Discover how to write a great meta description that'll hoover up traffic like there's no tomorrow.
Last updated: Jul 2, 2019139 Comments
A meta description is an extremely powerful marketing weapon that you’re almost certainly not utilising.
You’ve got a website that’s regularly showing up in online searches and yet you still aren’t getting any fresh leads.
After all, competition on the internet is tough.
And if getting noticed is hard, when you do top the rankings, surely you should be entitled to a constant flow of new customers?
That phone should be ringing off the hook…
… except it isn’t.
You've followed all the usual tips, but something’s still not right.
- You’ve optimised your website.
- You’ve created some quality content.
- You’ve been busy promoting your brand.
- You’re ranking highly for loads of great keywords.
You’ve done it, right?
You’ve fought off the competition and sweated blood and tears for months in the process.
However, despite a strong digital presence, nothing’s happening.
I can feel your pain, but wait a sec.
Don’t throw in the towel.
The chances are, you just need to look at your meta descriptions.
I’m not sure how familiar you are with meta descriptions, but they’re really important [especially these days].
They can build or bust a business.
So, today, things change. Help is at hand.
In this post, I’m going to do 3 things:
- Explain what a meta description is.
- Reveal just how important meta descriptions are.
- Show you how to write them [by way of a demo and some tips].
Okay, are you ready to make the most out of your search presence?
1. What are meta descriptions?
Okay, chill out. A meta description probably sounds like it’s going to be something overly technical, but in reality, it isn’t.
It’s simply the little snippet of information that displays in a search result, so a Google description if you like. If you search for Splash Copywriters, this is what you should see:
Quite simply, a meta description summarises a page's content.
Okay, but what is a meta tag?
Well, it's one and the same thing. Sometimes, a meta description is also [unhelpfully] known as a meta tag.
It's often called a meta tag because the copy doesn't actually exist on the page in question; instead, it's 'tagged' onto it and lies in the HTML.
Descriptions can be created for most types of content.
From normal web pages to blog posts, case studies to ebooks, if it’s published on a website, you can write a meta description for it.
The purpose of a meta description or meta tag is quite simple.
Google cares deeply about user experience, so meta descriptions exist to give anyone using a search engine a better understanding of the content they’ll see if they click on the link in question.
In other words, they’re there to help users work out which search result best suits their needs.
Maybe it's what brought you here. You were probably looking for help with meta descriptions and came across my result. The search snippet you read convinced you to click.
Ideally, then, a meta description should be descriptive and appealing [through persuasive language or some sort of clever hook].
By way of an example, let’s take my post on corporate storytelling.
On a set of search results, Google displays this:
My meta description for this blog post contains:
- an emotional pull that reveals why someone might want to read the article.
- an inference that storytelling is essential to make money in business.
Can you start to see the importance of this meta description?
It's my marketing ammo.
If someone is searching for ‘corporate branding’, those couple of lines are all I have to convince them that I’m their best option.
If I don’t make the most of them and no one clicks on my link, the entire post is a complete waste of time.
Get it right and I could have a potential new customer arrive on my site.
Do it wrong and they’ll head to a rival.
3. Why you daren't ignore your meta descriptions.
Hopefully, you're already beginning to see the importance of meta descriptions, but I'll expand on what's at stake. A meta description or a meta tag is the last stop on a search journey.
If you don’t create a good meta description then you’re wasting a golden marketing opportunity.
Someone has found your site.
A new lead.
Do you want them to start getting to know you… or someone else?
It’s a bit like being a second-hand car salesman, spending hours talking with a customer trying to sell them a car…
… and then walking away just as they’re ready to buy.
You’ve got to clinch the deal.
You can fight tooth and nail to get to page one, but if your meta descriptions are terrible, everything's been a waste oft time.
The vast majority of descriptions are of extremely poor quality.
Businesses and website owners tend to fall into one of 2 camps…
These people are completely oblivious as to what meta descriptions are.
They aren’t aware of the critical part they play in your online success and they completely ignore them.
But here’s the thing:
Google WILL display something as a description or tag.
It has to.
So, if no meta description has been specified, search engines will just display copy from the page itself instead [which essentially amounts to nothing more than a machine-based guess].
If that happens to you then you could end up with a meta description that’s completely useless and nonsensical, like this:
This is how NOT to do it.
Who is going to be drawn to this search result?
