A Definitive Guide to Meta Descriptions in 2020

I’ve been more or less cooped up inside for months, and my hair has grown really long. I decided that it was finally time for a haircut. In a daze, I did a Google search for “best haircut Winnipeg” (not the best search query, I know), when I came across this doozy:

what is a meta description

The title says “Shop with us today”, but the rest of the text says “we haven’t set up our meta description properly”. I don’t know what they specialize in, where to find them (Winnipeg and Burnaby? Okay.), what makes them unique, or what kind of treatment to expect. I know almost nothing about them at all. Compare that to this search result for the same query:

meta description example

Wow – the difference between those search results is night and day! With this result, I know exactly where the salon is located, what they specialize in (they’re a boutique, so I’m expecting higher quality/prices), and what makes them unique (emphasis on trendiness/the “true meaning” of boutique). I can use my own imagination to piece together the treatment I might get (I’m expecting luxury).

You can probably guess which of those two results I’m more interested in, and they serve as excellent meta description examples: the first of what’s bad (non-existent, actually), and of what’s good. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Table Of Contents

What Is A Meta Description?

A meta description is a little piece of code you put in the head of your HTML code. The code looks like this: 

<meta name=”description” content=”Insert your compelling page description here.” />

You might have no clue what that means, especially if you’re using a company like WordPress to create your website. Don’t worry, we’ll tell you how to create a meta description without knowing how to code shortly.

What a meta description does is rather simple – it tells search engines what to display when your page comes up as a search result. Most regular (not rich or featured) organic search results are composed of just two elements: your page title (users click on this to go to your web page) and the content found in your meta description tag.

Meta descriptions can be as long or short as you’d like in theory, but practically speaking you want to keep them at or below 155-160 characters. Any more than that, and the search engine will cut off the description. That can lead to your potential clients not reading what you want them to read.

writing on pad of paper

Meta Descriptions and SEO

Meta descriptions themselves are not ranking factors – that is to say, if you take a site that doesn’t have a meta description and add one, that alone won’t boost your ranking, or even change it.

That isn’t to say, however, that meta descriptions don’t help SEO.

Think back to those two hair salons we looked at earlier – which one do you think you’d be more likely to click? If you’re anything like me, the answer is almost certainly Bob and Page.

One of the most important ranking factors is click through rate (CTR). CTR is basically the number of people who actually click your link when they see it – those who want a technical deep dive on the subject can read this fascinating article about CTR as a ranking factor on WordStream.

You should also keep in mind that the whole point of SEO is to increase your CTR. The higher you rank on search engines, the more likely it is people will go to your website – a high click through rate creates a positive feedback loop.

What does all this have to do with meta descriptions? The answer is simple: if you’ve got bad copy, I’m not interested in what you’re selling. Your meta description is the copy people see when they search for keywords related to your site – it’s your elevator pitch. You’ve got one chance to entice people to come to your website – don’t waste it.

magnifying glass

How to Create a Great Meta Description

There are a lot of different elements that, when combined, make for a great meta description. A few best practices include:

  • Having the right number of characters (usually between 60-160 characters) to keep within the character limit
  • The inclusion of your location and the keywords you’re trying to rank for
  • Using active, exciting language
  • Including schema on your webpage
  • Unique content
  • Consistent tone

Let’s dive into each of these topics in a little more depth:

Keep it Brief.

Snippets are the term for the text blurb that search engines put after the title. They are often (but not always) the same text that you find in your meta description (more on that later). 

 

Google has experimented with longer snippets than the 160 character limit we propose before – the tests didn’t go well, and they reverted to (generally) using shorter snippets. Sometimes, you’ll see snippets over 160 characters on search engine results pages (SERPs) – that’s not something we want to leave to chance.

 

Brevity is the soul of wit, so you’ll need to find a way to create compelling copy, including your location and the keywords you want to rank for, in very few characters.

Keywords and Location

You’ll want to do keyword research to determine what keywords or phrases you’re trying to rank for, and include those terms in your meta description. When a user searches for those terms, they may end up bolded in your description, which can entice users to click on your page.

 

Search engines are getting pretty good at what’s known as natural language processing (NLP). That means instead of simply viewing a word as a piece of data, they’re getting better at understanding language in the same way humans understand language. 

