Meta Descriptions – SEO Best Practices

Some people may argue that there is no need for Meta descriptions and Meta keywords. While this might be true at times, there are some arguments to be made for using Meta data. If you decide to write your Meta Descriptions, here are some best practice tips.

Why Write Meta Descriptions
If you don’t write your own Meta descriptions, the search engines will pull content directly from your landing page. This means the search engine has control over how your brand is portrayed in the Meta description. In some cases, what is pulled can be viewed as keyword stuffing because the keywords are being pulled from navigation rather than content from a paragraph. Google will display what it views as most relevant to the search query. In the following example, Google is displaying exactly what Overstock has written as its Meta description, as shown in the page source.

Meta Description Showing Same as Page Source

Meta Description View Page Source

Page Source for Overstock’s “Men’s Shirts” Page

Meta Description Length
Search engines don’t limit characters in the Meta descriptions, per say, but only a max of between 150 to 160 characters will be visible. For this reason, the limit is generally considered to be 150 characters with spaces. Keep in mind, less is more. It’s good to write a clear, action-oriented description, and you’ll get more out of your Meta description if you follow the character limit. You wouldn’t want to have all of your great content and calls to action cut off because it exceeded Google search results displayed Meta description character limit.

Meta Description Purpose
The purpose of the Meta description is to influence the user’s decision to click on your title tag. Writing a custom Meta description can improve the possibility of Google displaying your defined Meta description over on-page content that maybe relevant to keyword(s) in the search query. Each  search engine (Google, Bing, Yahoo, Ask) will alter how the Meta description is being displayed.

Google for example, has taken it upon themselves to be the Meta description puppet master. In the past, when you wrote a custom Meta description on a landing page it was 100% always used in the organic search results; even if it exceeded the display character count limit. Now it’s become more complex. Even if you write a custom Meta description on a landing page it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be displayed. Google is now evaluating the keywords used in the search query that are variations or match keywords on the landing page.

From what I’ve seen, if Google identifies more keyword relevance and/or density in your page content than in your custom Meta description, Google will trump your defined custom Meta description from being displayed in the organic search results. For example, in the Google search results for “men’s shirts,” Google is displaying the following result for Amazon. However, you can see this is not the Meta description Amazon has entered, as shown in the page source.

Meta Description Search Result - Amazon

Meta Description Different than Page Source

Page Source for Amazon’s “Men’s Shirts” Page

Using Keywords in the Meta Description
Use keywords in your Meta description, but be careful not to keyword stuff. Keep the description focused on the subject of the page. Remember, terms entered in the search query will be bolded in the Meta descriptions on the search engine results pages (SERPs). More bolded keywords will make your website stand out against your competitors and improve your visual call to action (CTA).

Meta Keywords – Should You Use Them?
Meta keywords are one of the primary places you may be keyword stuffing without even realizing it. Google won’t penalize you for keyword stuffing the Meta keywords anymore, but even if Google doesn’t, this isn’t to say that other search engines don’t value the Meta keywords. A major search engine that you may not have even heard of, unless you happen to know Mandarin or live in China, is Baidu.com. The Baidu search engine algorithm still utilizes the Meta keywords element to influence the SERPs ranking.

For example, lets say you have a website that you’re trying to keyword rank for in the Baidu search engine. Of course you’d want to include Meta keywords related to your landing page and theme related keywords. But, how do you avoid Meta keyword stuffing? A general rule I found to be pretty safe is to use seven or less keyword phrases, separated by a comma space, and do not repeat a keyword more than three times.

Looking for additional classic SEO Meta tag best practices? Give a quick read to my post covering Title Tag Best Practices.

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