Meta descriptions are part of the meta data for a webpage. Much like the title tag they act as a description of the content found on that particular page and are a key component of what a user sees of your website on search engine’s results pages. They are displayed by search engines underneath the title tag (or link to the website). Until late 2017, Google usually displayed around 160 characters of a meta description in their search results. However, as of late 2017 (November/December, depending on location) Google increase the amount of characters displayed in meta descriptions quite significantly, with some reports finding 320 characters being displayed.
Are meta descriptions a factor for SEO?
Technically speaking, no they are not. In September 2009 Google stated that meta descriptions would not be taken into account when ranking a website on their results pages. As such, there is not the same focus on including high value keywords in the meta description as there is for title tags.
However, nowadays an argument could be put forward that actually, whilst Google might not take them into consideration as a direct factor, that indirectly they should still be treated as an important ranking factor. Meta descriptions are one of only a few opportunities on results pages to entice the user into clicking on your link. If your meta description is badly written or inaccurate, this could have a negative impact on click through rates, user and usage data or the concept of Google looking at ‘pogo-sticking (where a user clicks through from a results page only to immediately return). Therefore it affects other factors that Google does take into account when ranking a website and so, at least indirectly, should be taken seriously in regards to SEO.
Meta descriptions naturally follow on from the title tag in the <head> of a document. The code for a meta description is:
<meta name=”description” content=”insert meta description here”>
Most CMS’ will have a section where you can enter the meta description for each page, it is also usually in the same section where you enter the title tag.
Things to consider
Whilst Google might not use meta descriptions as a direct ranking metric, they are very important for the user because they make up the majority of text that a user sees for the web page’s result on search engines. Therefore, a well written meta description will only aid your chances of gaining click throughs from the SERPs.
Unique meta descriptions for each page
Google does not just return home pages for search results and so it is best practice to create a unique meta description for every page on your site. If you do not create one, Google will usually scrape the first words on the web page and use them as the meta description.
Google makes matching keywords bold
Yes, Google apparently does not use meta descriptions as a ranking factor but Google does make words bold on the results pages that match keywords that the user has entered. These bold words can often attract the eye of the user and demonstrate that your result is likely to be more relevant to the search query, therefore affecting CTR. We advise including keywords in the meta description, but as always, not keyword stuffing. If it doesn’t happen naturally then you shouldn’t be forcing it too much!
Keep them succinct
Much like title tags, there is a limit to how many characters Google will display of a meta description. This used to be around the 155 to 165 character limit but as of late 2017 has increased to somewhere in the region of 220 to 320 characters – regardless, real estate for meta descriptions is limited so keep them succinct.
Engage the searcher
This is probably the most important consideration for meta descriptions. Due to the fact that they are a key component of the how the web page is displayed in search results, it is important to make them as engaging and relevant to the searcher as possible. Remember that they are a description of the page and should therefore give the searcher as much information (in the allotted 160 characters) as possible in order to entice them into clicking on that particular result. Think about the intent of the searcher when looking for the type of content on the page, are they looking for answers to a question or looking to purchase a good? Subsequently tailor the meta description to this intent so that the user gets an accurate and interesting description of what they will find on the page.