Do Not Discount the Meta Description Tag

By Janet Driscoll Miller | Feb 16, 2009
More Articles by Janet

You may have heard many SEOs disparage meta tags in general — expressing that they have little value in improving search engine rankings. And while that may be the case, meta tags, especially the meta description tag, hold far more value than just use in SEO efforts. Let’s examine the value that this often overlooked tag has.

The meta description tag, if present on a web page, is the description that Google uses in your website’s search engine ranking result. For example, here is our meta description for the home page of this blog:

<meta name=“description” content=“Search Marketing Sage is the official blog of Search Mojo, a search engine marketing company specializing in search engine optimization (SEO) and pay per click (PPC) advertising management.” />

And here is our listing in Google:

Search Marketing Sage's Meta Description in Google

If we did not have a meta description on this page, Google would take the first text characters it could find on the page to use as a description. That’s not always ideal, because sometimes the first text characters it finds might be your navigation, like in this example from one of our clients prior to adding a meta description:

Reveal MedSpa's Meta Description Example

The common mistake we see website owners make is using either a) no meta description on a page (often believing it’s not important) or b) using the same meta description on every page of the website (a common problem with content management systems). Here’s why meta descriptions are important — for SEO and beyond:

1. Meta descriptions are content. Because meta descriptions contain content for the page, you shouldn’t ignore them for SEO purposes. Add the keyword/phrase to the meta description, both for SEO purposes and for my next reason…

2. Keywords in descriptions are bolded by Google. When you do a search for a keyword in Google, the listings that appear in the results show the keyword, when it appears in the listing, as bolded. Studies have shown that this effect tends to entice more searchers to click on listings (even advertisements) with bolded terms.

3. Descriptions offer you control over the message the searcher sees. If you allow Google to auto-select the content for the description in your listing, you may be missing out on a greater opportunity to craft an enticing marketing message to encourage clicks. Use the meta description to write a compelling description of your page — sell it to the searcher!

So essentially there are two main reasons to use meta description tags — 1) for some SEO benefit, even if it’s minimal, and 2) entice more clicks once you achieve ranking.

Here are some tips to write a good meta description:

1. Keep it to 160 characters (including spaces) or less. Google only shows the first 160 characters of your meta description, so make sure that you include all of the pertinent information in that space. A tool I use to ensure I don’t go over is a formula in Microsoft Excel. In one cell (let’s call it A1), type your description, and in an adjacent cell, use the formula =len(A1). This formula will count the length of your description, so you can edit at will and get an immediate length measurement.

2. Include the keyword in the description. As I mentioned above, the keyword is bolded in the text when searched which can in turn lead to more clicks. Also, it can help some with SEO efforts.

3. Use a different meta description on every page of your website. Remember, this is a marketing opportunity! Use it. Don’t put the same old description on every page — use a unique description on each page, detailing what that specific page is about.

4. Caveat: If you can’t do a different meta description on every page, then at least have a default. I’ve run into several content management systems, believe it or not, that do not allow you to edit the meta description tag. Dumb! At least be sure that you have a default one on every page if you either a) can’t get to them all because you have a very large website or b) are unable to edit descriptions on single pages.

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