20. May, 2021

What are meta descriptions in SEO, and how do they work? [+9 effective tips]

Author avatar
Martin Petrov
Marketing @ Morningscore.io

We all know how important it is for users to click on our website in the search results when looking for our products and services. The competition for the user’s click is tough because everyone is trying to make the most relevant search result that stands out. With that, there’s a chance you’ve seen the word “meta description” in regards to SEO. But what are meta descriptions, how do they work, and should you spend time on them?

A meta description is an HTML element of up to 160 characters that describes the contents of the page for both search engines and users searching. Meta descriptions do not have a direct effect on your SEO, but they are important for your SEO because they contribute to a higher click-through rate.

what is a meta description in seo

Meta descriptions are one of the meta tags that you can use to improve your website’s SEO-friendliness. They help search engines and users understand what exactly is present on your pages. The meta description is shown in the search results right under your SEO page title. However, sometimes search engines decide to take a portion of your content as your meta description and ignore the text that you have specified.

If you’re not fully proficient in working with your website’s code, you can use a plugin to help you add unique meta descriptions in most CMS platforms. For example, suppose you’re using WordPress. In that case, you can use the plugin “Yoast SEO” to easily add a unique meta description without having to tweak the code.

3 examples of meta descriptions

The idea behind a meta description is simple: it has to get the user to click on your website from all the rest present on the Search Engine Result Page. The main idea behind a meta description is to generate clicks and increase the Click-through rate. As part of your website’s HTML code, the meta description looks like this:

<meta name=”description” content=”This an example of the meta description of a page. Often 1 or 2 relevant sentences that effectively grab the attention.”/>

Here are two examples of good meta descriptions:

example of a meta description 2

It is essential to use your primary keywords in your meta description. As seen in the example above, when the user searches for “alarm system london,” the keywords get highlighted with a bolder font. As for space availability for the meta description text, you have roughly 920 pixels at your disposal. Your text must fit into those pixels, as otherwise it will get cut off and replaced with an ellipsis (i.e., 3 dots, “…”).

Besides that, as you can see in the example, this meta description uses numbers. Numbers are great because they stand out from the text and explain what the user can expect very concretely.

meta description example 3

In this example, once again, diligently, the main keywords are used in this meta description. As such, they are marked with bolder text. The introduction is sharp and proactively asks the user a question. “Looking for commercial real estate space in New York City?”. This is an effective, more dialogue-oriented way to engage the user, instead of a more salesy meta description that talks at the user.

By highlighting some of their main  Unique Selling Points, the user can quickly see the value from that page and how it differentiates from the competitors. In fact, not doing this is a sure way to get outranked by competitors, as they can otherwise be seen as more relevant. As such, implementing your strengths in your meta descriptions is great because it is a strong reason for the user to click on that particular result.

How long should meta descriptions be?

The length of your meta descriptions is important. If you write a meta description that is too long, Google will shorten it and replace it with an ellipsis. In turn, this means that essential parts of your text can get removed – and thus, you won’t be able to communicate the main points across.

Google shortens meta descriptions longer than 160 and 120 characters on desktop and mobile devices, respectively. Remember that Google often tests shorter meta descriptions, so put important information first. Also, very short meta descriptions prevent you from conveying your value proposition.

The right length of your meta descriptions is often a make-or-break factor for whether the user clicks on your results. Because of that, when writing meta descriptions, it’s best to use a tool that counts the pixel length of the text as if it would appear in Google’s Search Results. One such lightweight tool is SERPSim – it is a simple one-page website that is completely free to use, and the values measured are very accurate. Similarly, if you’re already using Yoast SEO, you can also do it directly in there, as it also provides live visual feedback.

Alternatively, if you want to check the meta descriptions for all of the pages you’ve already created, you can use an SEO website checker tool. Naturally, we use our own SEO tool, Morningscore, but there are many alternatives out there.

Why are meta descriptions important? 

As we previously touched upon, meta descriptions do not have a direct effect on your SEO rankings. As a result, some SEOs apply the logic that meta descriptions are unnecessary, and you shouldn’t waste time on them. However, this can be costly in the long run. Let me elaborate.

Meta descriptions work as your promotional copy in Google, as they aim to attract users towards your page instead of your competitors. As such, write meta descriptions for all of your important pages because they allow you to highlight the best features and benefits of your products and services.

From that information, we can easily conclude that, although indirectly, meta descriptions are critical for your SEO success. Regardless of how much hard work you’ve put into SEO, if the user doesn’t resonate with your page in the search results, they will not click on it. You need to differentiate your pages from your competitors, incentivizing the user to click on your results. We showcase exactly how you can do that in just a minute.

But just before we do that, we also need to address whether it’s worth it to always create a meta description – for every single page.

Should you always use the meta description tag?

The larger your website is, the more work it requires to create unique and exciting meta descriptions. As they don’t directly influence your SEO, it is normal to start questioning whether every page deserves its own unique meta description. So is it worth it?

It is recommended to have unique meta descriptions on all important pages that generate customers for you. If you don’t add a meta description, by default, Google uses content from the page. Often enough, that content is not fully relevant and descriptive for the user to get them to click.

Although it might be a long process that requires resources, writing meta descriptions for your important pages is important. However, you don’t need to do all of it at once. As such, we recommend that you set aside an hour a day, a few times a week. This will help you reach the target while still being a fun task rather than a draining “to-do.”

How to write the perfect meta description?

Everyone can write a simple meta description but writing a great one is a challenge for many, to say the least. The perfect meta description abides by Google’s standards, features relevant information, and provides the user with a reason to click on your result.

