Writing Meta-Descriptions: The Complete Guide

meta-description

Black Hat SEOs of Yesteryear Working on a Meta-Description

Meta-descriptions are critical for two reasons; they are used by Google in the ranking process, and they are ultimately responsible for the Click-through-rate that your page will experience.

A properly written meta-description will stand out and have users clicking on it more often than it simply deserves based on its position in the SERPs; a poorly written one may garner as few as zero clicks.  Here we’ll detail best practices for writing your meta-descriptions based on an exhaustive review of various people’s takes on this I’ve found on the web.

The Basics:

1. Make your meta-description 155 characters or less – the closer to 155 the better.

2. Avoid using special characters, quotes, and the like as Google will typically cut off your meta-description at that point.

3. Don’t have any duplicate meta-descriptions across your website.

4. Include the keyword you’re trying to rank for in the Meta-description.  Searchers expect to see the term they searched for in the meta-description.

5. Pepper a few related keywords into your meta-description.  In our example “containment vessels” might be a good related term.

6. Make sure the meta-description accurately describes the page, or you will have a CTR, but also a high bounce rate (i.e. people will leave quickly when they see the content doesn’t match what the meta-description promises).  This can be really bad for your rankings.

Intermediate steps:

7. Move the keyword as far to the left of the sentence as possible, ideally starting the meta-description with the keyword.  If not, locate it no more than a few words in.

8. Don’t repeat the keyword a second time exactly, but use stemmed words or plural/singular forms.  For instance, if you’re trying to rank for [control nuclear contaminants], use something along the lines of “Control Nuclear Contaminants with our widget.  Controlling any individual nuclear contaminant need not be a difficult process if you know how to do it correctly.  We’ll show you how.”

9. Have a strong call-to-action.  This best practice is identical to how the paid search industry constructs “creatives”.  Search on [PPC ad best practices] for more ideas, but a strong call to action typically uses action verbs (“create, fix, control…”) and challenges the searcher to take action.

10. Communicate your unique value proposition for the page – why should someone click on it instead of on the other search results?

11. Evoke human emotions – greed, fear, curiosity, and/or urgency.

12. Be interesting.

13. Stand out !!!

Advanced tricks:

14. Test, test, test.  Try different meta-descriptions over time, look at your analytics, and see what works.

15. Get ideas from competitor’s meta-descriptions.

16. Get ideas from competitor’s PPC ads.

17. Capitalize the first letter of each word in the meta-description.  Just as with PPC, capitalizing all words can potentially improve your clickthrough rate.  Just don’t capitalize short words such as “in”, “for”, and so on.  Also, completely capitalizing your “power words” (see below) in some cases can improve your clickthrough rate as well (as in, “JUST ARRIVED” and so on).

18. Use “power words”.  According to urban legend on the internet, Yale University did a study in the 1970′s identifying the words in the English language that are most “persuasive”.  Apparently this is not true (see reference here), but there have been additions to the list, and based on anecdotal evidence it does seem that these words work pretty well and are worth considering.

Note that if any search engines discourage advertisers from using a term in paid search, it’s probably either topically offensive, or is a highly effective “unfair” term.  If it looks like you can get away with using an “unfair” term in organic search, by all means, do so.  Note that Google’s Adwords program warns against, for instance, “best”, “#1″, “better than”, and “faster than”; this must mean they work pretty well.

Just make sure you can back up your claims with third party data if you use those sorts of superlatives, or you could get into serious trouble with the Federal Trade Commission for making false claims about your product or service.

I’ve pulled together a list of “power words” below, from numerous sources, and sorted them by emotional association.  Happy writing – and if you have any other ideas or suggestions for writing meta descriptions, please comment below!

Keyword Emotion
Amazing Curiosity
Announcing Curiosity
Challenge Curiosity
Discover Curiosity
Important development Curiosity
Improvement Curiosity
Introducing Curiosity
It’s here Curiosity
Just arrived Curiosity
Love Curiosity
Magic Curiosity
Miracle Curiosity
Now Curiosity
Power Curiosity
Remarkable Curiosity
Revolutionary Curiosity
Sensational Curiosity
Startling Curiosity
Suddenly Curiosity
The truth about Curiosity
You Curiosity
Advice Fear
Compare Fear
Easy Fear
Guarantee Fear
Health Fear
Hurry Fear
Limited Fear
Proven Fear
Safety Fear
Safety Fear
Bargain Greed
Exclusive Greed
Free Greed
Insider Greed
Money Greed
Save Greed
Wanted Greed
Easy Urgency
Immediate Urgency
Last chance Urgency
Need Urgency
Quick Urgency
Results Urgency

16 Comments

  1. Do you have any evidence to back-up your claim that meta descriptions are used by Google in the ranking process?

    Common understanding is that they are not used as part of the ranking process (but are, as you say, very important for CTR)

  2. Ted Ives says:

    Blaine, *great* question.

