Competition on the Web gets tougher and tougher every day. Everyone’s looking for an edge, which is why search engine optimization (SEO) is so important. There are many factors involved in getting your site to rank highly on a search engine results page (SERP). One factor which doesn’t directly affect your placement on the SERP, but is critical to your site’s success is the meta description tag.
What is a Description Tag?
When you do a Google search, all of the results contain three items (sometimes more): the page title (title tag), the URL, and the description tag. Kind of like this:
The title tag is hugely important and we’ll focus on that at another time, but suffice it to say it’s a big ranking factor and in the SERP, it’s the largest text and links to the page.
The description tag stands out less than the title tag, in terms of size and colour, but it can be longer. While the title tag displayed is actually limited in its pixel width (which usually equates to around 50-60 characters), the description tag is limited to around 150-160 characters, so you can have more control over what shows in the results.
Both the title tag and the description meta tag are placed in the <HEAD> section of your page’s HTML. Usually if you’re using a content management system (CMS), such as WordPress, there are fields in the editor where you can input this information, so you don’t have to worry about getting your hands dirty with code!
What Happens If I Don’t Write a Description Tag?
If you’ve done enough Google searches, you probably haven’t seen too many blank areas in the SERPs where the page description should display. Surely not every single web page written includes a description tag – authors aren’t that good! If you don’t input this information or if Google deems it unusable (usually meaning too “spammy”), Google will simply dynamically grab a snippet of text from the page that it considers relevant, based on the keywords entered in the search. That’s not always a bad thing, but generally it’s better to have control over what your potential site visitors see.
How Does Google Use the Description Tag in its Rankings?
In 2009, Google’s Matt Cutts, wrote a post called Google does not use the keywords meta tag in web ranking. The title of the article pretty much sums it up, eh? Presumably nothing has changed.
However, Google does factor into its rankings the click-through rates (CTRs), so it makes sense that the more clicks your listing on the SERP can get, the better. And, you can use your page’s description to help increase its CTR. So… indirectly, the description tag can affect the page’s ranking. Therefore it is worth spending some time and thought on how to optimize it.
Tips for Writing an Effective Description Tag
When searchers scan through a SERP, you have very little time to grab their attention in order to get them to click on your listing. Aside from the title tag, the description is the best way to get that to happen. Here are some tips on how to write a description that will get results:
- Include keywords. These are the words you hope/expect searchers will use to find your page in the first place. In SERPs, these appear in bold. So these can help your listing stand out in terms of relevance.
- Make it compelling. Without sounding too “salesly” you want to intrigue the searcher enough to click. Don’t give away too much information, just enough to pique their curiosity.
- Use a call-to-action. This sort of goes hand-in-hand with point number 2 above. Using phrases such as “Find out more about…” or “Click here to…” clearly tell the viewer what to do.
- Be honest. Don’t tell me your page is going to be about one thing (that you think I’m interested in) when it’s really about something else. This will only waste the searcher’s time and tick them off. Do I need to say you don’t want that?
- Be careful with quotation marks. Because meta tags, in the HTML code, are contained in quotation marks, if you include them in your description tag, the search engine will understand that as the tag ending and cut it off from that point. If your eyes just glazed over, don’t worry about it. Bottom line: don’t use quotation marks. You can use single-quotes, if need be.
- Don’t duplicate. Google may penalize you if you use the same description tag on several pages. Each page on your site should be unique, so – following rule number 4 above – this shouldn’t be a problem.
Description tags can be a big part of your SEO strategy. Use them wisely and you should see your results improve. And don’t be afraid to experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. You can always change them!