Hit the SEO Jackpot with Meta Descriptions

by / Tuesday, 03 July 2012 / Published in Tips

I had an aha moment the other day while poring over the Google Analytics data for the niche site that I’m building. It’s currently ranking on the first page of Google for a handful of keywords, but the number of people who are actually clicking through to my site is leaving something to be desired.

Upon closer examination, I realized that I have two very distinct problems. First, the titles of my articles are excessively long. If you check out the newest Google updates for May, you’ll learn about the importance of short, accurate titles for your content. If a title appears too long, the Big G will select a shorter, more appropriate version to display in the results – and you don’t get a say in what that title will be. It’s best to select a title that contains your keywords but is also brief and relevant if you want to pass inspection.

For the purposes of this article, however, I’d like to focus specifically on meta descriptions. I stepped back from my website work this week and thought long and hard about what makes a person click on a site listed in Google’s search results. Think about it. What makes you click a link from the list?

For me, it’s the description of the page that appears below each title in the list. I use Google multiple times throughout the day, and I always scan the descriptions before I choose a site. I do this mindlessly – but once I really started paying attention to what I was doing, it dawned on me that the descriptions were the deciding factor that ultimately influenced my click.

You can have the most fantastic content in the world, but if you’re primarily depending on search traffic, then it won’t mean a thing if your meta descriptions are a drag. Let’s look at what exactly meta descriptions are and how you can use them to skyrocket traffic to your website or blog.

So… What Are Meta Descriptions, Anyway?

Meta elements are essentially coded definitions of different parts of your website, and they’re expressed in HTML or XHTML formats. Each meta element provides metadata about the pages on your site. For example, you may have some meta elements that specify particular keywords and page descriptions and others that define your site’s language or geographical attributes.

The meta element that we’re focusing on for this post is that of the meta description. You don’t see it on the actual website; it’s in the header code. To better illustrate this point, let’s look at the meta description for Google:

Google's Meta Description

Now, here’s how that meta description appears for users in the search results for Google’s website:

Google in Search Results

The information contained in the meta description for Google provides a succinct explanation of the content that users will find by visiting the site. Most search engines cut off descriptions somewhere around 160 characters, so sticking to 155 characters or less will help to ensure that your wording won’t be truncated.

A Brief History of Meta Descriptions

Meta elements were the hot ticket in SEO back in the late 90s. This was because the old school algorithms relied heavily on meta data to classify and rank websites in search results. With the right meta elements, websites could easily occupy the top spots for any given keyword. It didn’t take long for search marketers to get hip to this fact, and the revelation resulted in millions of websites dominating the SERPs with metadata-stuffed sites.

Obviously, the search giants had to regroup if they wanted to maintain the integrity of their listings. Search engine traffic was becoming more important as the Internet became more legit, so greater safeguards were put into play. Far less significance was placed on metadata in algorithms, and now bots have become so sophisticated that using the tactic for SEO is virtually obsolete.

Write for Humans, Not Search Engines

All that background brings me back to my original point. There is still a reason to focus on meta descriptions. Abig reason. People won’t click on your site if they don’t feel you have the solution to their problem. It’s as simple as that.

You must convince searchers that you have exactly what they’re looking for – and you have to do it in 160 characters or less.

You need to think of your meta description as ad copy. It’s the blurb that will sell your site, and therefore it’s arguably the most important part of the SEO you will do for your entire website. If you write something truly compelling, then you will certainly see an increase in your clickthrough rate (CTR). It’s that simple. You need to make searchers curious and lure them to want to learn more after reading your description – that’s what will draw in the clicks.

Tips for Writing Better Meta Descriptions

Now you know just how pivotal carefully crafted meta descriptions are for each and every page of your site or blog. They are ultimately what will convince a searcher to click through to your site. But what can you do to make your meta descriptions more appealing? Here are a few guidelines to help you during the writing process:

  • Use the keyword you’re targeting in your description. When you do, the keyword will appear in bold in your meta description when it appears in the SERPs. This won’t boost your ranking power, but it will certainly help to grab the reader’s attention.
  • If you’re using a blogging platform such as WordPress, try a plugin like the All in One SEO Pack. There are many more like it, and most will allow you to enter both the title and description that you’d like search engines to display. This eliminates the need for manual coding, which is always nice.
  • Make sure that you use a unique meta description for each page. Yes, it’s a huge pain. However, if you make it part of the writing process and you write the description directly after you write your article, I’ve found that it’s actually easy. You’re already in writing mode, and you know the most appealing points to describe since the topic is still fresh in your mind.
  • Don’t ever use quotes in your meta descriptions. It’s a great way to have your text cut off by the search engines.