Web Tip: Getting Manic Over Meta Descriptions

February 28, 2008

Whether you are aware of this or not, many of us see meta descriptions at least a few times every day. We might see hundreds of them, in fact. Every time you Google a phrase (which I do at least ten to twenty times daily), the SERP displays a list of page titles, each followed by a a short description derived from its respective web page's meta description. This description is important for two reasons. First, it ideally provides an accurate summary of the page content and a compelling reason for a user to click a given Google listing. Secondly, the words contained within the description can positively influence the position of a listing in relation to other listings.

SEO 101 - The Incomplete Guide

Want to attract an audience to your web site? Figure out what keywords they're searching on, and weave those keywords into your site's content. Oversimplified, maybe, but this is a key to search engine success.

To greatly simplify the seemingly convoluted world of SEO, let's just say that, in a nutshell, content rules. If you provide meaningful content on particular web page, it is likely that some percentage of your intended audience will find it. The better the content, the better your chances of attracting an audience. By "better", I am generally referring to keyword and key phrase saturation. If my audience is searching on the key phrase "how to climb Everest", for example, then by golly I want to make sure that the important keywords within that phrase -- climb and everest -- appear in my content.

"Content", I confess, is a somewhat slippery term whose definition often eludes clarity. Without a doubt, however, a page's content encompasses, in part, its often-neglected meta description.

Technically speaking, a meta description is the group of words found within the meta description tag. If you were to browse to Digett's website, and leverage your browser's capability to view the source code for our home page, you would find somewhere within the HTML the following:

<meta name="description" content="Web marketing, publishing and design for the web from a Boerne, Texas based interactive media and marketing firm. Our Services include search engine marketing, search engine optimization, email campaigns, drupal customization and content management." />

google resutls_1.jpg

Note the phrases appearing within the content attribute, above (the words after "content="). You'll find a concise description of who Digett is and the services we provide. Now do a quick Google search on "Digett", and you will see the very same text appearing with our entry on the SERP. This illustrates how Google uses your page's meta description to provide useful information to Google users.

Toward Better Meta Descriptions

By now it may be evident that your listing on Google is, alone, reason enough to pay close attention to your site's meta descriptions and the words contained therein. Well-written and accurate descriptions help ensure that more folks with a genuine interest in the content on your site actually find it. Poorly written descriptions can turn users away who might have otherwise found your site helpful. Worse, you could lose business.

Adding even more weight to the argument in favor of effective meta descriptions is the fact that Google analyzes the content within the meta description, considering it one of many factors for determining the page's position among other listings returned for a given search. For a search on "how to climb Everest", a page with a description that includes the terms "climb" and "everest" will achieve a higher position on a Google SERP than will, for example, a page whose description omits those words, all other factors equal.

Finally, before you jump in, here is another point to keep in mind: Web sites are usually a collection of many pages, each of which has the potential for effective positioning on a SERP. Ideally, you recognize that each page has a specific goal. That goal will likely dictate the specific audience that might be looking for it, and, in turn, which keywords may be important. My article on "How to Climb Mount Everest", for example, may represent a single page among thousands on a web site about extreme sports. Is someone looking to climb Everest going to think to search on "extreme sports"? I think not, and those keywords should not be considered nearly as important to that page as the keywords climb and Everest. Likewise, is someone searching for a local plumber likely to search on "home repair"? Again, I find that unlikely. The bottom line here is this: Treat each page as a unique entity, and you'll be closer to thinking like a search engine thinks.

I'm Sold. Lead Me to the Promised Land.

You've heard enough, and you'd like to make some improvements, right? Maybe you have some specific ideas for good key words you'd like to incorporate into your descriptions. Finally, the moment we've been waiting for! So exactly just how do you implement these changes? Well, this depends on exactly how your site was constructed. Here at Digett, we deploy the lion's share of sites that we design and build on Drupal, an intensely lovable content management system (CMS) that can make things like managing meta descriptions a breeze, even for our clients. Here's a screen shot from an edit page on one of our sites depicting a page's meta description field.

drupal interface.jpg

Modifying this page's meta description is done easily by a non-technical user, as is modifying the rest of the content on the site. To get to the page where this field is found, the user would have first logged in, then navigated to a given page, then clicked the "edit" tab which appears for authorized users. The edit page appears, providing access to modify content and other options, including the meta description. Clicking a button saves the changes to the CMS database.

Whether your site is running on a CMS or not, you may need technical help to modify the meta descriptions on your site. Consult your webmaster if necessary, but don't neglect the meta description without understanding your neglect's potential negative impact.

Wrapping Up

To be sure, the meta description is one of many factors influencing the overall effectiveness of your web site. Its relative importance should make it one of the first places you look to make improvements.

Resources

Want to know more about how to write good meta descriptions? Consult the ultimate source of all things web.