During recent interviews for Phase 2 of our Content & Credibility Study, we have been asking people what web content they find credible and why. As part of that process, I have observed many people’s opinions of search results listings and what makes a result click-worthy. It’s made me think about the importance of a certain content element – the meta description. During our testing, I’ve seen just how important this information is in the decision-making process as users scan search results.
The all-important search results listing, or “snippet” in Google speak, is made up of roughly 155 characters of descriptive text that tells users what content is on a page and how it meets their search query. The information displayed in the results listing is created to best match the user’s search terms and can be pulled from a variety of sources, including the meta description. (Other sources could be the Open Directory Project or content from the page itself.) Here’s an example of a search result for Content Science. The meta description is displayed under the URL and file format information.
The word “meta” means self-referential, and that’s exactly what a meta description is. This descriptive text is meant to explain exactly what a user will find on a page. It’s the content strategist’s chance to summarize and advertise their content to draw users in. There are no specific rules for when a search engine will use your page’s meta description and when it won’t, but you can craft a useful and usable snippet that brings more visibility to your content. Also, meta descriptions do not influence your search results ranking, but they do make help make your page more relevant.
Ok, so that sounds like a no-brainer, but it definitely needs to be part of your strategy when planning content production. Otherwise, you could easily overlook this content element.
Using similar descriptions for every page of a site isn’t helpful. Create relevance for each page by explaining what is unique about its content.
When writing the content for a site, you would obviously use a style that is consistent throughout. Treat meta descriptions with the same care, and maintain a strategy across all pages.
Again, you can put that in the no-brainer category. But, I’m seeing a lot of sites get this wrong. Keep in mind that your descriptions need to be accurate and carefully crafted. Use targeted keywords, be relevant and persuade the user to click.
You can use analytics to find terms to focus on, but don’t overuse them in your description. That can just muddy the waters and not provide enough useful information to the user.
Keep in mind that sentences aren’t only the format for meta descriptions. You can label and separate distinct bits of information that the user would find useful. For example, on a product page, you could include “Price: $1.99, Category: Widgets, Manufacturer: Acme.”
Another important piece of meta data is the page title. Many of the how-tos for meta descriptions also apply here.
With our recent observations of how people use and evaluate web content, it’s clear to me that many sites are getting even basic metadata wrong. The art of the meta description and the page title is critical to implementing your content strategy well. It’s a simple way to make your content findable. If you don’t plan for even basic metadata, you may be creating the greatest content in the world that no one will discover.
Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in May 2012.
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