Add a Meta Description Tag

Continuing with our search engine optimization articles, today we are going to learn about the meta description tag. In this article we will discuss:

What is a Meta Description Tag?

The meta description tag is a member of the meta elements of your web page. We have already discussed the meta keywords tag and title tag (which isn’t really a meta tag but some lump this in when discussing meta tags).

The meta description is hidden from your visitors when they view your page but is accessible by the bots (also known as web crawlers, search engine robots and search engine spiders) that roam the web. The contents of your description meta tag may be displayed in the search results of the search engines or in a site description in a directory or information site where they scan your description meta tag. Some CMS (content management systems) and ecommerce software software may also use this information when displaying a summary page like an articles list or category list.

How to Create a Meta Description Tag

The description meta tag contains a name attribute and a contents attribute. Below is what a description tag looks like when inserted into a page using XHTML:

<meta name="description" content="Your meta description goes here " />

This tag goes between the head tags:

<head>
</head>

I like to keep all my meta tags that change per page together in the head section just before the opening body tag. This is so all the typical other stuff in the head of the coding can be inserted with an include or if building a DWT (dynamic web template) the editable section in the head section is all together and one set of editable region tags is required. Saves on a bit of coding.

<title>Title of the document</title>
<meta name="description" content="Your meta description goes here " />
<meta name="keywords" content="Your meta keywords go here " />
<body>

Contents of the Meta Description Tag

The contents of the meta description tag should describe what the page is about.

Some search engines may use the contents of the meta description in their results when your page comes up for a search. There no way to force the search engines to display what you want as the description. All you can to is write the best description for the page and hope that the search engines think that is better than what they came up with.

Examples of what the search engines say about how they display the description for your page when it comes up in a search result:

From Google:

Google’s creation of sites’ titles and descriptions (or “snippets”) is completely automated and takes into account both the content of a page as well as references to it that appear on the web.

We use a number of different sources for this information, including descriptive information in the META tag for each page. Where this information isn’t available, we may use publicly available information from DMOZ. While accurate meta descriptions can improve clickthrough, they won’t impact your ranking within search results. We frequently prefer to display meta descriptions of pages (when available) because it gives users a clear idea of the URL’s content. This directs them to good results faster and reduces the click-and-backtrack behavior that frustrates visitors and inflates web traffic metrics.

While we’re unable to manually change titles or snippets for individual sites, we’re always working to make them as relevant as possible. You can help improve the quality of the snippets displayed for your pages by providing informative meta descriptions for each page.

Changing a site title and description – Webmaster Tools Help – Google (there is a video and more information on this page.)

And from Bing:

While search engines reserve the right to use a variety of inputs for filling out site description snippets in their SERPs, webmasters who provide unique, concise, compelling, and keyword-laden descriptions in their tag’s description attribute help guide the development of their websites’ SERP captions.

When creating the description text, remember the following:

  • Create unique descriptions for each page, using keywords specific to that page
  • Keep the description text between 25 and 150 characters in length
  • Do not copy title tag text content as a description; this is a wasted opportunity to develop more keywords and adds no value
  • Make the description text unique on every page
  • Don’t use any of the following special characters in description text: ‘”<>{}[]()

Bing Heads up on <head> tag optimization (SEM 101) – Webmaster Center blog – Site Blogs – Bing Community

If you do not want the DMOZ description of your page used by the search engines (that honour this next line) then add the following meta tag to the head of your page(s): (XHTML version shown)

<meta name="robots" content="NOODP" />

Each Meta Description Needs to Be Different

For each and every page the meta description needs to be different. When you something like a ecommerce site with different similar products similar meta descriptions (just changing the product name for example) doesn’t cut it.

Meta Description is to Describe the Page Contents

The text you put in the meta description needs to describe what the visitor will find on the page when they click your link in the search results.

Make the Meta Description Enticing

The more enticing you make your meta description, the better your click through rate will be from the search results, if the search engines use your meta description. Also consider the “other” bots that read your meta description for inclusion into their directory or resource listing page. There is also the category listing or article listing your CMS or ecommerce site will display if they use the meta description tag from the page.

Include Keywords in Your Meta Description

Use a keyword phrase in your meta description. The keyword(s) will be bolded in the search results if the search engines use your meta description instead of their own. But don’t list a bunch of keywords. That just looks spammy and really is of no help to the person who did the search when they see you in the search results.

How Long Can My Meta Description Be?

Meta description length is a common question on the web. Everyone has their own opinion on how long the meta description contents can be. The only publically states answer to this question (at the time of this writing) I could find is from Bing:

Keep the description text between 25 and 150 characters in length

Bing Heads up on <head> tag optimization (SEM 101) – Webmaster Center blog – Site Blogs – Bing Community

Now if you search around you will find that SEOmoz says:

Meta descriptions can be any length but search engines generally truncate snippets longer than 160 characters, For this reason it is best to keep meta descriptions between 150-160 characters.

Meta Description

The only real way to see how many characters your meta description should be is to do a test. The following images show the meta description length in different search engine results:

Search results in Google showing meta description length
Search results in Bing showing meta description length
Search results in Yahoo showing meta description length

This also shows how the different search engines will display the search result listing for SEOmoz when meta description length is the search phrase plus that the keywords are bolded in the results.

Add a Meta Description to Your Pages

The specifics on how to add a meta description to your pages will depend on how your pages are constructed.

For a static (regular) web page you would open the web page file, add the meta description tag, save the file, close it then upload to your web server.

With a content management system, blogging software and ecommerce site software you will have to consult the owner’s manual. They quite possibly have a field for you to fill in within your control panel. It is also possible a plugin will be needed to add this capability.

Which ever method you use to add a meta description to your pages make sure it is unique for each page and descriptive of what the visitor will find on the page.

Remeber that the search engines might decide that they know better as to what to put for the description in your search result based on the search conducted. Don’t get upset, especially if you are on the 1st page. All you can do is have a look at what you have written and maybe tweak it but there are still no guarantees.

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