Why would you want to leave your marketing success in the hands of a machine?
It even happens to the big boys [this one is pure gibberish]:
The other common scenario sees meta descriptions just bunged in as a lazy after thought.
This gives a really sloppy feel to the search result:
This description has no hook or incentive, and no specific information about the web page in question. I don’t see any reason for visiting this page at all.
[The copy doesn’t even make grammatical sense.]
Also, poor meta descriptions won’t fit in the given space properly.
Google requires a meta description to be 150-160 characters. If you write more, the copy will just trail off:
Again, this will greatly reduce the impact of anything you’re saying.
However, on the issue of meta description length, let me interject for a second.
You may have read on the internet about how Google has increased the length of meta descriptions. Is that true? Well, yes and no.
Some people are referencing this article and saying that everything's "official".
Now, I trust, like and admire Search Engine Land, but to take a personal quote and call it official is being a bit liberal with the truth somewhat. For starters, no one else was party to this conversation.
But also, there's a big difference between Google admitting that some changes are "officially" happening and Google making an official internet-wide statement about meta descriptions.
Google is definitely returning some search results and displaying more information:
But as you can see, not every result is getting this treatment. So, be careful - don't immediately start rushing to put more copy in your meta tags, which is what some so-called experts are suggesting.
We have to look at 3 vital facts.
Firstly, Google has not confirmed anything publicly at all.
Secondly, Google is displaying the expected amount of copy in most searches.
Thirdly, even when more copy is surfaced, the extra content appears to have been taken from the web page itself, not from any lengthier meta description that has been supplied.
All in all, it seems like this is an initial test to me.
Google is trying something out and seeing what happens. It wants to see if a longer meta description aids the search process.
Nothing has been set in stone and, until you hear it from the horse's mouth, stick to what we know to be true right now:
Aim for less than 160 characters.
Anyway, that said, as further proof of the importance of these snippets, don’t forget that social media platforms use meta descriptions when a web page is shared on their site:
Did you catch Google’s latest announcement?
At this stage, it's important to assess how Google uses meta descriptions.
The need to create good meta descriptions gets even more apparent when you consider Google engineer Paul Haahr’s recent talk.
In what is groundbreaking news, Haahr confirmed that Google now uses click-through rate (CTR) data as a ranking signal.
Technically speaking, meta descriptions have nothing to do with SEO.
As Google announced in 2009, meta descriptions aren’t part of Google’s ranking algorithm.
[Perhaps that’s why they get ignored?]
However, Google’s latest announcement makes meta descriptions the very last piece of your SEO jigsaw.
Not only are they your FINAL opportunity to convince someone to click through to your website, they're also something that will indirectly affect your ranking position.
Let’s use an example.
Suppose one of your web pages is ranked in first place on page one of Google:
Google is saying that it’ll constantly monitor how many people click on your link.
If no one clicks on your link, Google will think your page isn’t relevant and the ranking position of your page in the search results will start to drop:
However, let’s assume you had a web page in second position.
If you think of a brilliant marketing hook and create a great meta tag that hoovers up all the clicks, Google will think your page is a big hit with people.
As a result, it’s likely to get a bump up the search rankings:
This process is happening continually, across every web page and every piece of content all over the internet.
To be fair, I guess this is a pretty logical path for Google to take.
It makes total sense and I've seen the effect good metadata has had on my own site.
If a web page was to rank in the top position for a keyword and no one ever clicked on it, why would Google want to showcase it in a set of search results?
3. How do I create a meta description?
Meta descriptions live and work behind the scenes of a web page, so they need to be entered into your content management system [CMS] for every page on your website.
For completeness, it’s worth pointing out that you can't guarantee that Google [or any other search engine] will use the meta description you provide.
Usually they will, but we're talking about a machine and machines are imperfect. Check out how my post on copywriting tips appears in a Google search:
That's not the description I've provided in the CMS. Instead, Google has extracted copy from the page. As annoying as it is, luckily it still kinda makes sense [plus the title tag works fine].
At the end of the day, there's not much more you can do. And, as I said, most of the time Google will use the meta description you provide [it wants to].
Okay, moving on...
Unfortunately, there are so many different types of websites that it’s impossible to give you a one-size-fits-all guide to entering your copy.
However, I’m going to show you how I write mine because even though I have a bespoke system, you’ll probably have something fairly similar.
