What search engines and sites like Facebook actually do with meta description information.
The keywords and phrases you use in your Meta description tag may not affect your page’s ranking in the search engines, but this tag can still come in handy in your overall SEO and social media marketing campaigns.
What Is the Meta Description Tag?
It’s a snippet of HTML code that belongs inside the <Head> </Head> section of a web page. It is usually placed after the Title tag and before the Meta keywords tag (if you use one), although the order is not important.
The proper syntax for this HTML tag is:
<META NAME=”Description” CONTENT=”Your descriptive sentence or two goes here.”>
If you’re using a content management system (CMS), look for a field to fill out that’s called Meta Description, or possibly just “Description.”
Many years ago, the information contained in a Meta description could slightly help a page rank highly for the words that were contained within it. Today, neither Google, Bing, nor Yahoo! use it as a ranking signal.
In other words, whether you use your important keyword phrases in your Meta description tag or not, the position of your page in the search engine results will not be affected. So in terms of rankings, you could easily leave it out altogether.
But should you?
There are 3 important ways that Meta descriptions are being used today that make them an important part of your SEO and overall online marketing strategy:
They can be used as the description (or part of the description) of your page if it shows up in the search results.
They are often used as part of the descriptive information for your pages when Google shows “extended sitelinks” for your site.
They are often used as the default description in social media marketing links such as Facebook and Google+.
Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
1. Meta Descriptions in the Search Results
People often think that whatever they put in their Meta description tag will be the default description that the search engines use under the clickable link to their site in the search results. While this is sometimes true, it’s not always the case.
Currently, if you’re searching for a site by its URL (for example www.highrankings.com) Google tends to use the first 20 to 25 words of your Meta description as the default description in the search engine result pages (SERP). However, if you have a listing at DMOZ, also known as the Open Directory Project (ODP) and are not using the “noodp” tag, they may default to that description instead. (Do a search at Google for www.amazon.com to see an example.)
Bing and Yahoo!, on the other hand, don’t always default to the Meta description tag for URL searches. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. A search for www.highrankings.com at Bing or Yahoo! shows content from my home page as the description rather than the contents of my Meta description tag.
Of course, real people aren’t typically searching for a site by URL, so what the search engines show for those types of search queries is not as important as a true keyword search. So don’t get hung up on what you see when you search for your site by its URL or if you’re doing a “site:command” search to see how they’re indexing your pages.
Instead, go to your favorite web analytics program and find the keyword phrases that are currently bringing you the most traffic. Then see what your description looks like at Google when you type in those keywords.
And surprise! What you’ll find is that your search results description will be different for every search query! You may see any combination of the following used:
Your entire Meta description tag text as the complete description (typically if it’s highly relevant and contains no more than 25 words).
A full sentence pulled from your Meta description tag, but not the entire Meta description (if it contains more than one sentence).
Text from one part of your Meta description mashed together with text from another part of it (if it’s more than 25 words long).
Some text from your Meta description mashed together with some text from the page.
Some text from your page mashed together from some other text from your page (nothing from the Meta description).
Some of the circumstances that cause Google to not use text from your Meta description may include:
The information in the Meta description tag was not specific to the page it was on.
The search query used some words that were not in the Meta description, but those words (or some of them) were used in the page content. This includes words that Google considers somewhat synonymous, such as “copy” and “copywriting” or “SEO” and “search engine optimization.”
But even the above are not hard and fast rules. Google doesn’t always use all or part of the Meta description even when the exact search phrase was contained within it – especially if the search query is also contained within the content of the page. Suffice it to say that there are no hard and fast rules for when Google will show it and when they won’t.
My recommendation is to always use keywords on any pages where you get search engine visitors (or hope to get them). Make them very specific to the page they’re on by describing what someone will find when they click through to the page from the search results, while also using variations of your targeted keywords.
Because Google will show only show around 20 to 25 words as your description, many SEOs recommend that you limit this tag to a certain number of characters. In reality, however, you’re not limited to any specific number. Your Meta description tag can be as long as you want it to be because Google will pull out the relevant parts of it and make their own snippet anyway.
For instance, if you’re optimizing a page for 3 different keyword phrases, you could write a 3-sentence Meta description tag, with each sentence focusing on a different phrase. You could probably even insert more than 3 phrases in those sentences if you’re a good wordsmith. The idea, however, is not to stuff this tag full of keywords, but to write each sentence to be a compelling marketing statement – a statement that naturally uses the keywords people might be typing into Google to find your site.
2. Meta Descriptions and Extended Sitelinks
These days, Google often uses the first few words from your Meta description tag when they create the “extended sitelinks” for your website. But this too is not set in stone and is highly keyword dependent. You’ll see different sitelinks and different descriptions showing up depending on the words a searcher used at Google.
As an example, if you do a search for “High Rankings” at Google, you’ll see my sitelinks for that search query.
At this moment, Google is showing my home page as the top result with 6 inner pages beneath:
Forum home page: Description is from DMOZ/ODP. This page has the generic Meta description that is on every page of the forum.
