Although meta descriptions (also known as meta tags) are easily overlooked, I find they are one of the most interesting parts of SEO. “What the hell is he talking about?” I hear you scream? Well, meta descriptions are one of the few elements of SEO where you're able to write exclusively for a human and can have a massive impact on click through rates.
I appreciate that if you're to truly follow Google's guidelines and best practices you should be writing content for the user and not consider how Google's bots might view your content but, lets face it, we all have the algorithm at the back of our minds when curating something for publishing on the web.
It's also the first window to the website that a prospect lead might have, that gives you a few seconds and only 150-160 characters to sell your website. Challenge accepted.
The meta description of each page is basically a sales pitch for your content. So if we start to treat them like sales pitches or mini adverts, we need to look into the psychology of what makes a good ad work. We need to get all Don Draper up in this <meta>.
If can be very annoying thinking up a witty, clever and persuasive meta description for a particular page only to find Google have truncated it (…) and removed the punchline!
There are two character limits you need to consider. First, 156 characters (including spaces) is the maximum Google will allow to be displayed under any search result before it cuts it short or excludes it completely and picks its own snippet from your content.
Using the full 156 characters is risky business when it comes to having your description displayed properly, if you're content is dated and Google decides to display the date of the post, the date counts towards the number of characters available.
There are also some theories that the meta description is determined by the width of pixel, meaning two descriptions of the same total characters may get truncated at different sections depending on whether 'slim' or 'wide' characters have been used.
If you want to ensure your entire description is displayed, you are recommended to keep within the 139 character range (including spaces), this ensures that even if you use 'wide' characters or have a date displayed along side your article, no shortening shall take place.
Don't List Features
The page title tag should be the main indication of the feature of the content, what it is and what it's about etc. The meta description should then be used to sell the benefits of said content.
Lets say you're writing a how-to guide for writing meta descriptions… (I know, right?) and you're page title tag is "A How To Guide To Writing the Best Meta Descriptions". From this, I already know the features of the content, it's pretty self explanatory. But what is it about THIS how-to-guide that sets is apart from the other 7-10 I might find on any particular SERP?
Sell the benefits of your article to your readers, don't waste the short description repeating what the searcher already knows.
This how-to-guide features step by step instructions for beginners, teaching you the best ways to optimise the meta descriptions of your website.
Learn how to improve your click-through rates and drive extra traffic to your website by optimising your meta descriptions with these easy to follow tips.
Of the two meta descriptions above, which one appeal the most? (Psst, it's the 2nd one).
Calls To Action
You'll be well aware of how important CTA's can be on your websites landing pages but the same is true for meta descriptions. Words like click, learn, discover, try, experience etc can all be used as call to actions for your page's description.
Western languages are written from right-to-left so consider this when constructing your meta description and the placement of your CTA's and keywords. I usually try to include a CTA and keyword within the first 5 words of any description, this allows the user to instantly be drawn in by your CTA as well as having your keyword highlighted in bold text to further draw the users eye to your result.
There are two elements to duplicate descriptions, number one is to avoid having a generic meta description on all of your pages. I still see a number of sites that have site wide description, usually quite a generic one about the company rather than a page specific description.
Although Google is increasingly generating it's own meta descriptions when it thinks it can be more relevant, sometimes these poor descriptions slip through the net. Not only does it look lazy, it adds no benefit to the searcher and I've even seen meta descriptions that are keyword stuffed… That's so last century.
The second facet of the duplicate meta descriptions subject is when you simply lift the first sentence or so of the page and copy and paste it into the description tag. Of course the first sentence of your content likely sums up your content in around 160 characters but an introductory sentence will not contain the relevant CTAs or may be too long, or too short etc.
One of the quickest ways to find examples of duplicate meta descriptions is by using Google Webmaster Tools. Log on, and select "HTML Improvements" which can be found within the "Search Appearance" drop down menu. Not only can you see duplicate descriptions but also long and short meta descriptions.
Some Helpful Tools and Resources
Ready to sink your teeth into creating some awesome and persuasive meta descriptions? Great! Here's a few articles I'd recommend you also read to get you started.
Google Webmaster Tools - Don't have a link to this one but if you select "Html Improvements", which can be found under the "Search Appearance" tab, you'll be able to see all instances of duplicated meta descriptions, short meta descriptions and too-long meta descriptions. A quick way to find and keep on top of the meta tags for large websites.
Got any tips on how you've improve Meta Description effectiveness and click through rates? Share in the comments below, we'd love to hear your examples.