The secrets of meta descriptions and SEO

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Meta descriptions are a much misunderstood weapon in the search arsenal that can have a serious impact on page performance. The meta description field is your first opportunity to set out your stall and tell searchers what’s in store if they click on your link in the results. It’s a prime piece of online advertising space and one that shouldn’t be ignored.

What are meta descriptions?

The meta description field allows publishers to describe the contents of a page to help searchers understand what to expect if they click on a link. Google often uses meta descriptions as the descriptive ‘snippet’ in the results, so it’s your chance to convince searchers to click on your result rather than a competitor’s.

Do meta descriptions help with SEO?

YES - there’s little doubt in the digital marketing community that meta descriptions help performance. However, if you rephrase the question and ask whether meta descriptions are used as a ranking signal, you’ll get a resounding “NO”. What initially sounds like a contradictory set of statements soon makes sense once unpacked.

In the not too distant past meta descriptions carried direct algorithmic weight (along with meta keywords) and soon became the target of spammers trying to cheat the system. Google responded by devaluing the tags but continued to use meta descriptions as snippets in the search results. Webmasters soon realised they had direct access to valuable advertising space and began to take meta descriptions more seriously.

There’s plenty of evidence to show that carefully written meta descriptions can greatly increase Click Through Rate (CTR) and as every SEO knows CTR is an important ranking factor. On one level it’s obvious why meta descriptions that mirror search queries increase CTR (the page is likely to contain what the searcher is looking for) but another subtler reason also comes into play.

When a results snippet contains any of the words included in the original search query then Google displays them in bold. For example: if you search for ‘Kentico Gold Partner’ you’ll get the following result for Ridgeway with Kentico Gold Partner in bold (ranking just behind Kentico).

Studies have shown that reinforcing searcher intent in the results substantially increases CTR, which is why it’s essential to get your keyword research right. Increased traffic is an obvious win, but you’ll also benefit from better click data. Google have acknowledged they use click data to refine their results, hence a low ranking site that receives a lot of clicks will soon climb the SERPS.

While meta descriptions don’t directly affect search rankings, they do affect CTR which feeds Google’s algorithm, so there are no excuses, they need attention.

How to write effective meta descriptions

  • A meta description should be a concise and clickable description of the page content.
  • Meta descriptions should be kept short as search engines rarely display more than 160 characters (920 pixels) which means you have less than 20 words to play with.
  • Every webpage deserves its own unique meta description so don’t cut corners or leave it up to your CMS to decide.
  • Include primary keywords but don’t go overboard and focus on searchers not spiders.
  • Don’t use speech marks (double quotes) as they will truncate the meta description.

If you don’t write meta descriptions, or Google thinks they can do a better job, copy will be pulled from somewhere on the page. At best the results will be unfocussed or at worst they will be off-putting, either way they will have a negative impact on CTR.

Nick Maynard is an SEO performance specialist at Ridgeway

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