As an SEO practitioner, your daily tasks likely involve thinking about lots of ranking factors. So, hearing that something isn’t a ranking factor might make you think your attention is better spent elsewhere.
But when it comes to meta descriptions, nothing could be further from the truth. With a polished meta description designed to pique readers’ interest and set each site page apart, you can achieve a higher click-through rate and climb the search engine ranks.
- How a Great Meta Description Can Benefit You
- How to Add a Meta Description
- What’s the Best Meta Description Length?
- Decide Which Keyword to Emphasize
- Get Specific and Demonstrate Value
- Stick to the Style Guide
- Research the Competition
- Revise Old Meta Descriptions
- Craft Descriptions That Would Hook You
How a Great Meta Description Can Benefit You
We know you’re eager to start learning about the ideal meta description length and uncover the best techniques, but we first need to clear up one fundamental issue: What is a meta description, exactly?
Simply put, it’s a brief piece of text included in the metadata of a page. In just one or two sentences, it serves to tell readers and search engines what the page is about and the value it offers.
In some cases, Google may even use a page’s meta description to create a results snippet. This is the text that shows up under the page title on the search engine results page (SERP):
After analyzing nearly 200,000 pages ranking in the top 10 Google results for their respective keywords, Ahrefs found that Google uses a page’s custom meta description 37.22 percent of the time:
But if meta descriptions aren’t a ranking factor and aren’t always used by Google to form results snippets, how can they aid your SEO efforts? The answer concerns humans rather than bots: When search engine users see a well-written meta description that not only shows them a preview of the page’s content but also captures their attention, they’re more inclined to click on that result.
To understand why, put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Let’s say you’re searching Google for hotel discounts and skim over the top two results. The first has a meta description reading:
Best hotel discounts.
On the other hand, the second result has a meta description reading:
Make your next trip a breeze. Compare hotel prices and find the best rates at hundreds of hotels around the world.
Unless you value brevity above all else, we’re willing to bet you’ll choose the second result. That’s the true value of a thoughtfully crafted meta description: If Google opts to use it for the results snippet, it has the ability to draw in visitors who might have otherwise clicked on a different result. And, as the page’s click-through rate (CTR) improves, so can its overall SERP ranking—in this way, meta descriptions act as indirect ranking factors.
Long story short, if you’re trying to maximize a page’s SERP ranking then you can’t afford to overlook the power of a fantastic meta description.
How to Add a Meta Description
If you don’t already know how to add a meta description to a site page, it’s time to get familiar with the nuts and bolts of the process. Luckily for you, it couldn’t be simpler—if you can copy and paste text, then you can insert a meta description.
To start, open up the page’s HTML file and find the section located at the top of the file. Then, copy the following meta tag code and paste it within the section, bookended by a less than symbol (<) on the left and a greater than symbol (>) on the right:
meta name="description" content="Your meta description here"
While you’re at it, you can also add other meta tags such as those for keywords and the author’s name.
What’s the Best Meta Description Length?
Although Google has its own meta description guidelines, it’s frustratingly silent on recommended length. Perhaps that’s because meta descriptions can technically be any length—however, there is a limit on the number of pixels (and therefore characters) Google will display in a results snippet.
Fortunately, plenty of SEO experts have already gone through the trouble of counting those pixels and the number of characters that can fit within them. For example, Moz has observed Google cutting off snippets more than 155–160 characters in length. As such, we recommend you err on the side of caution and limit your meta description to 155 characters or less.
On the flip side, you also want to give readers a comprehensive preview of the page by making your meta description as detailed as possible—we’ve found that an adequately thorough description typically clocks in at 100 characters minimum.
To get the length right, try writing your meta description right in a free word counting tool. EasyWordCount.com is a simple, no-frills option, while WordCounter also offers grammar and spell check, an undo button and other handy features.
Decide Which Keyword to Emphasize
Although Google doesn’t use meta descriptions as a ranking factor, it does appear to more frequently use a page’s custom meta description for queries that include fat-head keywords (i.e. those that are short, widely-used and have a high search volume) rather than long-tail keywords (i.e. those that are long, less widely-used and have a lower search volume).
The Ahrefs study found that Google is about six percent more likely to use a page’s custom meta description for fat-head keywords than it is for long-tail keywords:
But if users decide which type of keyword to search for and Google decides whether or not to display the custom meta description, why does this matter for you? Because when you include a fat-head keyword in your meta description, Google will bold that keyword in its search results. Take for example the search results for WordPress tutorials:
Those bolded keywords aren’t just eye-catching—they also tell users the page in question addresses the exact topic they’re searching for.
