How to Optimize a Meta Description Tag

by Canonical SEO on October 6, 2009

Optimizing meta descriptions to influence snippet

The meta description tag or element does not appear anywhere on a web page, so why bother making it part of your on-page optimization strategy?  Because optimizing it can drastically influence the amount of organic traffic you get from search engines once your URL begins to rank well.

What is this meta description tag you speak of?

The meta description tag is a tag or element that can appear within the head element of an HTML/XHTML document.  Its appears as follows:

<meta name=”description” content=”This is a sample meta description value.”>

or

<meta name=”description” content=”This is a sample meta description value.” />

depending on whether the document is HTML or XHTML, respectively.

Another notable meta tag frequently discussed in relation to on-page SEO is the meta keywords tag, but that’s a topic for another discussion. 

Why optimize the meta description tag?

While the meta description tag may be used by some search engines as a ranking factor, it likely carries very little weight when it is.  Many search engines, the most notable of which is Google, ignore this tag from a ranking perspective due to the fact that, like the meta keywords tag, it is not shown on the page and is therefore easily abused as a blackhat SEO technique.  But the fact that it is only a minor factor for some search engines and ignored by others like Google is no reason to avoid taking the time to optimize your meta descriptions. 

Even at Google where it is ignored for ranking purposes, the meta description tag is still very important.  The reason is that most search engines will show the value of this tag as the snippet of text that appears with the page’s title element and URL in the search engine results pages (SERPs).  Having a well optimized meta description tag can therefore drastically improve your click-thru-rate (CTR) when your URL is shown in the SERPs.

Tips for optimizing the meta description

As with any on-page and off-page optimization, the meta description should be optimized based on the value of the title element for the page.  All optimization begins with keyword research and analysis.  Keyword analysis should yield a single keyword phrase that the page is targeting (possibly 2-3 keyword phrases if they are VERY similar). 

If the page has a properly optimized title tag then the targeted keyword phrase (or phrases) should appear in the title of the page.  If there are multiple targeted phrases then they should appear in order of importance.  It is these targeted keyword phrases that appear in the title tag (and slight variations) that users should be using most often to find the page in the SERPs.  Understanding this concept is key to optimizing the meta description tag as well as any other on-page or off-page ranking factor.

The key optimization techniques for a typical meta description element are as follows:

  • The meta description should contain 1 or 2 sentences.
  • It should accurately describe the content of the page.  In other words, don’t use a misleading meta description.  You may increase CTR by being deceptive, but you’ll also increase bounce back rates and possibly alienate users who have found your site.
  • The description should contain a clear call to action to make the user want to click on the link in the SERPs.
  • The meta description should typically be at most 145 to 150 characters in length as these are the maximum number of characters typically displayed at Yahoo! and Google, respectively.  It should be noted that Google recently announced that they are showing longer snippets for long tail searches, but in general it is best to stick to about 150 characters.
  • Avoid using short descriptions as Google will not display the meta description if it is too short.  I would recommend a minimum of around 90-100 characters.
  • Do NOT stuff the meta description with keywords.  It should read naturally. It likely does no good to do so because it’s likely a very minor ranking factor and not worth ruining your user’s experience or getting penalized by Google.
  • Always incorporate into the description all keywords that make up your primary targeted keyword phrase from the title of the page.  If possible without  making your meta description sound as if it is stuffed with keywords, include all keywords from the title including those that make up secondary and tertiary phrases as well.

The last bullet not only helps your URL rank for it’s targeted keywords at those search engines that still use the meta description in their ranking algorithm, it is especially important when optimizing meta description tags for Google for an entirely different reason. It increases the likelihood that your meta description will be shown more often as the snippet in the Google SERPs.

The meta description tag as a Google snippet

Google does not blindly display the description as the snippet in their SERPs like some other engines do.  Google wants to highlight or bold ALL keywords from the user’s search phrase within the snippet as a primary goal.  This desire to bold all keywords from the search phrase in their snippets is the main factor in determining whether the Google snippet displayed is taken from your meta description or a snippet Google has constructed from sentence fragments from the page. 

If all of the keywords in the user’s search phrase also appear in the first 150 characters of your meta description and your meta description is not too short then Google will typically display the meta description as the snippet.  Otherwise they are going to construct their own snippet typically using random sentence fragments from various parts of the page.  I say “typically” because Google is constantly testing out many types of constructed snippets for special types of searches.  Whether they construct a typical snippet or one of these special snippets, the fact that their algorithm is deciding what is shown means that you have little, if any, control over the snippet, and it’s almost certain that there will be no call to action.

Knowledge is power.  So use it to control your snippets by optimizing your meta description so that it has the best chance of being displayed in the SERPs and so that it entices users to click on your URL’s SERP listing.

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