The meta description tag: a top tool for driving traffic your way
Meta tags in HTML web pages are designed to provide the browser with extra, non-visible information about the page. The meta description tag provides the browser with a snippet of text which can be used for describing the webpage content.
This article explains how to format a meta description tag, why this tag is important for SEO and a best practice guide for its usage.
About the meta description tag
The meta description tag is an HTML tag which is placed in the head of the HTML document. As a head element, the title element must be placed between the opening and closing head tags, as follows:
<meta name="description" content="Your chosen webpage description text" />
As you can see, no separate closing tag is required for meta description tags.
If you are not writing your own HTML documents, you can usually customise your own meta descriptions via your content management system.
Why is the meta description tag important?
Unlike the title tag, a meta description tag is not necessary for HTML validation. However, it is a powerful tool for driving traffic to your website so it is wise to spend plenty of time creating a good one.
The text from the meta description attribute is usually pulled through by the search engines as the snippet that follows the clickable title in search engine results pages (SERPs). See the yellow shaded area in the image below.
It is this text which indicates how relevant and interesting the attached webpage is likely to be for the visitor and will therefore have an effect on click-through-rate (CTR). Search engines present the keywords relevant to the search query used in bold type.
In 2009, Google made it clear that meta tags are not used when ranking websites. Nevertheless, there are indirect search engine optimisation (SEO) benefits to writing a powerful meta description. The number of people who click through to your site is an important ranking factor as is the time they spend on the subsequent page.
The meta description text is also pulled through by social media platforms when your website link is shared.
Best practice when writing meta description tags
A good way to think about your meta description text is as an advertisement for the content on your webpage. By ensuring your 'ad copy' is descriptive, engaging and relevant, you can maximise CTR.
A well written meta description is easy to spot. It is readable, contains compelling and relevant keywords and is complete and self-contained.
While you should include the main keywords you want to rank for, you must bear in mind that you are writing for a human audience. Therefore, your text should read naturally.
In December 2017, Google increased the character limit for its SERP snippets to around 300 characters. This is good news for business owners who can now include more detail and keywords to entice visitors.
If your CMS doesn't give you sufficient control over your meta description text, a plug-in such as Yoast for WordPress can help. This allows you to write your own description while previewing the results in an on-page demo. You could also use code-based templates to generate meta descriptions automatically although manual descriptions are almost always preferable.
One exception is where you are deliberately targeting long-tail keywords in your webpage. Rather than forcing search engines to display your chosen text, you might want to leave out a meta description altogether and allow the search engine crawlers to pull the most relevant on-page text through.
In some cases, search engines will override your meta description in any case. It is difficult to predict when this will happen but it is usually when there is more relevant text to the search query in the actual page.
How not to write a meta description tag
As with title tags and your website in general, avoid the temptation to stuff your meta description with lists of keywords. As already mentioned, Google doesn't even use this tag for ranking and, even if it did, you would be more likely to be penalised for over-optimisation.
Keyword stuffing also looks spammy to readers and is likely to dissuade them from clicking through to your site.
Finally, you should avoid duplicating meta descriptions. This may seem a time-saving strategy but it is at the expense of relevance and, by extension, CTR.
To find out more about Eyes Down website services, including our approach to search engine optimisation, please feel free to call us.