What is a Meta Description Tag?

The description attribute of the meta tag is very important. The content of this tag gives you a short summary of the content of the website and although it is not visible on the website, it is seen in search engine results as part of the search snippet.

In the early days, the content of this tag directly affected a website’s search engine ranking. In fact, some search engines like Baidu, which is a Chinese search engine, still consider meta description content as a ranking factor. Google, however, has made it clear that the content in the meta description tag has no direct effect on search rankings. Note, no direct effect; meta descriptions are proven to indirectly affect search rankings, and here is how.

Learn more about how to add a meta description to your page here.

How Important are Meta Descriptions?

The content in the meta description tag is seen in search results. When you are targeting search traffic for your site, this is the content that your potential customer will see in search results, along with the meta title, in the form of a search snippet. Your search snippet will be among many others on any given page of search results. The content of the meta description tag helps the user decide which link to click from among the various choices.

For instance, if you typed a search query for cheap flights to Hawaii and one search result showed the flight prices (i.e. in the meta description or title appearing as a search snippet), as shown in the example below, you would likely click on that link as opposed to other links above or below it.

Example of meta description in search results

The click-through rate (CTR) of the first search result displaying the price of the flights will be higher than the one below it. CTRs are one of the ranking factors for search engines. So, if your CTR is higher, your website should move higher in the SERPs. This shows that the content of the meta description tag does play an important role in improving a site’s search rankings.

NOTE: The search ranking criteria specific to CTRs also depends on bounce rates. So, the lower the bounce rates, the higher the chances of your website featuring in the first few pages of search results. You can lower bounce rates by making sure that the content of the meta description tag exactly describes the information available within the site.

Tips to Optimize Meta Description Content:

The following are some tips to optimize your meta description tag content to ensure a high CTR:

Unique Description:

Best practice is to provide a unique handwritten meta description for your website’s homepage and inner pages. This is important. When Google detects duplicate descriptions they will highlight them in Google Webmaster Tools. You can find this duplicate meta description information under Google Webmaster Tools > Optimization > HTML Improvements.

Duplicate meta descriptions in Google Webmaster Tools

Providing unique meta descriptions will improve user experience, which in turn contributes to an improved search ranking. Since no two web pages have the same content (to avoid issues with duplicate content), it makes sense to have unique descriptions as well.

It is not always possible to have handwritten descriptions, especially when a site has over 1000 web pages. In such cases it is advisable to use handwritten descriptions for the home page and the most popular pages of the site. For the rest you can use programmatically generated descriptions. Just make sure that they adaquately describe the content of the web pages and are non-identical.

Meta Description Character Length:

Meta descriptions have no character limit, but including a lengthy description is a waste of your time as only about 150 to 170 initial characters are displayed in search results. Optimize meta descriptions by including keywords at the beginning of them.

Keywords in Meta Description:

There is no limit to the number of keywords that can be used in the meta description tag content, however, it is advisable to not stuff the description with keywords. Ideally one or two keywords will feature in the description tag, more if you choose. You may have observed that keywords are highlighted in search snippets, thus grabbing the user’s attention and showing relevance to their query. This is shown below in a search result for the keyword men’s watches:

Meta description with keywords in bold

Avoid Alphanumeric Characters:

Search engines identify alphanumeric characters, like hyphens (-), plus signs (+) and quotation marks (“),as HTML code and as such may not use the description as you intend it to be used. It is best to stick to plain text when it comes to meta description tags.

Sales Pitch:

The meta description content of your website should lure your search audience to click on your link rather than your competitor’s. It is much like paid a advertisement, where your most appealing content and the information unique to your business are showcased to grab the attention of your online audience. Ensure you include details relevant to the keywords you are targeting your meta description for. Consider our previous example; if your keyword is cheap air tickets to Hawaii, ensure you include the lowest airfare in the meta description so that your search audience is convinced they will find what they are looking for on your site. Also, if you offer free shipping or gift wrapping, or anything else unique to your business website, do not forget to display it within the first 160 characters of your meta description tag.

Finally, if your meta description tag content is not relevant to the search query but your website is, new algorithmic updates in Google have made it possible to use content from your website in place of the meta description tag content. So make sure that your website content is optimized for SEO. Google does a fine job in retrieving relevant information from site content if you do not have a meta description, however, not all search engines do this.

Quick Tip: Search engines are known to display search snippets based on the description of your site on DMOZ. So, if your site is listed in DMOZ but you do not want search engines like Google to retrieve that content, add the following code to your site:

For all search engines that support the Meta Tag:

<meta name="robots" content="NOODP">

For Google:

<meta name="googlebot" content="NOODP">