Books have a synopsis on the back cover.
Newspaper articles have a standfirst.
Search engine results pages have meta descriptions.
Each of these examples has the same function: to sell the content and encourage people to find out more.
Of course, this sort of promotional content has an intrinsic problem. If the reader feels they’ve been misled, they’re unlikely to read on much further. That’s not so much of an issue with a book or a paper (after all, once you’ve bought them, it doesn’t much matter to the publishers if you don’t finish them), but in the ultra-competitive online world, bringing users to your site under false pretences will have them bouncing back to Google before you can say “order now for free next-day delivery”.
Basically, getting your meta descriptions right is a fundamental of good technical SEO. They need to be persuasive, but they also need to give an accurate portrayal of the content on the page. Sounds pretty simple, right?
What are Google’s Most Common Issues with Meta Descriptions?
While it is easy to write a strong meta description, plenty of brands get it wrong. This displeases Google, which has shared new guidance on the most common problems with meta descriptions:
- Forgetting to include a meta description – This one is pretty simple. Google says: “Because meta descriptions are usually visible only to search engines and other software, webmasters sometimes forget about them, leaving them completely empty.”
- Duplicating meta descriptions – Similar to the above, many brands simply forget to create unique meta descriptions. If you’re using the same description across multiple pages, it’s unlikely – to say the least – that it’ll be a strong and accurate representation of your on-page content.
- Off-topic or spammy meta descriptions – Unfortunately, even when meta descriptions are present, Google says it’s “relatively common” for them to be low in quality, irrelevant to the page content, or spammy (e.g. stuffed full of keywords).
How Does Google Punish Bad Meta Descriptions?
Referring to the above examples of poor-quality meta descriptions, Google explains: “These issues tarnish our users’ search experience, so we prefer to ignore such meta descriptions.”
To understand what this thinly veiled threat actually means, you first need to know how Google chooses what content to display in search result snippets. Traditionally, these snippets have come from one of three sources:
- On-page content
- The page’s meta description
- DMOZ listings
DMOZ, also known as The Open Directory Project, was previously used as a kind of fallback option by Google in the event that the page content and meta description weren’t up to scratch. Having become increasingly irrelevant in a digital world dominated by machine-powered algorithms, DMOZ shut its doors earlier this year, making it more important than ever for brands to provide strong meta descriptions.
So How Do You Write a Good Meta Description?
The internet is already awash with “here’s everything you need to write a good meta description” type articles. Rather than contribute another 1,000 words to the debate, we’ve created this simple formula (and a brief explanation) to bear in mind every time you’re writing a meta description:
- Unique content – Google doesn’t like duplicated meta descriptions, so make sure they’re specific to each page and accurately reflect the page content.
- Focus keyword – “But meta descriptions aren’t a ranking factor!”, we hear you scream. True, they won’t (directly) influence a page’s ranking, but a good meta description will improve click-through rate, which definitely does influence where the page appears in SERPs. Google is more likely to use a meta description if it contains the searched keyword, and that keyword will be highlighted, making it more likely to win the click.
- Active language – Passive voice is a real turn-off to searchers, so make sure your meta descriptions are full of active language. Don’t say: “Additional information on meta descriptions can be found on our website.” Do say: “Find out more about meta descriptions here.”
- Compelling CTA – You want searchers to take an action (i.e. clicking through to your site), so don’t be shy about asking them – and give them a reason to do it. Giving an impression of time sensitivity often works well here (think phrases like “Shop now” and “Sign up today”).