What is a meta description, exactly? If you’re creating a website from scratch and using a standard website builder, you might see a space available for a meta description on every page of your site. If you pay attention to best practices in the search engine optimization (SEO) realm, you’ve undoubtedly heard about meta descriptions in the past.
But if you aren’t familiar with the term, you might not be able to say what is a meta description are or how to use one properly.
Learning how to write meta descriptions can help you not only earn higher rankings for your pages, but can also help you earn more click-throughs from visitors who encounter your pages in search engine results pages (SERPs).
We’ll start with the basics, then explain how to write an effective meta description for each page of your site.
Related: Beginner’s SEO guide: Search engine optimization for small business websites
What is a meta description?
A meta description is an HTML tag in the HTML code of your website, which allows you to customize a section of text that describes the page itself. It plays a role in how your page is seen by search engine crawlers, and how it appears in SERPs.
In your website builder, you likely have a box labeled “meta description,” where you can add text to apply to your page. In the back end of your HTML code, you’ll see something like this: <meta name=”description” content=”This is the meta description you’ll write for your page.“/>
Google’s search engine crawlers “understand” that meta tags in the back end of your code are meant to describe the nature of the content of your pages. It’s not certain whether your meta description affects your rankings directly, but it can affect your ranking in indirect ways.
For example, a web crawler might use a meta description to learn more about what your page is about, and make sure it appears for relevant searches.
As you learn what is a meta description, you’ll notice they’re also frequently used as part of a page’s entry in a SERP.
Run any Google search, and you’ll see a list of web pages. The title of the website will be highlighted in blue and prominent, and underneath that, you’ll see the URL for the page in green. Right below that, you’ll see a section of black text; this is usually the meta description of the page.
Since this is one of the first things your prospective visitors will see when encountering a link to your page, it’s your chance to persuade them to click the link to your site.
If your meta description is effective in this persuasion, you’ll see a higher click-through rate (CTR), which is beneficial both for your total organic traffic and for your search rankings (most likely — CTR might be correlated with higher search rankings, rather than being a root cause).
What is the purpose of a meta description?
The meta description is your chance to tell both web crawlers and human users what your page is about.
For web crawlers, it serves as context for understanding the relevance of your page.
For human users, it’s a chance to see what the page (and the brand) are all about.
For you, it’s an opportunity to rank higher for relevant searches and persuade more web users to visit your site — instead of a competitor’s in the SERPs.
Elements of an effective meta description
When writing an effective meta description, you’ll have two main goals. You’ll want to appease search engine crawlers to earn higher rankings for relevant keywords, and you’ll want to persuade more people to click on your SERP listing rather than a competing one.
With those two goals in mind, you can polish your meta descriptions with these elements:
Meta description length
First, you’ll need to keep your meta description length concise and short enough to fall within the limits of search engine crawlers. Historically, the limit for meta description length has been 155 characters, but Google recently bumped that up to 320.
If you write anything beyond 320 characters, it won’t be seen by web crawlers, and becomes essentially useless.
Even with that longer upper limit, it’s a good idea to keep your meta descriptions tight. That way, users will be more likely to read all of your text, and you’ll have a lower chance of getting cut off by mobile or other special formatting.
Try to keep it to 160 characters or fewer, and use a maximum of two sentences. For your reference, this sentence is 51 characters.
Meta description tone
Meta descriptions should also be written with an active, energetic voice. A blunt, straightforward description of the content on your page might help web crawlers understand what your page is about, but it isn’t going to motivate any clicks.
For example, the description “a handful of tips to help people budget,” isn’t nearly as active as “Budget more effectively with these actionable tips.”
Target keywords and phrases
You can increase your chances of ranking for keywords and phrases that are especially relevant to your business or those with competitive opportunities.
Keyword research is a topic that merits its own separate guide, but suffice it to say, the best keywords are those with high search volume and low competition.
Ideally, your pages will target a mix of different keywords and phrases, so you’ll have a diversity of different competitive ranking opportunities. However, you’ll want to avoid meta descriptions that are so stuffed with specific keyword phrases that they read as unnatural to the average visitor.
Meta descriptions should relevantly describe the pages they’re assigned to.
For example, if you have a website that sells auto parts and you’re writing a meta description for a page on tires, including a phrase like “cheap brake rotors” might boost your domain’s potential to rank for a promising keyword opportunity, but it won’t have anything to do with the core page.
This is important to ensure your pages rank for the most relevant phrases, and to ensure your visitors find appropriate content when they do click through.
It’s also important to differentiate your brand from those of your competitors.
Remember, you’ll be competing with at least a few other brands in the SERPs, and web users will be evaluating multiple meta descriptions in a single session. If yours sounds too generic, or doesn’t have a hook, you won’t get any clicks.
