Meta description is an often maligned as a tag that is not as important as its cousins alt attribute or the title tag. Maybe because of its close affinity with keyword meta data, the often abused tag, the meta description is sometimes portrayed in a bad light.
On search results, the meta description and page title are the only ones that show up on search results. This means that these two influence click through rate, the ratio between the number of clicks and number of impressions.
Google has announced that it employs a number of strategies for selecting snippets. As webmasters, we can control what Google can display on search results by writing informative meta description for each URL. That being said, it’s required that each URL / web page must have a unique meta description, on top of a unique page title.
Take a look at the search results below, using a search for “hong kong lounge”:
The first two search results doesn’t show much page description within the snippet. Let me point out that more than just an influencer of search engines to rank pages better, it’s these snippets that influence visitors to click or not to click on such results. Therefore, a good meta description helps improve click through rates more than just rankings.
<META NAME="description" CONTENT="descriptive message about the page here">
If search engines cannot find the meta description, or if it does not relate to the search phrase, I believe the snippet that will show within the search results will be based on excerpts of the search phrase found within the body of the web page. One thing Google mentioned is that it is less likely to display boilerplate text, a generic meta description found across most pages within the site.
Although it is advisable to create a descriptive meta tag across all pages, focus and priority must be on the more important pages such as landing pages, homepage, or product pages.
Meta description details may not be as narrative as a typical meta data. What is important is that it contains clearly tagged facts. One good example presented was a page about Harry Potter book for sale. Price, number of pages, publisher, author, etc.
<META NAME="description" CONTENT="Author: J. K. Rowling, Illustrator: Mary GrandPré, Category: Books, Price: $17.99, Length: 784 pages">
Similarly, for a car dealer selling the latest Honda CR-V model:
<META NAME="description" CONTENT="Honda CR-V 2008 Specifications - Engine type: In-Line 4-Cylinder, 166-hp, DOHC i-VTEC® 4-cylinder engine; MSRP $20,700">
Personally, I’d like to think of the meta description as similar to the ad text of any paid search campaign (like Yahoo! Search Marketing or Google AdWords) while the page title is like the ad title.
Title: 2008 Honda CR-V
Description: Car specifications – Engine type: In-Line 4-Cylinder, 166-hp, DOHC i-VTEC® 4-cylinder engine; MSRP $20,700 and features Honda Satellite-Linked Navigation System.
Titles don’t need to be duplicated in the meta description because both title and description appear within the search results.
Programmatically create meta data and titles for CMS-driven sites
For pages that have similar structure yet are too many to consider doing a manual placement of meta description, we can consider doing a program to generate the meta descriptions. This is especially applicable for sites using Content Management System (CMS). As each page is generated, so are its page title and meta descriptions too.
In the Singles For Christ News page I built before I had a simple structure to follow so that everytime I create a news article I don’t have to worry about placement of meta description and page title. You can even look at the meta descriptions generated within each of this blog’s entries.
Quality of Meta Description
It is easy to get tempted to be lazy in placing a descriptive meta description (especially if we have more than a thousand pages to update, d’oh!) because this meta data isn’t visible to your visitors unless they look at our source code. But that’s the place where search engine robots thrive and so we must pay attention to it.