Link building forum home page: Description is content pulled from the page that uses the words “High Rankings” in it.
SEO articles page: First part of Meta description.
Newsletter home page: First part of Meta description.
SEO/SEM resources page: First part of Meta description.
SEO classes page: First part of Meta description.
For the most part, they’re using the first part of the Meta description as the sitelink snippet, but not always. You may have noticed that I optimized those Meta description sitelink snippets that are showing by front loading them so that the first 5-7 words or so are a short description of what the page is all about.
But here’s the rub. Do a Google search for “Jill Whalen SEO.” You should still see sitelinks, and you’ll even see some of the same ones as with the previous query, but some of the descriptions are different:
While the forum home page shows in both, this time Google has pulled text from the page rather than using the DMOZ/ODP description. This is likely because this search query had the word “SEO” in it while the other one didn’t. The SEO articles page also shows up here, and it is using the same Meta description snippet as the High Rankings query. The other sitelinks are different from before, with 3 out of 4 using the Meta description.
As you can see, while you do have some control over your sitelink descriptions via your Meta description tag, Google might not always use them (just as Google does with their regular search results). Your best chance of having them show is to use, close to the beginning of your description tags, the words that you know pull up sitelinks. Also, be as descriptive as possible within the first 5 to 7 words.
3. Meta Descriptions and Social Media Marketing
Ever wonder why some Facebook links have great descriptions and others don’t seem to make any sense? It’s because some site owners have taken the time to write a summary of the article and place it into their Meta description tag, and some have not. If your article has a Meta description, Facebook and Google+ will default to that when you share a link on your profile or “Page.” If there’s no Meta description, you’ll usually see the first sentence or so from the page being used as the default.
While anyone can edit the description that Facebook defaults to, most people don’t. And at this time on Google+ you can’t even edit the default description. You can either leave it as is or delete it all together. Let’s face it — most of the time the first sentence of an article is not a good description of the rest of it. It’s not supposed to be, because that’s not what a first sentence is for!
Therefore, I strongly advise you to always write a compelling 1- or 2-sentence description for all of your articles and blog content that may be shared via social media, and place it into your Meta description tag. This will give you a big jump on your competitors who haven’t figured this out yet, making your social media content much more clickable because people will know what the article is actually about before they click on it.
Overall, the Meta description tag gives you a little bit more control over what people might see before they click over to your site. The more compelling it is, the more clickthroughs you should see. If your Meta description tags can help with that, then it’s certainly worth the few minutes of time it takes to create interesting, keyword-rich tags that sum up what users will find when they arrive!
For a while lately I’ve been noticing that I’m getting search engine traffic from the phrase “backchannel adoption.”
I’ve written about the backchannel several times, I’ve even reviewed a book about it. But I’ve not mentioned backchannel adoption. So what’s up with all the searchers who are coming here looking for info who probably aren’t finding what they want?
I searched the blog myself, to find whatever I could that mentioned backchannel. Aha, I found an 18 month old Useful links post with the title “Useful Links: Backchannel, adoption rates, Scrunchup.” I’m thinking the search engines are ignoring the comma between the two keywords. That seems good to know. Then I looked at the URL:
I’m sure the bounce rate for users who end up here based on that keyword search is about 100%, so it isn’t doing me any good in terms of building a following for the blog. But it’s something to think about when you are composing your post titles.
In my day-to-day reviews of client websites, I see lots of things done to websites in the name of SEO that in reality have no bearing on it.
In an effort to keep you from spending your precious time on supposed SEO tactics that will have absolutely no effect on your rankings, search engine visitors, conversions or sales, I present you with 16 SEO tactics that you can remove from your personal knowledge base and/or SEO toolbox as being in any way related to SEO:
Meta Keywords: Lord help us! I thought I was done discussing the ole meta keywords tag in 1999, but today in 2011 I encounter people with websites who still think this is an important SEO tactic. My guess is it’s easier to fill out a keyword meta tag than to do the SEO procedures that do matter. Suffice it to say, the meta keyword tag is completely and utterly useless for SEO purposes when it comes to all the major search engines – and it always will be.
XML Site Maps or Submitting to Search Engines: If your site architecture stinks and important optimized pages are buried too deeply to be easily spidered, an XML site map submitted via Webmaster Tools isn’t going to make them show up in the search results for their targeted keywords. At best it will make Google aware that those pages exist. But if they have no internal or external link popularity to speak of, their existence in the universe is about as important as the existence of the tooth fairy (and she won’t help your pages to rank better in Google either!).
Link Title Attributes: Think that you can simply add descriptive text to your “click here” link’s title attribute? (For example: <a href=”page1.html” title=”Spammy Keywords Here”>Click Here</a>.) Think again. Back in the 1990s I too thought these were the bee’s knees. Turns out they are completely ignored by all major search engines. If you use them to make your site more accessible, then that’s great, but just know that they have nothing to do with Google.
