Meta descriptions

What is a meta description?

A meta description is a short description of a web page. The meta description is not visible to the visitor: it is only in the source of the website, but it plays a large role in getting visitors to your site.

Why do meta descriptions matter for SEO?

Meta descriptions are an indirect ranking factor. A good meta description will not automatically make your website rank higher in Google, as they announced back in 2009. It does, however, have a big effect on your SEO performance.

Google often shows the meta description in the search engine results page (SERP). It's one of the first impressions of your website for searchers.

Meta description in search result

You can see the meta description as a pick-up line for your website: a good meta description tells searchers what you have to offer, and why they should click on your result. It is a way to increase the CTR (Click Through Rate) from Google to your website.

Difference between Meta Description and a Snippet

Ideally, a meta overview explains what the page contains and what users may expect to see. The website owners can incorporate a meta description to tell search engines like Google what you want to describe what this page is about, while Google offers snippets based on the search results.

Google prefers your meta descriptions and can use your meta description as samples for your pages if your description text suits the user's query.

Their goal is to provide accurate snippets; snippets are typically focused on their algorithm rather than your explanation, as your explanation might not be as useful to site results or meet their guidelines.

They will have their own snippet based on the results from your page content.

Here is an example of how your meta description can show on SERP:

your meta description preview

Here's what happens when you type in "structure of page" on Google SERP:

google serp snippet meta description

Notice that the words "Page", "Structure" is shown as bold. If the meta description isn't fully optimized, Google tends to find relevant section of the content and display it on the results page. This is why optimizing meta description is so important. A fully optimized meta description that relates to the search is how you can increase your CTR and overall clicks and ranking position

In reality, according to an ACM Queue report, less than one-third of Google's search results contain a rich markup snippet.

Where do I set my meta description

The meta description is set in the head of your website, like this:

<meta name="description" content="Here is my unique, compelling meta description that will make you click on my website"> ...

Most Content Management Systems (CMS), like Wordpress or Drupal, will let you enter a meta description for every page.

What is the optimal meta description?

Use the right length

Google has about 120 to 170 characters of space for your meta description. Try to stick to that limit to make sure it's fully visible in the search result. If it's longer, Google will add ellipsis and remove anything that doesn't fit. As shown below, this doesn't look great:

Long meta description

Give a reason to click

Think of your site's meta descriptions as mini advertisements that influence a searcher to visit your page. One of the most effective ways to do that is to give a user a reason to click your site, over any of the others shown next to you.

An easy route to doing this is to use your business' unique selling propositions (USPs). What makes your brand different? Do you offer a better service, have a 2-year warranty on your product or give customers free insured delivery?

Whatever you offer, let people know about it before they visit your site, through this meta tag. Here's a great example of QuickBooks' USP – a free 30-day trial – highlighted in their meta description:

Quickbooks highlights their free trial in the search results

Don't give everything away

Does your web page answer a question for a searcher? Then it's a good idea not to show the full answer in the meta description. If you do, the searcher doesn't have to leave Google to find the answer and has no reason to click on your website. Great for the searcher, not so great for you.

The trick is to show that you know the answer to his question, without giving everything away.

Don't duplicate

All your pages are unique, so they all deserve a unique meta description. Don't be lazy and copy and paste: write unique, compelling meta descriptions.

Do you have hundreds or thousands of different pages, for instance on your webshop? Try to automatically generate unique meta descriptions using the unique properties of your products.

When is my meta description shown?

More and more often, Google is not showing the meta description in the search results. If it finds a more applicable text snippet on your web page that better matches the searcher's intention, it will often show that snippet instead of the meta description.

Although this reduces the importance of the meta description somewhat, we still recommend spending some time on them. Especially for your important pages, a good meta description can enhance the CTR (Click Through Rate) from Google, resulting in more organic traffic.

Measuring success

The quality of your meta description is largely defined by the CTR, or Click Through Rate, from search engines. A high click-through rate often means your meta description is doing it's job.

On the other hand, if your CTR is low, it could be because there is something wrong with your meta description. Read more about analyzing your CTR in our article about page titles.

Using SiteGuru to audit meta descriptions

Checking all your meta descriptions can be a hassle, especially as your website grows. SiteGuru checks the meta descriptions of all your pages for length and uniqueness. We also show you a full list of all your meta descriptions to quickly audit them, without having to visit every single page.

SiteGuru meta description report

The meta description report in SiteGuru.