Finally, you’ll need to make your meta description as persuasive as possible. If you can persuade web users to click your link (rather than your competitors’ links), you’ll likely earn more organic traffic immediately, and earn a higher CTR, which can push your rankings even higher.
Your method of persuasion will depend on your target audience and your main goals, but usually, it requires you to “tease” potential visitors with a hint of the value they’ll receive by visiting your page. What new knowledge or skills will they attain after reading your content? Why are your products better than others’?
Meta description examples
It’s easy to think about these concepts in theory, but much harder to apply them to your own web pages. To help you think about them in a more relevant context, let’s look at some meta description examples and why they’re effective.
“Keep your pet healthier with an annual checkup from your local veterinarian. Schedule an appointment for your cat or dog today!”
This is a tight 130 characters, and only two sentences, making it a nearly perfect length. Each sentence is an active command, with a central focus on getting pet owners to schedule an annual checkup for their pet. If there’s a weakness, it’s that it’s generic; adding an element of uniqueness could take it from “good” to “great.”
“Switch to snow tires to get more traction in winter weather conditions. Find out what makes our snow tires better!”
Here we have a similar-length meta description for a drastically different type of business. “Get more traction” and “snow tires” are strong keyword targets, and there’s a clear demonstration of value — snow tires will help you drive safer in winter conditions, and evidently, this business’s tires are unique in some key way.
“Are you getting enough from your 401(k)? Learn the rookie 401(k) investing mistakes that might be holding your portfolio back.”
There’s a clear indication of value here. The meta description is targeting inexperienced 401(k) investors who need more information on how to balance a portfolio. The voice is highly active, and the wording is both compelling and unique compared to other financial service providers.
How to write a meta description
Now, let’s focus on you. What’s the right way to approach writing a meta description if you’ve never written one before?
Now that we’ve covered what is a meta description, here are some straightforward steps that anyone can feasibly follow:
Do your keyword research
Start with a round of keyword research to learn the most valuable targets for your brand. You’ll want to have an assortment of valuable words and phrases to choose from, so you can distribute them effectively across the pages of your site.
Jot down the main focus of each of your pages
Hopefully, you already have a site map for all your core pages. If not, now’s the time to make one. If you’re writing meta descriptions for individual blog posts, you can address them one at a time.
Either way, write down the main focus or main idea of each page for which you need a meta description. Are you educating your visitors on a particular topic? Selling them a specific product?
Study the competition
Next, run a search for the keyword phrase you’d like to target or the main focus of your webpage. You’ll see a list of competitors, and you’ll have the chance to review their meta descriptions firsthand.
This can help you generate some initial ideas, but don’t copy their strategies directly. Remember, you’ll need to differentiate yourself from other brands.
Write an active first draft
Armed with a core focus, relevant keyword targets and knowledge of the competition, you should have everything you need to hammer out a first draft.
It doesn’t need to be perfect at this stage, so don’t worry too much about nailing it. Just get something down that accomplishes your main goals.
Trim to size
Now, you can work to edit that description. Clean up any ambiguous phrases with more specific words, and adjust any tonal discrepancies to keep the focus on persuading a click-through. Then, trim to size. Though 320 characters is the upper limit, try to keep it to around 150 characters (including spaces).
Key mistakes to avoid when writing a meta description
Now that you know what is a meta description and have a first draft, you might be wondering if it’s worthy of publication. Consider whether you’ve made (or are making) these all-too-common mistakes:
Writing too much: Concise is almost always better. Definitely keep it under 320 characters, but aim for 150 or fewer.
Sounding unoriginal: Does your meta description sound like everyone else’s? If so, it could use a punch-up.
Deviating from the topic of the page: Everything in the description should pertain to your on-page content. Visitors shouldn’t be surprised at what they find.
Ignoring keyword: At least one targeted keyword or phrase should be included in your description.
Stuffing keywords: That said, don’t include too many keywords or you’ll compromise your content.
Using a passive tone: You need active energy in your words. Don’t be passive or boring.
Failing to indicate value: What benefit will visitors gain from clicking through? Make this apparent.
Did you avoid all these mistakes? If so, you’re ready to publish!
Helpful tools for writing meta descriptions
If you’re struggling to write a meta description on your own, there are some online tools that can help you.
With it, you can evaluate which keywords you’re using sitewide, evaluate the length and value of your descriptions, and even get recommendations for synonyms and other keyword phrases to use in the future.
SEO Book has a free meta description generator, and you can likely find similar meta description generators all over the web. These can be useful in helping you come up with new ideas, but be wary of using them exclusively; take the time to edit and polish their recommendations to perfect them.
Meta descriptions are just one of several vital components in your on-site optimization strategy. Fortunately, you don’t have to shoulder that SEO strategy by yourself. And if you’re really looking to work less and rank higher, don’t be afraid to get a little help from the experts.