The Importance of Meta Descriptions
A web page's meta description is a meta tag that gives a short description or summary of the page content. Although it is not visible to the user on the page, it is seen in search engine results as part of the search snippet.
In the old 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, here's how.
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 user will see in search results, along with the page's title tag, in the form of a search snippet. The meta description content helps the searcher decide which link to click from among the various choices.
For instance, if you typed a search query "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, a user would likely click on that link as opposed to other links above or below it.
The CTR of the first search result displaying the price of the flights will be higher than the one below it. SERP CTR is one of the factors search engines use in determining future rankings. 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 what's known as "pogosticking". This refers to when users visit a page from the results and then quickly return to the SERP and choose a different result. Essentially bouncing from one result to another. Pogosticking is a sign that the first page isn't relevant to the query.
How to Optimize Meta Description Content:
The following are some tips to optimize your meta description tag content to ensure a high CTR:
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 Search Console. You can find this duplicate meta description information under
Search Appearance > HTML Improvements > Duplicate meta descriptions.
Since no two web pages have the same content (to avoid issues with duplicate content), it makes sense to have unique descriptions as well.
Of course, it is not always possible to have handwritten descriptions. Especially when a site has over 1000 web pages, as is the case of many ecommerce sites. For such large sites, 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 adequately describe the content of the web pages and are non-identical.
Meta Description Character Length:
Technically, meta descriptions have no character limit, but including a lengthy description is a waste of your time as Google snippets are about 160 characters.
It's worth noting, however, that Google will change its snippet content based on the user's query. So the best practice is to focus less on optimizing character count and instead work on optimizing content that captures the attention of searchers and makes them want to engage with your website.
Keywords in Meta Description:
Words (and their synonyms) used in the user's search query are highlighted in bold when they appear in a page's snippet. So using keywords in your descriptions will help draw the user's eye to your link. This is shown in the screenshot in a search result for the keyword "men’s watches".
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.
Over-optimized meta descriptions can (and often do) lead to reduced rankings.
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.
Meet Search Intent:
Google changes a page's search snippet based on the user's query and it will seek to highlight the content it thinks will meet the user's search intent. It's a good idea, therefore, to write meta descriptions that will also meet the user's intent. Or, at the very least, highlight how your page will meet that intent.
Consider our previous example; the query "cheap air tickets to Hawaii" indicates a high degree of commercial intent: the user wants to buy a ticket for a very low price. Include the lowest airfare that you offer in the meta description so that your search audience is convinced they will find what they are looking for on your site.
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!