The meta description is one of a web page’s meta tags. With this meta information, webmasters can briefly sketch out the content and quality of a web page. The page description for a web page is usually displayed when the page for a specific query is listed as a snippet in the SERPs.
A long time ago, the inclusion of the keyword in a URL’s meta description was one of the SEO ranking factors. Today, the quality and relevance of the description’s content play a much more important role in optimization of the snippet. If executed well, a high-quality meta description can increase traffic and CTR (click-through rate), because a relevant snippet will encourage the user to click on the search result.
Throwback to when meta phrases with keywords were still relevant to page rankings
The criteria used by search engines to rank a website are becoming increasingly differentiated and complex. In the early years of web search, at the start of the millennium, a website’s meta tags were mainly used to help determine the page’s ranking in the search results. One of the most important elements for page optimization was the meta description. It could be “stuffed” with relevant keywords, as could meta titles or the content itself. See also our glossary entry on Keyword Stuffing.
In the year 2009, relatively late, Google stated that meta keywords and meta descriptions no longer had a decisive impact for its ranking algorithms. Because of the massive use of keywords during the early years of SEO, designed to manipulate search engines, the value for users dropped more and more. Basically, pages were overloaded with keywords and were turning into spam, which may have pleased search engines, but were not much use for actual human searchers.
If, today, a person or company calling themselves a “search engine optimizer” still offers the optimization of meta descriptions amongst their services, and treats this as an important ranking criteria, they are simply wrong and charging for something that fails to add quality.
So does the meta description still fulfill a purpose for SEO?
Although today’s SERPs are frequently enhanced through rich snippets, the meta description, as the first glimpse for potential users, hasn’t lost its meaning. It’s the first thing the user sees, next to the page title and target URL, when entering a keyword in the web search. As the old saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression.
Therefore, the content of the meta description shouldn’t be created arbitrarily or thoughtlessly. A well-written, compelling or provoking site description can stand out and motivate the user to click on a page, even if the page is not listed amongst the top few Google positions.
The meta description is the first figurehead a web page can present for organic search results. It can have a decisive influence on click-through rate and traffic.
Since the CTR is obviously used by Google to assess the relevance of a webpage to the SERP, one could therefore regard the meta description as an indirect ranking factor.
What does the perfect meta description look like?
For a long time, the optimal length for the description’s text was about 150 characters including spaces. In early 2016, Google abandoned the ad unit on the right side of the search results, so there is theoretically now more room to display the snippets of organic results.
Since this change, the possible length of a meta description has become about 175 characters. However, because Google does not exploit the full space on each search results page, it is still advisable to keep to 150 characters including spaces, so that the end of the description won’t be cut off.
Please note that this specification of character limit is just an approximation, because Google and other search engines don’t measure the actual characters, but instead the pixel length of the meta tag.
If the description is longer, it is abbreviated or replaced by “…”. Similar to a tweet, all important information regarding the targeted page has to fit in this limited space. The user should be made aware of what the page is about and encouraged to click.
How long should a meta description be for mobile search results?
There is less place in mobile search results, due to smartphones’ smaller displays. If you want to optimize the content of your meta description to the mobile SERPs, you should limit the text to a maximum of 120 characters. This will avoid the end of your description being lost. However, it can be observed again and again that Google varies how descriptions in the mobile SERPs are displayed. Descriptions with more than 200 characters are possible. At the same time, pictures can also be displayed in the snippets, which can cause a huge limitation of the character count.
6 tips for meta description optimization
- Better short than long: it often makes sense to use two to three short sentences rather than one longer sentence. The user scans through the SERPs for concise statements that answer their questions – and that’s what a meta description should ideally be geared towards.
- Call-to-Action: A description should always include a call-to-action that encourages users to click on the result.
- Topic: The topic of the landing page should be summarized briefly and concisely so the user knows what to expect.
- Keyword: It is still recommended to use the main keyword of the targeted page in the description. Whilst this is not a ranking factor (see above), if it matches the search term, Google will automatically highlight this word in the snippet. This attracts even more attention.
- Uniqueness: Every description should be unique, just like the title of a page. If a plugin is used for the automatic generation of descriptions, then it pays to be careful to avoid duplicate meta descriptions.
- Special characters: With the aid of HTML codes, special, non-alphanumeric characters can be inserted into the description, such as hooks, hearts or other symbols. This will also highlight the snippet. However, the use of these signs should not be excessive. Otherwise the snippet could appear very untrustworthy, which can put users off and make the call-to-action fail.
Important: If Google itself considers the existing meta description to be of little relevance to the search, it can happen that the search engine compiles its own description from existing offset pieces. If you want to avoid this happening, then you should definitely put some effort into writing the meta description. Otherwise, you cannot guarantee that it reflects the content of the target page adequately, and you are relying on Google. It is also possible to create more than one description for a website. However, it is questionable whether the effort involved in doing so is worthwhile for SEO purposes.
Special case noodp – a relic of the past
A relic of the search engine optimization past is the so-called “noodp tag”. This allows webmasters to determine in the meta details of a website that the URL’s description shown in search engine snippets is not taken from the DMOZ directory.
The Background: At a time when Google and other search engines were not used as frequently as today and didn’t work as efficiently, a big part of web information was based on web directories. The biggest and most independent of its kind was called DMOZ. For search engines, especially Google, the description of a website listed in this directory was considered a trustworthy statement. This was then used for the search results snippet instead of the meta description. If you want to avoid having a page description shown in the snippet sourced from the moderated DMOZ directory, then you can indicate this in the source code as follows:
<meta name=‘robots’ content=‘noodp’>
<meta name=‘msnbot’ content=‘noodp’>
<meta name=‘GoogleBot’ content=‘noodp’>