The Magic of the Meta Description Tag

by on 07/01/2010 • 51 Comments | SEO

This is the first blog post I’ve ever written and I’ve decided to take you all on a brief tour of a few meta description examples around the Web. I love the meta description tag. I love it so much that although I don’t have a blog or even a real website, I do have a meta description (as you’ll see later). The meta description is a funny little thing. It’s a standard SEO tool yet it doesn’t factor into ranking and you can’t even see it on the Web page. The only place it displays is on the search results page (SERP). And yet this quiet little tag can make your search result pop off the page like a jack-in-the-box with his hand raised… a virtual “pick me pick me!” that can stand out against all the other clickable choices of links, images, one box results and PPC ads, compelling the searcher to click *your* link instead of the one above.

I’m always astonished when the meta description tag is overlooked. Let’s consider (randomly selected) HeartlandFunds.com, a value fund investor. Looking at the homepage it’s clear that great care was taken in writing the messaging that appears above-the-fold while some legally-required information is tucked into small print further down the page. No care was taken to write a meta description tag however. When no meta description tag (or directory listing) exists, search engines usually try to assemble snippets of relevant text from the page. In this example for Heartland Funds, the first part of the snippet looks good: “All Heartland Funds beat their benchmarks” but the next bit is rather unfortunate:

SERP for Heartland Funds

“The Heartland Select Value Fund had a negative average annual return for the 3 year period as of…” Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence does it? I suspect this is not the bit of information that Heartland Fund wants to call attention to but that’s exactly what happens every time someone searches for them by name on Google. The good news is that Heartland has a Yahoo! directory listing which gets pulled in on Yahoo’s SERP, and Bing mercifully finds a snippet that’s more neutral than Google’s.

According to Hitwise data, 7% of the search clicks for the query “Money magazine” go to their competitor SmartMoney.com which ranks below them. Scan the SERP and it’s not hard to understand how this happens… SmartMoney is begging for the searcher’s click (ooh ooh pick me pick me!) while Money Magazine has barely showed up to the game.

The meta description tag is also powerful tool for reputation management. Draft your message well and include your name to ensure that the tag will be displayed when your name is searched and whammo…you’re fabulous! But wait, there’s more! Research studies have revealed that searchers tend to trust sites that rank highly in organic search results and perceive there to be an implied endorsement by the search engine. Combine that perception of credibility with a meta description like  Marshall Simmond’s and you get a highly effective personal branding message. If I didn’t already think that Marshall is the shizzle, I’d certainly be convinced of it after seeing his SERP.

search result for Marshall Simmonds

Do be careful not to go too short, like this guy who should know better (and since he’s the one who blithely volunteered me for this writing assignment, I’m going to pick on him). There is a meta tag on his homepage but Google seems to want a minimum of 50 characters and at 48 this falls two short. So instead of “Michael Gray rants on SEO the internet and media” we get this:

search result for Michael Gray

Twitter populates its profile page meta descriptions with the contents of the Bio field (if its long enough). Since Twitter is an authority domain, these profile pages tend to rank well for name queries. I often see name query SERPs where the person’s eponymous domain ranks first followed by their Twitter profile (or vice-versa in the case of the next example).  Thoughtfully craft these two meta descriptions and you’ve got control over a pretty good chunk of real estate on the search result page.

search result for Alex Bennert

As I mentioned earlier, a good meta description should not just describe the contents of the page but it should also make your listing stand out from the crowd and compel the searcher to click your result. Avvo.com, a legal directory, does a great job at this. Let’s say I’m searching for a Portland DUI lawyer. Consider the following SERP.

Avvo vs. Findlaw

Even if FindLaw outranked Avvo, there’s no contest for the click,  I’d still go for Avvo’s result. Avvo immediately makes their unique value proposition clear to me. There are 119 DUI lawyers in the area that I can compare. I can research their backgrounds, find out about disciplinary sanctions against them and read client reviews for free. This is an elegant example that also illustrates that really good meta descriptions can be generated dynamically.

This concludes our tour of the meta description.   If you weren’t a believer before, I hope I’ve convinced you of the power of this humble little tag. If you were already a fan, I hope I’ve reinforced your devotion or sparked some ideas. cheers!

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About the Author

alexbennert

Alex Bennert is the SEO house elf for the Wall Street Journal and frequently speaks at search industry conferences.