The lesson? Don’t focus on long-tail keywords. Instead, identify the fat-head keyword a page is most likely to rank for and add it to your meta description.
Get Specific and Demonstrate Value
The number one most important function of a meta description is to tell readers (and search engine bots) what the page it’s attached to is about. This is true for every type of page, from individual articles to landing pages to download forms.
For you, this means you need to strive to make each meta description as specific as possible. For instance, let’s say you’re creating a meta description for a page where visitors can download an e-book about fitness. A more generic description might look something like this:
Download our e-book today.
While such a description would be better than none at all, you can do much better with a more specific representation of the page’s contents. For example:
Sick of spending hours at the gym? Download our e-book for dozens of equipment-free exercises you can do anytime, anywhere, no membership required.
A description like this won’t just tell readers that the page will let them download an e-book, or even that the e-book is fitness-related. Instead, it will tell them exactly what kind of exercises the e-book contains as well as how they can benefit from it—in this case, by avoiding a pricey gym membership.
The benefit you choose to highlight is the key meta description ingredient that serves to establish value and rouse readers’ interest before they even open the page. To better understand how the best meta descriptions accomplish this, check out some real-world examples.
A Google search for vegetarian recipes yields more than one billion results, all of which have their own meta description or auto-generated results snippet. And yet, the listing for Allrecipes’ vegetarian recipe collection stands out because it tells us what to expect inside (hundreds of user-reviewed recipes) and how we can benefit as a result (by achieving a healthier diet). As an added bonus, it hasn’t be truncated:
By the same token, a search for airpods review returns over four million results. The Airpods Pro review from Wired magazine sets itself apart with its concise description of the page’s content (a review of Apple’s AirPods Pro) and attention-grabbing language—saying the Pros are “what the original AirPods should have been” is certainly a strong statement:
With such a carefully crafted combination of specificity and offered value, any page can start seeing more clicks and higher engagement.
Stick to the Style Guide
You’re already using a style guide to inform the syntax and tone of a site’s content (or at least we hope you are), but you might not realize you should also be using it to write meta descriptions.
Think of it this way: Besides the title, the very first impression search engine users get of any given page is the snippet displayed under its listing. By writing a meta description that meshes with the site’s overarching voice, you can create a cohesive user experience and ensure readers get the best first impression possible.
Next, incorporate the same voice used on the rest of the site. For example, maybe a site’s voice is predominantly:
- friendly and informative;
- authoritative and wise;
- casual and humorous; or
- witty and succinct.
Whatever the case, it’s your job to ensure the site’s voice is present in the meta description too.
Research the Competition
While creating meta descriptions entirely from scratch can yield unique and creative results, you can also get useful ideas by looking at the competition’s.
Let’s say you’re writing a meta description for a landing page selling camping tents. To get a feel for your competitors’ meta descriptions, perform a Google search for camping tents. Find results whose snippets haven’t been cut off by Google, and instead look for those which appear to be based on a meta description—in other words, those that don’t end in an ellipsis. The meta description for REI’s camping tents page is a prime example:
Taking inspiration from that meta description, you may decide to enhance your own description by adding a sentence advertising the site’s reasonable shipping fees, or you could choose to highlight its knowledgeable staff who can help customers choose the right product.
Have a specific competitor in mind? You can see any page’s metadata by viewing its source code in your browser. Then, press Ctrl+F (or Command+F for Mac) and type name=”description”. This will immediately jump to the meta description:
Revise Old Meta Descriptions
As you hone your skills and learn how to craft increasingly high-quality meta descriptions, it’s crucial to routinely revise a site’s old meta descriptions. This will allow you to draw more visitors to both high- and low-ranking pages, all while making their subject matter easier for search engines to identify.
When refreshing old descriptions, remember to check for:
- clarity and specificity;
- demonstration of value;
- style guide adherence; and
- quality compared to the competition.
Updating previously published meta descriptions will also give you the chance to keep up with any fluctuations in Google’s length restrictions—they’re known to change unpredictably, sometimes shifting down and up again within a span of a just a few months. So, it pays to stay on top of the latest changes and promptly tweak a site’s existing meta descriptions accordingly.
Craft Descriptions That Would Hook You
Meta description creation is an art, not a science. To write ones that successfully lure in users, you need to craft them with humans like you in mind (unless you’re a robot—if so,
With a focus on creativity and originality, as well as a keen sense of what makes people click on results in the first place, your meta descriptions can become powerful tools for intriguing users, boosting CTR and driving traffic, all in 155 characters or less.
Screenshots by author / September 2020
Ahrefs / September 2020