How to write a web page description meta tag for great SEO

If you read yesterday’s article, you’ll know that I’ve realised that it’s probably time to deconstruct the elements of a Google results page in an explanatory way, and we started with a look at the title which Google shows when your pages appear in its results. Today I’d like to move on to probably the second most important element of the Google “natural search” results after the title, and that’s the two (or sometimes more) lines of descriptive text which appear underneath, like this:

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Like the title, you should write a description for every page. Unlike the title, however, Google won’t necessarily display what you’ve provided. But you can encourage it to do so.

You can see the description you’ve written for any web page on your site, exactly as Google does, by looking at the “page source”, the code behind the page (here’s how to do so). The description will be towards the top of the document, in a line which begins:
“meta name=’description’ content=…”

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As with the title, you should be able to write the description for each page manually through your content management system. I’m always amazed at how many company websites have just been set up with a default identical description on every page. What a waste. A “crawl” of your website (your website manager should be able to produce this, or our AdWords management clients can ask us for one without charge) will show you what you’ve got across the site, in spreadsheet form.

The description in each Google result should work in tandem with the title above it to suggest to the viewer “this page has what you want, so click me!”. I think the example we’re using here does just that.

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Writing good title and description combinations for every page on your website might be an unfeasibly long job, but if it is, doing it for the main pages remains nothing short of essential. If you’ve employed an SEO consultant, the main pages should already have attractive descriptions (if not, then once again – fire them).

However, as I mentioned above, Google doesn’t always use the descriptions you provide. Nor does it use their content in deciding whether the page is relevant to the search. But a good description gets the result clicked on more, and more clicks gets a result moved higher up the rankings. So descriptions are still important for SEO.

Why does Google often ignore the descriptions you provide? It’s to do with search relevance. In simple terms, if somebody has searched for “blue widget” and your description contains the words “blue widget”, Google will probably use your description, because it’ll be considered as relevant to the search. But if your description doesn’t contain the words “blue widget”, and the page content does contain them, Google will probably grab a “snippet” of text from the page to use in the description, which it considers demonstrates to searchers more clearly that the result is relevant to their search.

So you can’t always get your description to show. But you can give it the best possible chance of showing for the main search the page is targeted at. I like to allocate every page on the site a key search phrase which I’d want the page to appear in the results for. And if possible, I get that phrase at the start of the title and the description.

What should a perfect description look like? There are three major elements:

1. It needs to fit in the space which the Google results pages offer. This is normally taken as being a maximum of 160 characters. If you go over this, you’ll lose the last few characters and everything after that, to be replaced by a scruffy ellipsis (“…”).

2. It needs to contain the search term which you want the page to be found for. If the description is used, Google will make those words bold, which is another bonus.

3. It needs to work with the title to expand on the content and form a combined message which tells people that this page will provide them with something worthwhile, as well as being relevant to their search.

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