It’s also not beholden to use your meta-description the way you have written it.
When Does Google Use Your Meta Description
Lets’ take a look at the most simple case of where Google does use the meta description that was input into the page code.
Below you will see one of the listings that appeared in the first screenshot. As you can see, the description here says “We offer Dog Walking in Toronto with option for group or solo walks.” Also notice that ‘Dog Walking’ is in bold. The bolding of the key words is done by Google to help you see that why this site might be what you are looking for.
Below is the code within the above listed website where the meta-description was determined. In this case Google decided to use the suggested description from the website.
Google is more likely to use your meta description when it finds that the amount of characters being used are within the normally used range (see below for meta description checklist best practices), and that the keywords within the description match the ones that the searcher has used and also matches the content of the page.
Why Google Decides To Write A Meta-Description For You
You can see from this screenshot that the meta-description delivered by Google is not a simple coherent sentence.
The website in question does have the proper tag in place as you can see from the screenshot below, but Google decided not to deliver the pre-written sentence.
One of the reasons is because the original search phrase was ‘Dog walking’ and the meta description did not match that exact phrase. It’s also a bit on the short side.
The algorithm decided that the page was relevant to the searcher, but overrode the description tag and instead delivered what it thought was a more relevant description to the searcher by pulling up sentences from within the content of the page.
If Google Will Write A Description For Me, Should I Still Write One?
As mentioned before, Google does not use the meta-description as a ranking factor anymore, however some search engines still do. Lacking a meta-description can potentially hurt your visibility on those other search engines.
The main point of the meta-description at this point in time is to help the searcher understand the what the site is about. Effectively, the meta-description is all about conversion or CTR.
If you write your own description, then you have the ability to increase the amount the people who click on your link. Having a well written description that is the proper length will help your click-through-rate (CTR) from a search. Ultimately, the higher your CTR, the more Google will tend to push your site higher in the organic rankings for that searched keyword phrase.
More Meta Description Tags
Take a look again at the screenshot that was used above. This time I have highlighted a different set of code.
Although the actual description is the same, the meta tags being used are different. In this example, the website is setting the description for other sites, namely Facebook and Twitter.
Let’s define all of the meta description tags here for easy reference:
Description for spiders (search engines) :
<meta name="description" content="Description of a website"/>
Description for Facebook :
<meta property="og:description" content="My facebook description" />
Description for Twitter :
<meta name="twitter:description" value="My description for twitter card"/>
Description for Google Plus :
<meta itemprop="description" content="My description for google +"/>
Setting the tag for each of these different websites tells those websites that this is the specific text to serve up. As of now, the regular organic Google search is the only algorithm that will go in and override your preferred text.
I want Google To Use The Description I Wrote
Sometimes you will have a description written but Google won’t use it. We saw this in the example above. To increase the chances of Google using your description and not setting one of it’s own, here are the best practices to follow. Although it won’t guarantee your description will be used for every set of keyword phrases searched, it certainly will increase the chances.
Meta Description Checklist
- Keywords: do make sure your most important keywords for the web page show up in the meta description. Search engines sometimes the keywords in bold when it finds the search phrase.
- Do Not Stuff Keywords: Keyword stuffing your meta description won’t help the searcher as they might assume that your result leads to a spammy website. Make sure your description makes someone want to visit your site.
- Conversion Rate: The description needs to match the content on the page, but make the description as compelling and as relevant as possible in order to attract more visitors to your site.
- 220 – 300 Characters Long: Although there are numerous examples of Google using longer descriptions, if you stay within this range you will have a description that will be long enough to let tell a reader what the page is about, but not too long that the ends gets cut off. (Google updated the length of the meta-descriptions (from 180 characters) that it will use in early in December 2017).
- Page Descriptions Should Be Unique: Each page of your site is unique, and so the meta descriptions must be different for every page as well. It will only confuse the search engine algorithms if the description of every page is the same.
SEO Tools For Adding Or Updating Your Meta Descriptions
If you notice some issues with your meta descriptions and want to update them or add them to pages that are missing them, here are a few tools that might help.
The first thing to do is to check all the descriptions. The easiest way to do this is to use an SEO tool called Screaming Frog. It will scan your site and you will be able to see all of the page Titles and meta descriptions in one simple sheet. From there you can determine if there are any issues to correct.
If you are running WordPress, there are a number of plugins that will help you be able to more add and easily edit the meta descriptions. One of those is called Yoast. It adds a section within the page or post editor to directly write a new meta description, as well as helping you stay within the proper length.
After updating your meta descriptions, it might take a bit of time for Google to retrieve this information and update the search results depending on how often your site is crawled and other factors. Hopefully it will take only a few days, but it may be a matter of a few weeks before Google starts to use the meta descriptions that you have set in the tag.
Writing a meta description might seem like a simple task, but when you add the factors of having to incorporate your keywords in a normal sentence while trying to entice a searcher to click your link (instead of visiting a competitor’s link), it can be more time consuming than you think.
That being said, if you are having any trouble with your meta descriptions, feel free to comment below or to contact me. I will be glad to help you sort them out.
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