You can call meta descriptions the unsung heroes of SEO. They’re sometimes taken for granted because marketers don’t always appreciate their power as a factor in organic search traffic. Many get focused on other aspects of on-page SEO like keywords and title tags. Then, they focus on off-page SEO, like building up a strong backlink profile through guest posting and outreach.
So, how exactly do meta descriptions help your website get more organic traffic?
It’s simple: meta descriptions are crucial in persuading searchers to click through to your site, combining search intent with relevance. Think of them as your opportunity to catch the attention of potential visitors by clearly telling them that your webpage has the most relevant result for what they’re looking for.
From the backend perspective, the meta description is the short piece of text that shows up as a meta tag in a page’s HTML code. It offers a quick explanation of what a specific page is about.
From the user perspective, the meta description is that short description you see under the title tag and page slug for each search result in the SERPs. The title tag is the iteration of a page’s headline that’s included in the page’s HTML code; it doesn’t necessarily have to match the headline you see on the page. The slug is the URL of the page. Together with the title tag and slug, the meta description is part of the snippet that you encounter on the SERPs.
Other places on the web also show parts of the snippet:
Meta descriptions can be unique in that they are written specifically to describe the page to people on search engines, or search engines can simply pull them straight from the page’s main body copy.
Here’s what SEOblog’s meta description for its homepage looks like:
If you right-click on SEOblog’s homepage and then click on “View Page Source,” you’ll see the page’s code and the added meta description:
<meta name=”description” content=”SEOblog is a search engine marketing community, a directory listing the best SEO companies, and home of the most useful SEO articles, guides and tutorials from internet marketing experts around the world.” />
Searchers on the web have to sift through a lot of information to find the most relevant website that gives them what they’re looking for and answers their questions. Think of your meta description as an advertisement of why your website will satisfy their search intent. You’re telling them, “here’s the reason my website will provide you with the most relevant content, based on your search keywords.”
According to a study, about 75 percent of pages ranking in the top 10 have a meta description, so there’s a correlation between the presence of meta descriptions and higher SERP positions. The higher your SERP position, the higher your click-through rate.
And that brings me to my next point: more traffic.
The more traffic your website attracts, the higher your SERP position. This is borne out in a Semrush study, which concluded that direct website visits are the number one ranking factor for SERPs. Direct traffic beats out other important ranking factors like:
The link between direct visits and higher SERP rankings is more causative here.
Overall, it’s more accurate to look at meta descriptions not as directly producing better SEO performance, however. It’s more that meta descriptions indirectly lead to better SEO, by way of:
Your meta description needs to be persuasive, so the searcher clicks through to your website. It needs to be simple and quickly convey what your page is about.
Follow these best practices to write a successful description.
Meta descriptions are truncated if they’re too long, which becomes an issue since the most important information may get excluded. This is especially true on mobile, where screen limitations are greater. This begs the question: Is there an ideal length? Google’s limit is about 920px for desktop and 680px for mobile. This translates to an upper limit of roughly 158 characters on desktop and 110 on mobile.
In spite of this, a Semrush case study found that a longer description that was truncated resulted in a 36 percent increase in click-through rate. Nonetheless, play it safe by keeping your descriptions between 50 and 160 characters to fit them into any screen size without truncation.
Never duplicate your meta descriptions since that creates confusion for your site visitors and search engines. You’re essentially wasting opportunities to persuade searchers to click onto other pages, and Google only indexes a specific meta tag once, anyway. Duplication also leads to a lower click-through rate because user behavior dictates that people won’t click on another page with the same content.
To ensure that you don’t have any duplicates, or to fix them if you do, run a site audit using tools like Semrush or Alexa’s SEO Audit Tool.
Include the keyword you’re targeting. As with any other copy, make sure not to keyword-stuff. You want your description to come off sounding as natural as possible. This ensures readability.
The keyword should be the same, primary keyword that you’re using in the copy of the page onto which your description will lead.
Before writing your description, see how the meta descriptions of your competitors on the first SERP for your keyword read. You don’t want to copy your competitors’ descriptions. Instead, you want to see if you can spot patterns in these top-ranking descriptions that may help you write a strong one.
For example, take a look at how many SERP meta descriptions include the exact keyword for which you’re trying to optimize. Do they use variations instead? Are they using active voice more so than the passive? Are they truncated, or are they coming in just under the word limit?
Getting a sense of these factors should inform how you compose your description.
A call-to-action (CTA) shouldn’t be just for eCommerce sites or email newsletters. It’s also an effective tactic for your meta description. The purpose of a call to action is to prompt your searcher to take the action you want, which is to click through to the actual page.
Further, by using a call to action that uses an urgency word, like “today,” you stand a greater chance of enticing a person to click through.
Here’s a quick roundup of pages’ meta descriptions that illustrate some of the winning principles we talked about above.
WordStream is a search marketing company that makes online advertising easy for businesses.
Its meta description respects the character limit on desktop, which makes for a short, to-the-point value proposition without any truncation.
Dog Food Advisor’s mission is to ensure that pet owners make the right decisions about what dog food to buy their pets.
In its meta description, the page optimizes for “best dog food,” which is also the keyword it’s trying to rank for, as evidenced by its presence in the slug. This strategy works since the page ranks on the first SERP for “best dog food.”
This BMW dealership in Reading, PA, uses strong action words in its meta description. Its call to action entices searchers to click through to the site and build their own BMWs.
The bonus is the presence of the word “today” in the description, prompting searchers to take that action with urgency and not let the opportunity pass them by.
Here’s a shortlist of tools that you can use to optimize your meta description writing process.
This simulator shows you what your meta description would look like when you publish it live. It also lets you know if the snippet is too long on both desktop and mobile and so will be truncated.
Another SERP tool, Portent’s offering is unique in that it lets you also pick a specific screen size for your description simulation. This covers everything from desktop to various brands of mobile phones.
With this tool, you can check the title tag, slug and meta description. It also includes a bar into which you can check the quality and length of your PDF title.
While Semrush is an in-depth SEO tool, its site audit helps you uncover issues with your website. Among these technical SEO problems are duplicate meta descriptions.
Alexa’s tool scans your entire website to discover problems that can keep your site from ranking well on the SERPs. You can find and fix technical issues like duplicate meta descriptions with ease.
Meta descriptions act as billboards that advertise your pages. The more persuasive your description, the better. While it doesn’t have a direct impact on your website’s SERP rankings, it does indirectly affect them. This makes it crucial that you think of your meta description as an integral part of your on-site SEO.
Now you know the importance of a meta description and what it takes to write a winning one.