(This is an updated version of this post.)
Meta descriptions are something you’ve seen. A lot. Even if you didn’t realize it. You’ve made judgments based on their content, and you’ve learned from them. But what are they? How do they get there? And how can you use them to your advantage?
What are Meta Descriptions?
Meta descriptions are those lines of text that describe a page’s content. They’re shown in search results and provide the description of a page’s contents. If done well, they also contain key words and actionable text that lead readers to click for more info.
Think about the last time you searched for something. You typed in your query, pressed enter, and a page of results came up. How did you decide which link to click on? What did it for you? Was it the page name? Or the description of the page? If it was the description, you know what I mean here. The content of that page description can be crucial for getting that “click through.”
Where Do They Come From?
There are two sources of meta descriptions: the site owner / developer, and Google. The site owner generally inserts the text for each page they create, using code or their builder. I use the Yoast plugin for this site (which is on WordPress), and I enter the metas like this:
The other source of meta descriptions comes from our friend Google. If they feel a page’s meta description is not indicative of a page’s content (or is nonexistent), they have been known to create new ones. They do this infrequently if the meta is there and accurately describes the page’s content**.
**Remember that meta descriptions are for single pages, NOT an entire site.
How Can You Use Meta Descriptions to Your Advantage?
Well-crafted meta descriptions help your site a great deal. By displaying text that you entered, as opposed to something a search engine generated, you control what viewers see, and you can adjust as you see fit. You can also be sure to include your keywords and calls to action.
So for example, say you change from a pet sitting business to a cat sitting service, but you keep your same business name. By changing your meta descriptions, you can now highlight that new service (“We now specialize in cat care!” or “We are the premier cats-only service in the region!”). By doing so, you use your key words to catch the eye of your viewers. While Google doesn’t use the content of your descriptions for SEO, doing this will get more clicks to your site, which is what you want in the end.
What are the Best Practices for Writing Them?
- Descriptions should use up to 320 characters (this number changed recently), and tools like Yoast help you keep to those numbers. The number can vary, and if you go over, it’s not a big deal. BUT if you go over, your description will be cut off by the search engines, so it’s best to keep in within that range. (Note that if you use the Yoast SEO plugin, you need to update it so the new 320 character limit is reflected; if you haven’t updated Yoast since early January of 2018, you won’t see the changed numbers.)
- They should be descriptive of the page. So while your home page’s meta can be general, the other pages should not. They should be specific to the page they’re describing only.
- They should contain your key words. If you’re a cats-only service, say that. Catch the eye of your future clients!
- They should be unique to the page. Each page should have a uniquely-written meta, not a template used for every page on a site. Those are boring and your visitors may pass over them if you come up more than once in a search result page.
- They should contain a “call to action.” These are those short lines like “call now!” or “give us a ring to learn more about our service.” These are helpful for reminding folks to click right through to your site.
If you’d like to see what your meta descriptions say right now, this minute, NOW, go to your Google search bar and type in site:[yoursitename.com], like this. Don’t use www. or https// in the search there. That will give you a nice look at your results so you know what work you have to do. I have to work on mine, I know (hey, no one’s perfect!), but that link will show you what you have to work on (or not, lucky you!).
Meta descriptions can not be overlooked when setting up or changing your site. They are seen on EVERY SINGLE search result page, and are crucial to your gaining clicks to your site. If you write them carefully, not worrying about SEO, but thinking of what visitors will want to see, you should gain visitors who are keen to use your services. This in turn should enhance your conversions.