Use these 9 tips to write great meta descriptions:

  • Use your primary keyword in your meta description
  • Avoid descriptions shorter than 120 characters
  • Don’t include more than 160 characters
  • Write for the user and not the algorithm
  • Give the user a reason to click with a great CTA
  • Stand out from the competition with emojis
  • Match the user’s search intent to get the click
  • Write an accurate explainer of your page
  • Always write unique meta descriptions

Now let’s elaborate on these tips.

1. Use your primary keyword in your meta description

It is important to include your primary keyword in your meta description because this is what the user is searching for. When you use your keyword in your meta description, Google will highlight it among all the other text every time a user searches. This immediately shows the user that your result is relevant to what they searched for. As such, the chances to get their clicks increase.

2. Avoid descriptions shorter than 120 characters

You have roughly 920 pixels (or 160 characters) to put to good use. Fill out the available space so that you can properly convey your value proposition. Avoid using abbreviations in your primary USPs, as this can confuse the user. Very short meta descriptions are sloppy because they don’t showcase what the user is about to find on your page.

3. Don’t include more than 160 characters

Too long meta descriptions get automatically shortened by Google at the 920 pixels (around 160 characters) mark. As a result, your long meta descriptions can miscommunicate your value proposition at the end of your sentences. This is especially important when you consider that most of the Call-To-Action text is featured at the end of a coherent sentence.

4. Write for the user and not the algorithm

Meta descriptions do not directly improve your SEO rankings on Google, so avoid the classic SEO mistake of optimizing them for Google. Instead, you should see your meta description as a promotional text that needs to convince the user that your solution to their problem is the best.

5. Give the user a reason to click with a great CTA

By explaining the value of visiting your page and what you can concretely help with, you give the user a reason to click on your result instead of a competitor’s page. Using some Call-to-action is always great as it prompts the user to the next action you want them to take. For example, for transactional searchers where users want to buy something, you can directly communicate that you offer those products using a “Buy Here” CTA text. Similarly, for more informational searches, you can use a “Read More Here” CTA text.

6. Stand out from the competition with emojis

If you want to make your emojis stand out more, you can also use some emojis. Keep in mind, however, that not all emojis are shown. The ones we’ve found so far that work are:

✓ ☎ ♥ ☻ ☆ → ←➤✚⚡✅ –

While they add great contrast to the search results and can make your page stand out from all the rest, keep in mind that you shouldn’t overdo them. Using too many emojis can have the opposite effect as it can make your company seem unprofessional. Emojis can be a good idea to use in your meta descriptions but use no more than 2.

7. Match the user’s search intent to get the click

One of the all-time most important tips for your meta descriptions is to try to match the user’s search intent as closely as possible. The more relevant the user perceives your meta descriptions, the more likely they are to click on your page. Because of that, you need to find out what exactly the user expects to find when they search for those keywords.

For example, are they looking for an answer or a product they can buy? Figuring that out helps you avoid mistakes that can otherwise make your pages irrelevant. For instance, avoid using too salesy and promotional CTAs like “Buy Here” if the user is simply searching for information.

8. Write an accurate explainer of your page

A high Click-through rate is worth nothing if the users don’t stay on your pages. If you oversell your page or your landing page doesn’t live up to the expectations that you create in your meta description, this can be bad news.

In instances where the user doesn’t find what you promised them, they will leave as quickly as they enter. This can also have long-lasting effects. The user is less likely to return to your site since they associate it with negativity. Because of that, you need to ensure the contents of your meta description match the contents of the page as accurately as possible and aren’t simply “clickbait.”

9. Always write unique meta descriptions

You should always strive to write unique meta descriptions for each page. A generic meta description or CTA can be too bland or irrelevant for the user. In turn, such generic texts can result in lower click rates and fewer website visitors.

Why is my meta description not showing in Google?

Lastly, many people experience that even though they have created and inserted a meta description, it never gets picked up by Google and shown in the Search Results. The reason for that can be confusing for beginners. Still, more advanced SEOs know why that happens as they have previously dealt with it.

Meta descriptions are hints that Google can decide to ignore. If your meta descriptions don’t live up to Google’s standards, they won’t be shown. Similarly, Google excludes meta descriptions containing low-quality, irrelevant, or misleading content it decides doesn’t belong in the Search Results.

Google autonomously decides what to show in the search results. It only uses the meta description that you provide them as a hint (or a wish) rather than a directive. Based on many factors and algorithms (such as Natural Language Processing), Google judges whether your meta descriptions are good enough. If they are, Google will display them in the search results; otherwise, they won’t be shown.

In such instances, two things can happen. Google either solely uses a portion of your page’s contents or slightly changes and adapts your meta descriptions to fit the search better. This is often text that is found higher-up on the page than the content shown at the lower portions of the page.

In fact, a study by Portent, broken down in this article by the Search Engine Journal, found that Google re-writes meta descriptions in as many as 70% of the cases. However, remember that not showing the meta descriptions you wrote is not always a bad thing. For example, for many exact search queries that you’ve optimized for, Google can decide to use the meta description you have provided because it believes it’s relevant enough.

Meanwhile, when the user modifies the search query (e.g., uses synonyms), Google can modify your meta description to fit that specific search query. For instance, suppose you mention that exact synonym or keyword variation somewhere on your page. In this case, Google can decide to show that particular text instead, highlighting it in the search results.

Optimize your meta descriptions and get more traffic

Knowing what you know now, it’s time to create great meta descriptions. Be it a blog post, a category, or a product page, writing meta descriptions increases the chances potential customers will visit your website significantly. In turn, consistently getting visitors from Google is a signal in the algorithm that can further propel you to higher positions and help you outrank competitors. As you can see, this can work as a positive feedback loop, generating even more traffic and sales the higher up you go on the search engine result page.

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