    Two takes on it here….

    One is:
    …if you look at the paper referenced in this post, where some academics reverse-engineered some of Google’s ranking variables:
    http://www.coconutheadphones.com/does-domain-agematter/

    which can be found at:
    http://cobweb.ecn.purdue.edu/%7Eychu/publications/wi10_google.pdf

    …a weighting for Meta-Description is shown, and it looks to be the fourth most important factor the study identified. Look at the upper right graph on Page 7, and you can read weightings they found off the left axis in this order: PageRank, Keyword in Host (domain) name, Title, Meta-Description, Keyword in URL Path, and so on. Pre-Caffeine results, true, but I doubt things have changed that much.

    Two is:
    It could be that Google doesn’t actually use the Meta-Description itself, but instead something that is correlated with it – i.e. the Click-Through-Rate, as you mentioned. If so, then for SEO purposes, taking action as if Google does use the Meta-Description is logical since that, the title, and the URL are what drives the CTR. I did a posting recently on whether Google uses CTR here if of interest:
    http://www.coconutheadphones.com/does-google-use-click-through-rate-as-an-organic-ranking-factor-answer-maybe/

  3. I think there will always be a debate on whether meta descriptions aid in ranking between SEO specialists, and there are a number of studies that discuss them as well,but I definitely agree with a meta description improving your CTR and it’s always best to optimize your description. Here’s a tool you can use that shows you what your description would look like, once live. Great post!

    http://www.seomofo.com/snippet-optimizer.html

  4. Ted Ives says:

    That is a great tool Zunaira, I had never seen it – thanks for pointing it out.

  5. It’s my pleasure, Ted :) Also the recent search ranking factors study (URL below) mentioned how Google is now considering CTR as a ranking factor, mainly because low CTR could mean that the site is not relevant – in other words, working on your meta descriptions is key! http://www.seomoz.org/article/search-ranking-factors

  6. Jason Acidre says:

    Excellent list Ted. Been testing some of my meta descriptions before, and I do believe that inclusion of numbers do attract searchers into clicking (like see 25 ways on how to…) more often than not.

  7. Adam Haworth says:

    Great article Ted, some very good points indeed, I will be bookmarking this for sure.

  8. Chris Battis says:

    Ted, I really got a lot from this article I will be sure to share tis with some of my clients.

  9. kate says:

    Great post. The guides are very useful and helpful. The description are very well said but i just want to know if where did you get all of these information? You did a lot of good points here,thanks a lot for sharing.

  10. Altho point #12 and #13 (intermediate) are subjective but all of your points are awesome. Optimizing your meta-description certainly not a time-waster.

  11. Ross says:

    Ted,

    I would agree with the folks above that I don’t believe that the meta description is directly tied to ranking, however, the impact data as it relates to the description like CTR/Bounce Rate are definitely indicators back to the SE’s. I believe the engagement factor of the content which aligns directly with bounce rate back to the SERP’s is going to become an even larger weighted factor moving forward. I like how you broke the steps out into beg, int, and advanced. Nice work!!

  12. Bogdan says:

    These are some great ideas! I’ve recently did some tests with a couple of clients and the results were remarkable, in terms of CTR.

    BTW, related to “description influences SERPS”, I strongly believe that it is indeed influencing positioning in search engine results; again, tested and re-tested. :)

  13. John says:

    Ted,

    Very nice work. It’s greatly appreciated!

    I’d like clarification on #1: does the 155 character of less count include spaces, or just actual characters?

  14. Ted Ives says:

    It includes spaces

  15. Nice post, I found the “Power Words” portion of this article extremely helpful! There are a few other great posts on writing META descriptions that I’m sure many of us are familiar with from SEO Moz, Writing META Descriptions.

  16. Art Gardner says:

    Thank you for the list of Power Words, I will start trying differrent words and or combinations of these words.

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