What Are Meta Descriptions? Why Are They Critical to Organic Search Engine Strategies?

Meta Descriptions - What, Why, and How

Sometimes marketers can't see the forest for the trees. As search engine optimization has gained so much attention the past decade, I've noticed that many marketers focus so much on rank and subsequent organic traffic, they forget the step that actually occurs in between. Search engines are absolutely critical to every business' ability to drive users with intent to the page on your site that feeds the intent to your product or service. And meta descriptions are your opportunity to increase relevant click-through rates from the search engine through to your page.

What is a Meta Description?

Search engines allow site owners to write descriptions about the page that's crawled and submitted to search engines that they display within the search engine results page (SERP). Search engines typically utilize the first 155 to 160 characters of your meta description for desktop results and may truncate to ~120 characters for mobile search engine users. Meta descriptions aren't visible to someone reading your page, just to underlying crawlers.

The meta description is in the <head> section of the HTML and is formatted as follows:

<meta name="description" content="The Martech industry's leading publication for researching, discovering, and learning how to utilize sales and marketing platforms and technology to grow your business."/>

How Are Meta Descriptions Utilized in Snippets?

Let's look at this from two different viewpoints… the search engine and the search user:

Search Engine

  • A search engine finds your page, either from an external link, internal link, or your sitemap as it is crawling the web.
  • The search engine crawls your page, paying attention to the title, headings, media assets, and content, to determine the keywords relevant to your content. Notice that I didn't include meta description in this… search engines don't necessarily incorporate the text in a meta description when deciding how to index the page.
  • The search engine applies the title of your page to the search engine results page (SERP) entry.
  • If you've provided a meta description, the search engine publishes that as the description under your SERP entry. If you have not provided a meta description, the search engine indexes the result with a couple sentences that they deem relevant from within the content of your page.
  • The search engine decides how to rank the page based on your site's relevance to the topic and how many relevant links that your site or page is ranked on for the terms that they've indexed you for.
  • The search engine may also rank you based on whether or not search users who clicked through on your SERP result stayed on your site or returned to the SERP.

Search User

  • A search user enters keywords or a question on the search engine and lands on SERP.
  • The SERP results are personalized, when possible, to the search engine user based on their geography and their search history.
  • The search user scans the title, the URL, and the description (taken from a meta description).
  • The keyword(s) the search engine user used are highlighted within the description on the SERP result.
  • Based on the title, URL, and description, the search user decides whether or not to click on your link.
  • The user that clicks on your link arrives at your page.
  • If the page is relevant and topical to the search they were performing, they stay on the page, find the information they need, and even may convert.
  • If the page is not relevant and topical to the search they were performing, they return to the SERP and click on another page… perhaps your competitor.

Do Meta Descriptions Impact Search Rankings?

That's a loaded question! Google announced in September of 2009 that meta descriptions nor meta keywords factor into Google's ranking algorithms for web search… but that's a very specific question that requires additional discussion. While the words and keywords within your meta description will not get you ranked directly, they do impact search engine users' behavior. And search engine user's behavior is absolutely critical in the ranking of your page for the applicable search result.

The fact is, the more people that click-through to your page increases the likelihood they will read and share the page. The more likely they are to read and share the page, the better your ranking. So… while meta descriptions don't directly impact the ranking of your page in search engines, they absolutely have an enormous impact on user behavior… which is a primary ranking factor!

Meta Description Example

Here's an example search, for martech:

martech search result

I show this example because if someone just searched “martech”, they may simply be interested in what martech is, not actually learning more about it nor finding a publication. I'm happy that I'm right up there in the top results and not too concerned that optimizing my meta description would result in greater visibility.

Side note: I don't have a page called what is martech? That's probably a great strategy for me to deploy one since I already rank high for this term.

Why is the Meta Description Critical to Organic Search Strategies?

  • Search Engine – search engines want to provide their users with a superior experience and the highest quality search results. As a result, your meta description is critical! If you accurately promote your content within your meta description, entice the search engine user to visit your page, and keep them there… search engines are more confident in your ranking and may even increase your ranking if other highly-ranked pages result in users bouncing.
  • Search Users – a search engine result page with random text entered from within the content of the page may not entice the search engine user to click through on your page. Or, if your description isn't relevant to the page's content, they may move onto the next SERP entry.

Optimizing the meta description is a very important aspect of on-page SEO for a few reasons:

  • Duplicate Content – meta descriptions are utilized in the determination of whether or not you have duplicate content within your site. If Google believes that you have two pages with very similar content and identical meta descriptions, they'll most likely rank the best page and ignore the rest. Utilizing unique meta descriptions on every page will ensure pages are not crawled and determined to be duplicate content.
  • Keywords – While Keywords utilized in meta descriptions don't directly impact the ranking of your page, but they are bolded in search results, drawing some attention to the result.
  • Click-Through Rates – A meta description is critical to converting a search engine user into a visitor of your site. We work with clients to ensure their meta descriptions are highly enticing to the search engine user, with the utilization of keywords as a secondary focus. It's the equivalent of your pitch to drive someone to take action.

Tips for Optimizing Meta Descriptions:

  1. Brevity is critical. With mobile searches on the rise, try to avoid meta descriptions that are greater than 120 characters in length.
  2. Avoid duplicate meta descriptions across your site. Every meta description must be different, or else the search engine may ignore it.
  3. Utilize phrasing that makes the reader curious or that commands their action. The objective here is to drive the person to click through to your page.
  4. Avoid linkbait meta descriptions. Frustrating users by getting them to click through and not finding the information you described is a terrible business practice that will hurt your ability to engage and convert search engine visitors.
  5. While keywords aren't going to directly help your ranking, but they will help your click-through rate since keywords are highlighted as the search engine user reads the results. Try to use the keywords closer to the first words in the meta description.
  6. Monitor both your ranking and your click-through rates… and adjust your meta descriptions to increase relevant traffic and conversions! Try some A/B testing where you update your meta description for a month and see if you can increase conversions.

Your Content Management System and Meta Descriptions

Whether you're using Squarespace, WordPress, Drupal, or another CMS, be sure that they have the ability to modify your meta description. In most platforms, the meta description field isn't very obvious so you may have to look for it. For WordPress, Rank Math is our recommendation and it provides the user with a great preview of the meta description as viewed on desktop or mobile.

Meta Descriptions Preview

Each time you publish a page or wish to optimize it, I would absolutely implement meta description optimization within process to increase your click-through rates and driving great search engine users through to your business.

Disclosure: I am a customer and an affiliate of Rank Math.

6 Comments

  1. 1

    Great suggestion. One of my favorite tools for WordPress All-in-One SEO lets us create simple page tiltes and descriptions without having to know much about coding. ( By the way, you introduced us to All-in-One ) so thanks on both counts.

  2. 2

    Lorraine, AIOS and Google XML Sitemaps are my two ‘must-haves’ for any WordPress site. I’m surprised that WordPress hasn’t simply incorporated them into the core code at this point. WordPress only gets you about 75% there…. those plugins get your platform fully enabled!

  3. 3
  4. 5

    I would be absolutely amazed to find someone serious about promoting their content on a website not have a meta description. When I work with people I tell them that the meta description is the body of their classified ad on Google. Would you try to sell something in your newspaper without a description of the item? Of course not!

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