 

Notice that in the examples provided above, the word salon is bolded, even though my search didn’t include the word salon. That’s because Google understands hair salon to be a synonym for what I’m looking for (a good haircut). In other words, you can use synonyms and terms that are semantically related to your desired keywords when you write meta descriptions. That’s a good thing, because keyword stuffing can actively hurt CTR – it makes for bad copy.

 

Location is simple enough: talk about the region, city, or neighbourhood that your page primarily serves. This won’t always be relevant, but make sure to include it when it applies (e.g. product pages catered to a certain location).

Use Active Voice and Make It Actionable

Active voice simply means that the subject is performing the action. Instead of “our products are enjoyed by many”, say “enjoy our products”. 

 

Actionable simply means it entices the reader to take an action – this can include a call to action, like “Call today!”. 

 

Kijiji’s meta description for Winnipeg plumbing is an excellent example:

meta description

They present a problem and provide the solution, all while touting their success – in under 150 characters. Active, actionable, and exciting!

Get Rich Results

Rich results are snippets that are more enticing than plain old text snippets. They might contain ratings, links, or images. Here’s a great example:

rich results
To get rich results, you’re going to need to use schema. If you have the Yoast SEO plugin, you’re pretty much already set up; the plugin automatically adds schema for you.  You can’t force rich results to appear (more on that later), but adding the appropriate schema makes it more likely Google will display rich results under your page title.

Use Unique Meta Descriptions

It can be tempting to simply copy-paste your meta description for similar pages. Don’t.

Imagine you have two pages that appear sequentially on a SERP. The user sees the snippet beneath both results, and finds the exact same copy. They’re not going to know which link to click, and they might opt to avoid visiting your site altogether. Duplicate meta descriptions look spammy, and they might reduce your site’s credibility in the eyes of search engine users.

Instead, write your own unique meta description for each page. This is easy enough to do – when writing a blog or copy, ask the writer to include a meta description that can be added to the site’s code by the webmaster (or by using the Yoast plugin). 



working from home
seo agency desk

Keep Your Tone Consistent

Imagine a page with the meta description “Want to learn more about bears? Welcome to Bearadise!”. You make your way onto the page, only to find that it’s actually an amusement park. You’re going to feel deceived, and you’ll leave.

That creates what’s known as a bounce, and when your web page produces a lot of bounces, your SEO will suffer – a lot. Remember, search engines are motivated to provide their users relevant links, and there’s no better sign that a link isn’t relevant than someone leaving a page the moment they click it.

Instead, keep a consistent tone. Make sure your title (using the title tag) and meta description are in sync, using words in the same lexical field – preferably, words that match or are similar to the keywords you’re trying to rank for.

What To Avoid In Meta Descriptions

Don’t Use Quotation Marks

You’ll notice that in the “What Is a Meta Description” section, our example of meta description code includes quotation marks – the text you want to display on SERPs is inside those quotation marks. 

 

When you use quotation marks within those quotation marks, it can create problems. You might, for example, want to include a phrase like “Our slogan here at Bearadise is “You can’t beat our bears!””. 

 

When you do that, however, search engines will cut off your meta description at the quotation, so your meta description would read: 

 

Our slogan here at Bearadise is 

 

Not the most appealing snippet you’ll ever see.

Don’t Force Yourself to Use Meta Descriptions

We’ve spent this whole time discussing why you should use meta descriptions and how you should do it. You should know, however, that search engines won’t always use your meta description in the search results.

 

 

Why? The short answer is that search engines like to display relevant information to their users, and if they (for whatever reason) decide that other text on your page is more relevant than your meta description, that’s what they’ll use.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use meta descriptions for as many pages as you can – you’d rather control what search engine users see, and having a meta description makes it much more likely they’ll see what you want. That said, if you can’t think of a compelling meta description, and you’re tempted to write bad copy and/or duplicate meta descriptions, just leave the meta description blank. The search engine will find the most relevant snippet of text it can, and you won’t inadvertently lower your own CTR.

 

And now you know pretty much everything there is to know about meta descriptions. Still craving more knowledge? Good! That thirst will get you far. View our full local SEO guide here. 

 

 

 

Written by Paul Wyrchowny