Meta description: What it is, what it isn’t, and why you should care

Why is the sky blue? Why did Snuggies get so popular in 2007? When you Google something, where does that little snippet of text on the search results page come from? These are the questions of our time. I’ll leave the first two for physicists and VH1 pundits respectively, but that last one I can help you out with: Let’s talk about the meta description.
Google’s job is to show you web pages that will help answer your questions and find the answers you’re looking for. When you type “Snuggies,” for example, it will go bananas with e-commerce links, Amazon ads, images, and articles about everyone’s favorite backward-opening robe.
Google lists out the URLs and, underneath that, a short snippet of text pulled from the page. This is meant to give you a sample of the page so you can decide whether it is what you’re looking for. This is the meta description.
Snuggies google search results and meta descriptions
Hm, do I want a blanket that looks like a “female bikini bathing suit” or adult baby diapers?

Are meta descriptions a factor in SEO?

The question we often hear is whether writing meta descriptions will make your pages rank higher in search results. In short: No. Google used to look at these for clues about what the page contained but stopped doing that once SEO over-achievers started keyword-stuffing there.
That said… they CAN help your clickthrough rate. If they’re well-written, they can entice more people to click on your listing. This is the digital version of window-dressing: Good meta descriptions drive more traffic to your website, which indirectly helps with SEO (if your site content is delivering on what people want, that is). 

How long should a meta description be?

Long enough to be descriptive and to fit where Google puts it on the search results page: About 50-300 characters. Using a plugin like Yoast for WordPress will give you the red, orange, or green light to indicate if your description is too short, too long, or just right. 

Should I include keywords?

Yes, but keyword stuffing is a big no-no. Keywords will show up bold, so it’s good to include one or two toward the beginning of the meta description to help grab attention and indicate to users that your site may have what they’re looking for.
(To refresh your memory: A keyword is a term that you’re hoping to rank for. Let’s say you really want to capture people searching for “best snuggie deals” – then “best snuggie deals” is your keyword.)

What makes a good meta description?

If you have ever written an ad, you’ll be great at writing meta descriptions. Think of them as free digital ads that Google shows if you play by their rules. Include compelling language that will entice users to click through to your site:

  • Demonstrate value to the user: Highlight how they’ll benefit from reading your content
  • Use eye-catching elements like numbers
  • Look authoritative by including your brand name (if you are in fact an authority on the topic)
  • Use action words (“learn,” “discover,” “explore”)
  • Keep the SAT words to a minimum. No one likes a blatherskite

What happens if I don’t write one?

Is it just going to show up blank on my page listing?
No way. Google will make its best guess at a snippet of text from your page that will help users decide whether it’s relevant. In many cases, Google pulls the first few lines of the article, but that’s not always the case.
In fact, there are cases when Google actually does a better job than humans on this front. If you just don’t have the staff time to spare, at least do a quick audit to see what Google is using as meta descriptions, or use an SEO plugin like Yoast that allows you to set defaults so you have more control.

Should I be super sneaky and bait & switch users?

The answer to that would be a big fat NO. Don’t make people think they’re being taken to one type of page when they’re actually being taken somewhere totally different. Horrible user experience, horrible for SEO once Google catches on, and horrible for your personal karma. Meta descriptions are meant to be helpful for users. Being a good human here really pays off.

Dive deeper by reading more tips on SEO for nonprofits and content marketing. And when it comes to SEO, remember that images count too.


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