Get social with Alex at Twitter

51 thoughts on “The Magic of the Meta Description Tag

      • I tried the All in One SEO plugin, but it didn’t seem to work (I was guessing it was a 3.0 issue… it wrote the titles wrong and didn’t add the description). Have you used it with 3.0?

        • so far so good. Sometimes there are theme clashes.

          Actually, we’ve got a programmer who’s setting our fields customer so we aren’t dependent on the plugin for too much longer, hopefully.

          • I tried both the All in One SEO Pack and Headspace, neither seems to be working for me… so apparently It’s a PEBKAC issue.

            (PS – sign of a good blog post when you’re inspired to fix something you’ve been putting off ;)

  1. Wonderful first post!!!!!! I’ve always overlooked the meta description ever since i realized Google didn’t care, but now that you point a lot of this out (which seems like it should be ‘duh’s) its definitely something I’m going to go back and spend more time with.

    Thank you!

  2. I like you. You’ve become my favorite blogger today.

    I’d argue that the description tag does help target what you want to rank, but other than that….

    I like you!

  3. Kristin & finn – I was very nervous about this so I really appreciate your positive feedback. Thank you so much for your kind words!

  4. Hey, I like you too.

    I *love* the meta description tag. I’ve done all kinds of weird and wonderful things for it. I just recently convinced one of my clients that we need to loosen up on the descriptions and be a little more inviting; it’s the one chance you get to really “market” your site on the results page.

    That said – my current description tag says “Abandon all hope ye who would enter here”

    • zomg netmeg your site, i love it! i’m officially a fan. your non-site is way better than my non-site! mine just has white text on white background. :-)

  5. Very good, and a common lament of mine as well. Regardless of whether or not it adds ranking value, it definitely needs to make your SERP result “clickable”. Good stuff Alex!

  6. Alex, spot on, my dear. And congratulations on your first post, I find it hilarious that your first post was about meta descriptions since you updated yours to the coincidental fact that you are never in the same room as the Search Whisperer. It’s the best place to get creative and capture the unexpected.

  7. Well done on your first post! Add this as well, I never gave the tag much thought until I came across this post so you’ve enlightened a new meta description fan.

    Thanks again,
    -Rich

  8. Excellent, under-discussed topic. The examples are a perfect illustration. The meta description should get as much attention as PPC ad text gets. It’s all about the CTR and generating interest.

  9. This is what I was looking for. These days I am working on On-Page SEO for my blog. I have made a lot of changes and now I better understand the benefit of Meta Description option in AIOS plugin that I am currently using on my blog.

  10. Gil, Dan & Rich, thank you so very much for the feedback. Lisa told me that the OSM gang is the bomb and she wasn’t exaggerating.

  11. Alex – Great post! As an investment manager turned Internet marketer, I loved the Heartland Funds example. When I worked in that business, we’d spend hours meticulously crafting language to ensure that we were putting our best foot forward, so I can only imagine how frustrated they’d be if they realized how bad that looks.

    I just did a search for my former employer, and their meta description is a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo from 2007. (Tempted to give them a call to offer my consulting services!)

  12. Apparently, there are a lot of thesis theme lovers commenting.

    Alex, GREAT post! This should be common knowledge for SEOers, but I am impressed with your ability to convey the importance of the description META tag and what how it affects one’s web presence in the SERPs.

    • …and I noticed that outspokenmedia is using thesis theme. I use thesis on a few of my aff sites but I must ask, is this some sort of thesis solidarity or fraternity/sorority?

      I have many aff sites running on WP. I haven’t upgraded to 3.0 but have no issues with All in One SEO Pack running on 2.9.2.

      @Chris Miller – All in One SEO Pack does make updates to their plugin quite frequently. Currently, they are claiming to be compatible up to 3.0 RC1. So, expect an update soon.

  13. Alex…you’re awesome! My meta description really needed to loosen up a bit. I read your post and fixed my tag. Thanks so much…you really helped a lot of people out today. Your good deeds are covered for a while! If you need some help in the “organizing area” check out my site…I’d love to repay the favor in some way! Oh, and you should give some serious thought about doing more blogging…you’re good at it!!! Thanks again!

  14. Great advice. I like to think of meta descriptions as an advertisement in the search results. You need to make a compelling reason for users to click.

    Thanks!

  15. Hey seosylph you are right on. It isn’t just about rankings now, is it?

    And the more you share your knowledge, the more we all gain. Thanks for taking the 1st step!

