On-Page SEO Basics: Meta Descriptions

  •   December 5, 2019

This article will cover everything you need to know about the basics of meta descriptions. We will talk about what they are, why they are important, and how to leverage them for your website’s SEO.

What is a Meta Description?

A meta description is an HTML tag used to describe the content of a web page. This description will show up below the title and URL of your page as it appears in the search engine results. In order to remain visible within Google, it should be kept somewhere between 140-160 characters.

683743bc28bdd0c3dab97b765983518f.pngMeta descriptions will appear below the page title and URL in the search results.

Example of meta description in code:

 

Why are Meta Descriptions Important?

Since meta descriptions appear with your title and URL on the results pages, they have the power to help or hurt your results’ click through rates. Research has shown that having the keyword in the body of the meta description is a relevancy signal for search engines that can help your rankings.

It isn’t a huge signal, but it can certainly play a positive role if used naturally without keyword stuffing your descriptions. In terms of your search result, your meta description has the most real estate (two lines of text compared to one line for the title and one line for URL), so take advantage of the opportunity to sell your website with a meaningful message to searchers.

How to Improve Your Meta Descriptions

Since click-through rate on the SERPs is seen as a potential ranking factor, the best way to make your meta descriptions SEO-friendly is to write them with the intention of getting more clicks. Think of your search results like a traditional ad in a newspaper or magazine. Classic print advertising used headlines and taglines to entice a person to call a phone number or travel to an address to buy a product in-store.

With your search results, your page title is your headline, your meta description is your tagline, and the URL is the address. Since a meta description is essentially a micro-pitch for a webpage, you should fill it with active language that will make people want to click on your result.

Write a description that conveys your website’s unique selling point (USP). Think: why is my page specifically better than all the other pages in the results? Don’t be afraid to make an emotional appeal with your message. Emotional advertising has traditionally found a lot of success tapping into people’s feelings.

A study in 2014 conducted by the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow suggested that human emotion can be categorized into four main buckets:

  • Happy

  • Sad

  • Angry/disgusted

  • Afraid/surprised

Google gives room for about a 1-2 sentence (160 character) summary below every search result.

So, in one to two sentences, your descriptions should offer a compelling reason to visit the webpage. Add a clear call to action, address an emotional pain point, or offer a specific benefit to visitors.

If it’s too long, it won’t fit and people will inevitably glance over it. If it’s too vague, people just won’t care. There are always other results to click on. So, you should aim to connect with a searcher’s emotion in two sentences or less. 

It’s also important to have unique descriptions for every page on your website. Our on-site SEO study found that nearly 30% of the sites had duplicate meta descriptions and 25% had pages with no meta description at all.

SEO Friendly Meta Descriptions

To encourage clicks and bring visitors from search to your website, do the following with your descriptions:

  1. Keep them about 1-2 sentences (140-160 characters) long

  2. Don’t forget to include your keyword

  3. Add a call-to-action if it’s relevant

  4. Avoid duplicate meta descriptions

  5. Make them meaningful and descriptive, matching your content

  6. Target an emotion

And check out newest Google’s recommendations – Better Snippets for your Users.

Advanced Tip: Using Multiple Meta Descriptions for a Single Page

Generally speaking, you’ll find that most pages will only have one meta description and that instances of multiple meta description tags are generally down to human error. 

However, in some instances multiple meta description tags are used deliberately. The reason for this is to give a search engine additional options when it comes to displaying meta information that matches a user’s search query.

Purposefully Using Multiple Meta Descriptions

The use of multiple meta description tags is is becoming more commonplace, particularly on longer-form pieces of content that aim to target multiple keywords.The aim of their use is to match the search engine queries with an appropriate meta description tag, which in turn will help improve the click through rate.

For example, at SEMrush we might build a post that explores the various aspects of keyword research. Within this post we might look to target the following search terms:

  • “What is keyword research”

  • “Keyword research tools”

Naturally, these have two significantly different search intents but are inherently related to one another. The idea of having multiple meta descriptions is then to craft two separate descriptions that relate to each phrase.

Therefore, if a user queries “what is keyword research” search engines would display our result with the meta description tailored to the “what is keyword research” search query. Equally, if a user was to search for “keyword research tools”, the second tailored meta description would maybe be displayed.

It is worth noting that there is no guarantee that a search engine will adhere to picking your desired meta description so it’s at your own risk to implement multiple descriptions.

How To Implement Multiple Meta Descriptions

The meta description is found in a page’s HTML source and so therefore adding an extra meta description to a page is dependent on the application you use to build the website.

In order to add multiple meta descriptions you need access to the HTML pages of your site and the ability to edit and amend them.

A meta description tag is required to sit between the head tags in the HTML code, and for best practice, below the title tag of the page. For example:

Title of the page

This will add one meta description to your page. In order to add multiple, you must repeat this process, adding a second meta description between the tags. This would appear as follows:

Title of the page 

In order to maximize the effectiveness of multiple meta descriptions, they should reflect the search intent of the highest volume keywords the pages rank for or are trying to rank for. This will then give search engines the opportunity to select the most relevant meta description for the user’s search.

Should You Use Multiple Meta Descriptions?

Unless you are purposefully trying to influence the search engine results as outlined above, then it’s generally considered best practice to only include one meta description for each post created.

Within a page that you are optimising you should include your target topics & keywords, whilst also ensuring the content is 100% unique and satisfies the user intent of the top queries you are trying to rank for. 

Helpful Online Tools for Checking your Meta Descriptions

Below are some helpful tools that you can use to test your meta descriptions as you write them.

  • SEMrush On Page SEO Checker – This SEMrush Project tool checks if you have a keyword in your title and meta tag and suggests the right one if you don’t. On Page SEO Checker also provides you with a detailed list of actionable, tailor-made optimization tips for each page of your website.

  • Portent – This SERP view generator lets you enter your meta description along with a title and URL to test how your search result will appear. You can check the pixel width of your title, the character length of your description, and test how different keywords within your description will look when bolded.

For more on-page SEO help, be sure to read our on-page SEO checklist.

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