On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy.
When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.
– David Ogilvy
Marketers spend hours crafting the right message…for a reason.
In paid search, Ad-copy is one of the most important performance levers and can literally make or break a campaign.
Performance hungry marketers hypothesize, brainstorm and constantly A/B test Ad-copy variations in an effort to improve click-through rate, conversions and ultimately ROI – because it works.
On the flip side, the SEO equivalent to ad-copy – meta descriptions – rarely receive the same treatment. Far from it.
This, despite organic search being the majority traffic source for most websites.
Often duplicate, boring or straight out missing from the page the description is, for me, one of the most neglected aspects of on-page optimisation despite being on everyone’s SEO 101 list.
Here’s an Example
Ever been shopping for a TV? It’s an arduous process for the consumer, but a very lucrative product line for retailers.
Looking at the search experience here in Australia for TV shopping, the meta descriptions are quite reflection of the situation facing many of the larger, traditional retailers and their inability to communicate value online.
I’ve searched here for ‘led tvs’. This searcher would be right at the top of the funnel – I don’t know what brand or size I’m after – but I know I want LED technology.
So, ignoring ranking position, which of these descriptions (the black text) do you find most compelling?
For me Kogan and Appliances Online, unsurprisingly as online only retailers, are streets ahead here with compelling, helpful descriptions.
Harvey Norman, JB & Dick Smith are just lacking to add any value to help me take the next step in shopping for a TV – I’m not invited to take any real action, there’s no benefit to shopping with them and some of them simply don’t make sense.
So why does this happen?
Honestly? Probably because it’s quite boring at first glance. Even the name ‘meta description’ hardly gets you going does it?
Alternatively, it could simply be a lack of awareness of how important meta descriptions are for SEO, that they do in fact take some time to write or ultimately confusion over who has ownership of the description; Marketing? Tech? Somebody in-between? (Hello!)
Could it also be that even SEO’s, constantly under pressure for better results, prefer to spend time on activities that will add a bit of a wow-factor and move the needle quicker…such as effective content creation and improving link metrics?
Here’s the go though; the unsexy stuff works in SEO.
Why Meta Descriptions are worth investing in
You may have heard that the description tag doesn’t impact SEO. This is true…and false, depending on how you look at it.
The meta description tag, unlike the <title> tag, doesn’t have a direct impact on the ranking position of a page for a specific query.
By direct, I mean that simply adding a keyword to a meta description tag is unlikely to alter the ranking position of the page alone.
The description can however indirectly impact SEO as:
- A search result with an enticing and informative description can enjoy a better click-through rate, than a site ranked in a higher position, if the searcher is more confident they will find the answer they are looking for.
- A higher click-through rate results in increased clicks and visits to a page, which in turn can result in more conversions.
- Search engines know, from user behaviour, when a lower ranked page is gaining a higher click-through rate than others within the search result. Where this behavior is consistent, a page can increase in ranking position simply based on user behaviour.
Sound familiar? Most of the above are also, in similar ways, true for Adwords.
In summary, the meta description is used to entice a user to click on a result. This can lead to a higher quantity of quality traffic.
Google re-write poor meta descriptions
Google knows that people neglect the meta description which reflects poorly on the search results that they display. To try to avoid a collection of blank and poorly written descriptions, Google will often ignore poorly written meta descriptions and replace with text from your content that they deem, algorithmically, is more relevant. More often than not the description is still irrelevant.
Would you trust Google to write your ad-copy? I know I wouldn’t!
How to Write a Great Meta Description
The key is to first understand the intent of the searcher. What are they wanting to achieve? How do you solve this?
I advise clients to treat the description as a sales pitch, often asking – ‘how would you sell me this product/service in 5 seconds’?
Like any good sales pitch, the focus should be on promoting the benefit to the buyer rather than features.
Here’s an example.
I don’t value the self-parking feature on my car because I want it to park itself. I value it because it saves the alloy wheels from being scratched as a result of driver’s who, erm… perhaps aren’t great at parking. My wife is very good at using the self-park! (Actually it’s saved me a few times too…)
In short – replace features with benefits.
By promoting the benefits we are more likely to persuade a searcher that our page (and brand!) is the best solution – matching their intent and being the best available.
Here’s how we do it in 5-steps:
1. Start with a verb
Search attention is short. Searchers scan the page and by starting a description with an action, we make the sentence active rather than passive – leading into a solution.
We are advising the searcher what they will experience when they visit the page and how to engage with it.
2. Be the solution
Lead with a strong benefit and tell the user what they can expect to find on the page and how it will help them.
Tap into their need and intent – ask yourself ‘why are they searching for this information’? Feel free to ask a question within the description, E.g. ‘Not sure where to invest in property?’.
3. Tug at the heartstrings
Emotion is powerful and by tapping into the emotional driver behind the search, we can vastly improve our click through rate.
The wheel of emotion by Robert Plutchik outlines below just how multi-faceted emotion can be. For example, a sense of Alarm may start as apprehension. As the emotion intensifies, it can lead to fear and terror. With that in mind we may benefit from starting a description with a verb that offers a solution to this; prevent, negate, avoid, reduce, decrease etc.