  16. Great post about an important topic, but I’m not sure that Michael’s issue is strictly the length of his meta description. The one I have on my About page is 89 characters, but when the page is returned on a search for my name, the snippet is all but the last two words of the tag, followed by some text lifted from the on-page contents.

    • I was thinking the same thing Conrad. Some crazy good SEO musta written that bang up meta description no doubt!

  17. You’ve inspired me. I’ve been meaning to find a place in my marketing materials for the following, and I think this is the spot. My job happens to be marketing for that favorite example of SEOs everywhere: Plumbers. My new meta description for our plumbing page? “There’s a stereotype known as ‘plumber’s crack.’ Rest assured that Godwin plumbers wear belts.”

  18. Nice to see you blogging. Nice description of the description tag. I think it’s use is totally under appreciated, and you did a great job here.

  19. Meta tags are usually ignored because they say it’s useless. But, with this post of yours you have clearly pointed out what meta tags really is for. It is a very enlightening post! Kudos!

  20. Fun Meta description goodie- add this code to your meta description:

    (★ ★ ★ ★ ★)

    and you will instantly be a 5* website :) Use ethically – only if you really ARE a 5* site/business somewhere :)

    See it in action by searching Google for “camden maine lodging” :)

    ~Carrie

    • uh oh – the code thing didnt work – **(★ ★ ★ ★ ★)**

      if that didnt work its a “(” followed by “&#9733:” five times…..

      if this didn’t work and you want to know how – email me at chill (at) blizzardinternet (dot) com :)

  21. Hi Alex, ah, what a great post as I love the meta description tag and shout from the rooftops it deserves attention. Why would you spend all your time getting first page rankings, and not spend anytime getting for meta description as perfect as it could be? It’s a no-brainer! So long live the meta description!

  22. Alex, you rock! I wanted to redo my meta descriptions and searched for, "what is the ideal length of a meta description" and chose results within the last month. This article came up and I’ve rewritten the meta descriptions per the instructions here.
    I’m embarrassed to say that for instance, one of our page’s description was, ‘Pasco Wa Real Estate and Pasco Washington Homes For Sale ~ Overview of Pasco Real Estate’ I’ve changed it to, ‘Search 1000s of Pasco Wa Homes For Sale, Listings, MLS, and Real Estate. Or Call Colleen Lane, a Pasco Washington Realtor® Broker at 509.438.9344′
    I’m really excited about this change Alex! If there was a PayPal Donate link on this blog (or if you send me one!), I’d buy ya a coffee, beer, or whatever you are drinking these days! :)

  23. Does anybody know why a serp would show the wrong title and no description even though I know for a fact my site has both?

    Like the example in your post, I’m missing out on big time clicks because of this. It’s only happened for two days and part of one of those days, the description returned.

    Any ideas?

  24. Dan
    Sometimes google pulls title and description from DMOZ or Yahoo Directory. If this is the case you need to add a NOODP or NOYDIR tag to your site – just google for how to do it.

    Hope this helps,

    Carrie

  25. Great post Alex, I wish i had seen it sooner and commented on it. I like to look at meta description tags as the first line of defense, or offense. very few people actually do a direct search by domain so they almost always funnel through SERP’s.
    So a well optimized description tag really lets you market, propose, compete, offer information, and on and on…. I can’t believe those folks who opt out of them or leave it up to the engines what to place there. Anyway, great post, I love Description Tags too..

  26. Not bad for a first blog, Alex! Kudos to you! There are so many optimization tactics out there, but meta tags are like a content’s page to a book, it’s so important that they’re well optimized on a site! For the most part, in my experience, I haven’t seen the description tag as much of a ranking factor, it’s more for user experience and it can give you that edge to stand out from other websites. The title tag, however, is key. Cheers!

  27. This was one of the best articles I have read in some time. I knew meta descriptions were important but didn’t realise the extent. I like the fact that you give examples of how messed up your meta description can appear in SERPs if you don’t pay special attention to them. I also like the thought of drawing more clicks then your competitors who outrank you. Thanks for sharing this!

  28. @Dan

    Another reason why Google will sometimes not use your meta description tag is if it not a good match for the search query e.g. low relevance. Also, if it is too short it is doesn’t produce a good result for the user. Basically any reason that would result in poor user experience could cause it not to be used.

  29. I don’t know why there was such a big push away from meta tags. They are still a basic part of SEO and provide a valuable function—drawing in the surfer to click on your link.

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