Published: Wednesday, November 16, 2011
The keywords and phrases you use in your Meta description tag may not affect your page's ranking in the search engines, but this tag can still come in handy in your overall SEO and social media marketing campaigns.
What Is the Meta Description Tag?
It's a snippet of HTML code that belongs inside the <Head> </Head> section of a web page. It is usually placed after the Title tag and before the Meta keywords tag (if you use one), although the order is not important.
The proper syntax for this HTML tag is:
<META NAME="Description" CONTENT="Your descriptive sentence or two goes here.">
If you're using a content management system (CMS), look for a field to fill out that's called Meta Description, or possibly just "Description."
Many years ago, the information contained in a Meta description could slightly help a page rank highly for the words that were contained within it. Today, neither Google, Bing, nor Yahoo! use it as a ranking signal.
In other words, whether you use your important keyword phrases in your Meta description tag or not, the position of your page in the search engine results will not be affected. So in terms of rankings, you could easily leave it out altogether.
But should you?
There are 3 important ways that Meta descriptions are being used today that make them an important part of your SEO and overall online marketing strategy:
1. Meta Descriptions in the Search Results
People often think that whatever they put in their Meta description tag will be the default description that the search engines use under the clickable link to their site in the search results. While this is sometimes true, it's not always the case.
Currently, if you're searching for a site by its URL (for example www.highrankings.com) Google tends to use the first 20 to 25 words of your Meta description as the default description in the search engine result pages (SERP). However, if you have a listing at DMOZ, also known as the Open Directory Project (ODP) and are not using the "noodp" tag, they may default to that description instead. (Do a search at Google for www.amazon.com to see an example.)
Bing and Yahoo!, on the other hand, don't always default to the Meta description tag for URL searches. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. A search for www.highrankings.com at Bing or Yahoo! shows content from my home page as the description rather than the contents of my Meta description tag.
Of course, real people aren't typically searching for a site by URL, so what the search engines show for those types of search queries is not as important as a true keyword search. So don't get hung up on what you see when you search for your site by its URL or if you're doing a "site:command" search to see how they're indexing your pages.
Instead, go to your favorite web analytics program and find the keyword phrases that are currently bringing you the most traffic. Then see what your description looks like at Google when you type in those keywords.
And surprise! What you'll find is that your search results description will be different for every search query! You may see any combination of the following used:
My recommendation is to always use description tags on any pages where you get search engine visitors (or hope to get them). Make them very specific to the page they're on by describing what someone will find when they click through to the page from the search results, while also using variations of your targeted keywords.
Because Google will show only show around 20 to 25 words as your description, many SEOs recommend that you limit this tag to a certain number of characters. In reality, however, you're not limited to any specific number. Your Meta description tag can be as long as you want it to be because Google will pull out the relevant parts of it and make their own snippet anyway.
For instance, if you're optimizing a page for 3 different keyword phrases, you could write a 3-sentence Meta description tag, with each sentence focusing on a different phrase. You could probably even insert more than 3 phrases in those sentences if you're a good wordsmith. The idea, however, is not to stuff this tag full of keywords, but to write each sentence to be a compelling marketing statement – a statement that naturally uses the keywords people might be typing into Google to find your site.
2. Meta Descriptions and Extended Sitelinks
These days, Google often uses the first few words from your Meta description tag when they create the "extended sitelinks" for your website. But this too is not set in stone and is highly keyword dependent. You'll see different sitelinks and different descriptions showing up depending on the words a searcher used at Google.
As an example, if you do a search for "High Rankings" at Google, you'll see my sitelinks for that search query.
At this moment, Google is showing my home page as the top result with 6 inner pages beneath:
But here's the rub. Do a Google search for "Jill Whalen SEO." You should still see sitelinks, and you'll even see some of the same ones as with the previous query, but some of the descriptions are different:
While the forum home page shows in both, this time Google has pulled text from the page rather than using the DMOZ/ODP description. This is likely because this search query had the word "SEO" in it while the other one didn't. The SEO articles page also shows up here, and it is using the same Meta description snippet as the High Rankings query. The other sitelinks are different from before, with 3 out of 4 using the Meta description.
As you can see, while you do have some control over your sitelink descriptions via your Meta description tag, Google might not always use them (just as Google does with their regular search results). Your best chance of having them show is to use, close to the beginning of your description tags, the words that you know pull up sitelinks. Also, be as descriptive as possible within the first 5 to 7 words.
3. Meta Descriptions and Social Media Marketing
Ever wonder why some Facebook links have great descriptions and others don't seem to make any sense? It's because some site owners have taken the time to write a summary of the article and place it into their Meta description tag, and some have not. If your article has a Meta description, Facebook and Google+ will default to that when you share a link on your profile or "Page." If there's no Meta description, you'll usually see the first sentence or so from the page being used as the default.
While anyone can edit the description that Facebook defaults to, most people don't. And at this time on Google+ you can't even edit the default description. You can either leave it as is or delete it all together. Let's face it -- most of the time the first sentence of an article is not a good description of the rest of it. It's not supposed to be, because that's not what a first sentence is for!
Therefore, I strongly advise you to always write a compelling 1- or 2-sentence description for all of your articles and blog content that may be shared via social media, and place it into your Meta description tag. This will give you a big jump on your competitors who haven't figured this out yet, making your social media content much more clickable because people will know what the article is actually about before they click on it.
Overall, the Meta description tag gives you a little bit more control over what people might see before they click over to your site. The more compelling it is, the more clickthroughs you should see. If your Meta description tags can help with that, then it's certainly worth the few minutes of time it takes to create interesting, keyword-rich tags that sum up what users will find when they arrive!
Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings and an SEO Consultant in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen
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