4. Don’t over promise
Avoid making promises in the description that are not fulfilled or immediately evident on the subsequent page.
Common examples are pages with Titles and Descriptions that explain a user can get an instant quote, only to be given a lead form rather than a quotation module.
This will most likely result in a user bouncing back to the search results.
As another indirect signal, this can cause a page to be demoted in search results to a lower ranking position based on a pattern of negative user experience.
5. Be brief
Meta descriptions are generally limited by pixels rather than character count.
For example, you can fit less ‘O’s in a description than you can ‘I’s:
This is challenging to measure at scale, so it is common practice to craft based on characters. Generally, 135-150 characters is a safe number to prevent descriptions become truncated in results with ‘…’ suffixed.
Pro tip: Use the =LEN formula in Excel to inform the length of descriptions for pages when writing en-mass.
6. Don’t stress about keywords
Every SEO guide under the sun says it’s important to include the target keyword in your description.
Yes, the primary keyword will be emboldened when it matches the search query however;
a) your page will rank for thousands of other keywords, that won’t be emboldened, that will generate more traffic than that single one, and
b) if it’s a high volume keyword every competitor listed will also have the keyword in bold. It’s not going to stand out over others.
You’re better off focusing on the messaging than the keyword.
Example of an Improved Meta Description
Here is a before and after example of a meta description where these principles have been applied. This is a tricky example actually as there are some legal constraints to consider with financial products;
Informative, but Not ideal
- Missing an action
- ‘Complimentary insurances’ benefits is Bank-lingo
- A bit boring really, isn’t it?
- NAB is mentioned twice in the Title
Nab has made life easy for SEO and simply used the same headline that’s on the page. That’s OK, but let’s have a crack at improving it.
- Leads with an action; Get
- Benefits; 50k bonus points, 0% B/T and travel insurance (the primary ‘complimentary insurance’ offered)
- Complies with legal requirements (spend requirement and T&C’s note)
- Adjusted the title to remove the duplicate Brand mention and replace with the offer (50k points). Yes – you can use your titles too!
Legal and marketing teams can sometimes get nervous about including offers in organic search results due to the presumed inability to update this quickly when the offer changes or expires (as ‘it takes Google a while to update’) and the risk of non-compliance.
This needn’t be the case.
Even if Google doesn’t crawl a site often (it generally depends on how many pages you have and how often your content is updated), pages can be manually submitted to Google (10 per month currently) which will force a refresh of the description literally within seconds. So, if you’re worried about compliance then, in this instance, update it a few days before the offer ends.
What about dynamic Meta Descriptions?
For sites with thousands or even millions of pages, such as classifieds (E.g. Realestate, Seek, Carsales etc), or marketplaces (E.g. Bike Exchange), crafting individual meta descriptions is unfeasible.
Instead, a syntax can be used to ensure descriptions can be populated at scale.
Just because a syntax is in use, however, this doesn’t mean the description needs to be boring or overly technical. Descriptive, helpful and unique descriptions are possible with some thought and structure – again, with the general user intent in mind. What is it that they searcher is wanting to achieve on these types of pages?
A Great Meta Description by Airbnb
I like this one description from Airbnb as it leads with emotion – starting with ‘unforgettable trips’ and then later combining with an action ‘Find adventures’.
Ask yourself – what do you value more? Finding unique experiences and adventures or simply booking accommodation? Nailed it.
Bunnings, where lack of SEO/SEM synergies are just the beginning
I spend half my life in Bunnings and love it dearly, but this is a classic example of where the ad copy for paid search is good and informative, but the description is as dull as dishwater.
First, the great paid ad.
Range, choice and price = saving money. Getting more done is every busy DIYer’s dream and that’s why I shop at Bunnings! They have plenty of stores and the staff are indeed friendly and helpful.
Great ad copy that’s true to the brand.
So, how about the meta description?
This merely tells me what I can do on the site and the call to action of ‘come visit’ isn’t compelling me to fulfill my destiny as a DIYer.
In their defence, I doubt the same person, or even team/agency, wrote both of these so there’s a misalignment there in SEO/SEM.
Testing & previewing your work
It can be hard to visualise how your shiny new descriptions will look in Google and so, thankfully, there are a number of preview tools out there. I like this one from the good folk at Portent as it’s neat and isn’t spammed with ads.
Where to from here?
Play around with different messaging and you’ll be surprised at how much more enticing and informative you can make the description with just a few minutes. When you’re asked for ‘quick wins’ this one is a no-brainer.
Remember to put the user first and forget about keywords or technical metrics. Promote the benefit and be true to your brand tone and voice. It can pay dividends!
I even find, having spent some time crafting a limited, two line summary of the page, I’m prompted to revisit the actual page itself and can quickly see where the content, design or CTA doesn’t actually align with what we want the user to do.
It can be a great way to focus and ensure both your message and experience are effective.
Thanks for reading and, as always, please reach out if you have any questions.