The Magic of the Meta Description Tag

July 1, 2010
By Alex Bennert in 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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