In addition, because of the popularity of WordPress, I’m also going to demonstrate how to change a meta description in WordPress.
[Please note: if neither guide helps and you need still can’t locate the meta description field in your CMS, just leave a comment at the end of this post and I'll try to help.]
After that, I'm going to give you some great tips for writing meta descriptions that are based on real-life data.
Firstly, when I create a new blog post in my CMS, I have a field for meta descriptions under the ‘SEO’ tab:
I just create the content and hit 'Save'.
To change a meta description in WordPress, it’s just as easy.
You’ll need an SEO plug-in installed, such as Yoast. I wouldn't bother looking anywhere else, since Yoast has everything you need for website optimisation.
The Yoast meta description template is very simple. Assuming that you've got Yoast installed, here’s how you’d enter a meta description:
1. Go to an existing page or add a new post:
2. Scroll down and, immediately under the section that will contain the main body of your post, you’ll find the Yoast SEO options [or the equivalent]:
3. Locate the section for the meta description:
4. Craft a great description:
5. Either save, publish or update [depending on what you’re doing]:
Now let's move onto the writing tips to help you create the right meta description for your website.
15 techniques for writing great meta descriptions.
I think it's time for some meta description examples. After all, what better way to get to grips with meta descriptions than by learning from those of the biggest companies around?
To write this post, I analysed the meta descriptions of hundreds of businesses, including those on Forbes’ 2015 list of the 100 most valuable brands in the world.
As a result, I've got some great tips for you.
But trust me, you'll be surprised at some of the examples I'm about to give. You'd expect huge corporations to get everything right...
... but often they don't.
[Far from it, in some cases.]
Some aren't as good at marketing themselves as you might think.
Some meta descriptions in the list are great.
The vast majority are pretty mediocre.
Some, believe or not, are absolutely terrible.
Regardless, there’s much to learn.
Your marketing approach will differ depending on what your meta description is to be used for. For instance, a meta description for a home page will be very different than that of a product page.
Regardless, here are 15 tips to help you create some killer copy.
Tip 1: Make your descriptions fit.
One of the most common questions with meta descriptions surrounds character limits and length. People never seem to know how long a meta description should be.
As I mentioned earlier, a meta description needs to be 150-160 characters long.
Here’s a less-than-optimal effort from Nescafe:
From that first sip of coffee to what?
You might be tempted to think that Nescafe as so big and successful that they don’t need a good meta tag. But compare that to the tag for Disney's homepage:
Point is, as the saying goes, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. And that's certainly true with search marketing.
Tip 2: Make your descriptions unique.
All the meta descriptions on your website need to be different.
This is the description for Gillette’s homepage:
I really like how they’ve highlighted their core mission, but they’ll have to be careful that they don’t duplicate this sales-style copy across their product pages.
On a related note, Google doesn't care about the keywords you use in a meta description. In this sense, your meta tag won't contribute to your search success at all.
Always write your meta descriptions for humans, not search engines.
Avoid the temptation to wedge a keyword into your copy.
If it makes sense to have a keyword in your meta tag, then by all means include it. But it's got to be natural. Because cramming in keywords won't get us the results we want.
Tip 3: Use power words in a search snippet.
Like all good copy, the best meta descriptions are impactful.
This effort from Cisco is pretty bold, mentioning how they’re a ‘worldwide leader’ who have a range of services that ‘transform’ our lives:
Likewise, AT&T's marketing strategy is to call our popular products like the iPhone 6 and talk about ‘special offers’ and ‘incredible deals’:
Tip 4: Make the most of your meta title.
By now, you may have spotted something that sits above the Google description.
That's a meta title. Meta titles are also sometimes known as 'title tags' or 'SEO titles'. Don't worry, they're all the same thing. Collectively, the meta description and meta title are known as metadata.
And yes, since meta tags also influence searchers, they're just as important as meta descriptions.
Here's a meta title example from our website:
A good title can really add to the effectiveness of a description. They can work in tandem to reinforce a key message:
A meta title is inserted into your CMS [the field for a meta title is normally right next to where you'd enter a meta description].
Okay, but what about meta title character limits?
Well, title tags need to be much shorter than a meta description if they are to fit.
SEO title lengths have to be 50-60 characters or the copy will truncate:
So if your blog post headline is more than 60 characters [like the one you’re reading], you’ll need a slightly different meta title.
Tip 5: Embrace your brand identity.
