To start with, meta descriptions are not a direct ranking signal to search engines. They used to be, long ago, but they were easily manipulated and search engines stopped using them. Google confirmed this in 2007.
In this guide, we'll talk about what they're good for (increasing CTR!) and how to write a good meta description.
So what’s the point of them in today's world if Google doesn’t use them to rank a site?
The answer to that is simple. It’s advertisement space! A good meta description, in theory, should make users want to click on your result, increasing CTR.
It’s your brief opportunity to crow to users and convince them to click on your link on search results pages instead of the others. Meta descriptions are often neglected, but they do take on an important role in a users journey.
Feb 2020 Update: A new study has revealed that brand name recognition and meta descriptions have the most influence on click through rates. Read more about that here.
Of course, if your page is 58th in the rankings for whatever search term, even the most greatest meta description you could ever possibly write is not likely going to get read, and you'll probably want to be looking at improving your page's ranking most importantly.
On the other hand, if you're jostling for top spot of page 1, then looking over all elements that affect how you appear in search results, which includes your meta description, should absolutely be looked at.
In any case, meta descriptions don't take too much effort and time to create, so it's good to get in to the habit of writing them.
When presented with a page of search results, you’ll see under the page titles the grey text which (should be) telling a prospective user what the page is about. The more convincing and enticing it is, the better.
Meta descriptions should ideally be about 156-158 characters. Anything more than that and they’ll be cut off across all devices. The character count for mobiles is less, approximately 120 characters.
A lot of businesses fall into a bit of a trap of writing a token brief description about the page, and then cram in loads about how much you’ll save if you go with them. Discounts here and there, BUY BUY BUY - you get the idea.
The problem is, in their desperate attempts to bombard a user with selling messages, their descriptions get cut off. No one is going to see it, rendering a lot of excess chatter redundant.
Of course it’s fine to tell users about saving money, discounts and the like, just keep it measured. Those 156 characters or so is all the space you’ve got to work with. Even less on mobile.
Another reason to keep your descriptions in check, is if it’s too long, or seemingly not relevant in a search engine’s eyes, they’ll just insert their own meta description. Usually, it’s just a bit of text plucked from some copy on your page.
“What’s wrong with that? If it’s from my copy it’s probably relevant”
Yep, it probably is, but it's probably not very ad-like and you should be in control here. You have the power to write the best most convincing case for users to click on you. Don’t let search engines pinch a bit of text potentially out of context. Make the most of the control you have.
Increasing CTR (Click Through Rate)
You might know about CTR - or click through rate. The more clicks you get from impressions (impressions are the amount of times your listing appears in the search results) the higher your CTR will go.
There’s plenty of ongoing debate as to whether CTR is used as a ranking signal, and it's important to bring up because meta descriptions are all about describing the page and convincing users to click on you. Ranking signal or not, you're obviously going to want to increase your click through rate and a top notch meta description could help you with that.
Writing an effective meta description
Be persuasive in your descriptions, and if you can, inspire a bit of curiosity too. Another thing you should keep in mind is to ensure that you include the keyword you’re trying to rank for in the description. That sounds obvious, and it is, but I bring it up because any words that a user has searched for that appears in your meta description will be in bold. Just another small thing to keep in mind!