A meta description is a great place to reaffirm an ethos or some kind of brand promise [especially for home pages]:
Here, Santander are showing marketing consistency.
Tip 6: Showcase what you do.
There’s no need to be shy (since when is being shy in marketing a good thing?).
If possible, work on a description that gives an overview of your business.
Check this example out:
If I knew nothing about MTV, I can instantly know everything about this website from this description alone. One search and I'm clued up.
Tip 7: Flag up any special offers.
A meta description is a great place to advertise any discounts or offers you’ve got going on.
Basically, the bigger the incentive, the better:
Tip 8: Have a clear call-to-action [CTA].
Whether we like to admit it or not, consumers like to be told what to do.
There are far too many options available to us these days, so you can’t risk a potential visitor skimming past your site.
If you want a searcher to do something, tell them:
Tip 9: Proofread your description.
Make sure your copy makes sense, otherwise you end up with something like this:
Tip 10: Be creative and have fun.
This description tells me that if I click on this link, I’m probably going to have quite a boring experience:
However, although it doesn’t use the amount of characters at their disposal, the Frito-Lay description gives me the exact opposite feeling:
Tip 11: Offer a solution to a problem.
Searchers have found your website because they’re looking for something.
Let’s suppose I want to buy a new Kia car. Their description tells me everything I need to know:
Do they sell second-hand cars? Yes.
Can I book a test drive? Yes?
Is there a dealer near me? I can use their tool to find out.
Plus, I like the use of the word ‘browse’.
It implies that they won’t be pushy. I feel that I could go onto their website or visit a dealer and have a good look around without being hounded.
Being pounced on when looking around a garage for a car is a huge pain point for most people. I haven't engaged with them yet - my mind is eased from one simple search.
Tip 12: Show empathy.
To put it bluntly, emotion sells.
Does this meta description stir up any emotion in you? Does it make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?
Well, what about this one:
Not amazing, but a bit better, isn’t it?
While the phrase ‘for your driving pleasure’ is old-fashioned and quite jarring, I like the principle of what they’re trying to achieve.
Basically, they’ve got a bunch of really great cars that are just waiting for a test drive. Sounds like fun!
Tip 13: Have self-awareness: it’s not all about you.
Point is, someone is reading your meta description for a particular reason.
This isn’t the time to map out the structure of your business. What a waste of a search result this is:
Tip 14: Don’t try to say too much.
When you know you’ve only got a certain amount of words to play with in a search description, it’s sometimes easy to try and cram in too many points.
Chanel say so much that they end up saying nothing at all:
And sometimes, you can say so much that you completely lose sight of what your business is all about:
Am I missing something or isn’t Subway a place where you can make your own [great] sandwiches?
You wouldn’t have guessed so from this meta description.
Tip 15: Preview your meta description first.
Some people ask me whether there are any meta description tools or generators and the quick answer is: no. Well, not in the creative sense, anyway.
There's nothing that will create the kind of copy that'll resonate with your target audience, because nothing will understand your users like you.
When it comes to writing the words, you should do it.
However, there is something that can help with fine tuning your meta description - namely a meta description checker.
Check out this tool.
It will let you play around with your copy, preview and review what your meta descriptions look like [for free].
Here's how I can see what the meta title and meta description for this very post looks like:
It's essential for checking the length of your web page title and Google description. Remember that the title tag and meta description character limits that I've given you are only guidelines.
In reality, pixels play a role, since some letters take up more room than others. That's why a metadata tool is vital.
What are you waiting for?
You're now fully clued up on exactly why meta descriptions play such a critical role for your website and, therefore, your business.
This article has everything you need.
We're talking about Google description examples, web page title demos and even directions on where to find these fields within your website CMS.
Plus, of course, I've also laid out a bunch of sophisticated, yet dead simple tips to follow so that you can create effective metadata for your site.
Without meta descriptions, you invariably weaken your ability to drive consumers to your website.
That could be an expensive mistake.
In some ways, metadata is basic SEO, yet it's one thing that most website owners ignore.
You hear a lot about SEO website optimisation, but hitting page one is just a vanity metric unless we can get visitors to click through to our website.
Don’t be one of those people who roll the dice with their digital futures.
Take the time to analyse how the big boys do it. Learn from their successes…
… and failures.
Then you can put your feet up safe in the knowledge that you’re doing all you can to market you business effectively in the digital age.