Header Tags Like H1 or H2: This is another area people spend lots of time in, as if these fields were created specifically for SEOs to put keywords into. They weren’t, and they aren’t. They’re simply one way to mark up your website code with headlines. While it’s always a good idea to have great headlines on a site that may or may not use a keyword phrase, whether it’s wrapped in H-whatever tags is of no consequence to your rankings.
Keyworded Alt Text on Non-clickable Images: Thought you were clever to stuff keywords into the alt tag of the image of your pet dog? Think again, Sparky! In most cases, non-clickable image alt tag text isn’t going to provide a boost to your rankings. And it’s especially not going to be helpful if that’s the only place you have those words. (Clickable images are a different story, and the alt text you use for them is in fact a very important way to describe the page that the image is pointing to.)
Keyword-stuffed Content: While it’s never been a smart SEO strategy, keyword-stuffed content is even stupider in today’s competitive marketplace. In the 21st century, less is often more when it comes to keywords in your content. In fact, if you’re having trouble ranking for certain phrases that you’ve used a ton of times on the page, rather than adding it just one more time, try removing some instances of it. You may be pleasantly surprised at the results.
Optimizing for General or Peripheral Keywords: You’re not gonna rank for a one-word keyword. You’re just not. You are likely not even going to rank for a 2-word keyword. So stop wasting your time optimizing for them, and find the phrases that answer the searcher’s question. For example, most people seeking legal help aren’t putting the one word “lawyer” into Google. They have a very specific need for a certain type of lawyer as well as a specific location in which they hope to find said lawyer. So rather than throwing the word “lawyer” all over your site, ask yourself this: There are people out there who want what you’re providing. What are they typing into Google? Now focus on those words instead. And don’t even get me started on people who put words on their pages that are barely related to what they do “just in case” someone who types that into Google might be interested in what they offer. You won’t rank for those phrases anyway, but even if you magically did, they won’t make you any sales.
Targeting the Same Keywords on Every Page: The keyword universe for any product or service is ginormous. (It really is.) Even if there are one or two phrases that bring you the most traffic, why the heck would you want to miss out on the gazillions of others as well? Stop focusing every page on the same handful of phrases and start targeting each page to its own specific set that most relate to what you’re offering there.
Focusing on Ads as Links: Banner ads, Google AdWords links and most other forms of online advertising do not create links that count toward your link popularity. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use this form of marketing – just don’t be deluded into thinking that it will have a direct effect on your organic search engine rankings and traffic.
Mad-lib Doorway Pages: While you may offer lots of products or services that are extremely similar to one another with just one minor change, it’s not a good idea to create separate pages for each of them and making only minor keyword changes to each of them. While this may be okay for paid search landing pages, it’s a duplicate content spammy nightmare for organic SEO purposes. (In fairness, I do sometimes still see this technique work, but it’s still not advisable to do it.)
Linking to Google or Other Popular Websites: It’s the links pointing to your pages from other sites that help you with SEO, not the pages you’re linking out to. ‘Nuff said.
Redirecting a Keyworded Domain to Your Real One: So you have your business name as your domain (as you should), but you have noticed the unfortunate fact that Google seems to really like domains that have keywords in them. Buying one (or more) and redirecting it to your actual website can’t provide you with any advantage because a redirected website (and its domain name) is never seen by the search engines. And besides, even if there were something magical about doing this, again, you’re only talking about one keyword phrase.
Republishing Only Others’ Stuff: While it’s fine to republish an article that someone else published first, if that’s all your blog consists of, it’s not going to help your search engine rankings. Instead of republishing entire articles, discuss them in your own posts and provide your thoughts and opinions on what’s good / bad / ugly about what the others are saying. It’s all about adding value.
Making Minor Changes to Freshen Content: This is not going to help a thing. If any old articles or posts need to be updated, then update them. But just changing a date or a few words will not have any effect on your search engine rankings or traffic.
Main Navigation That Links to Every Page: If linking to pages in your main navigation gives them more internal link popularity and therefore more possible weighting with the search engines, then surely linking to every single page of the site in your main navigation should be a good idea, right? Wrong! It isn’t. All it does is spread your internal link popularity too thin and confuse the heck out of your site visitors. Don’t do it. Choose to link only to top-level categories and perhaps subcategories (if you have a reasonable number of them) in your main navigation. This allows users to drill down further when they’re in the category sections themselves.
Did I miss any? I’m quite sure I’ve just touched the surface on waste-of-time SEO tactics. How about you? Do you agree with the above? Disagree?
Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, an SEO Consulting company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen
She’s been in the SEO and PPC business for 16 years. Sixteen years! You don’t find that kind of longevity and expertise in many web-based businesses. She owns a company that enables her to do the thing that is closest to her heart: find young women with marketing backgrounds and train them to be both expert marketers and technically confident and authoritative, too.
Who is this woman? Terri Jenkins, the owner of W3PR.com. She and her husband, Mark run the company from Albuquerque, with a second office in Los Angeles. Their business involves internet marketing, advertising, SEO, PPC, social media marketing, website conversion, and Google Analytics.
Terri describes herself as a hybrid – both a technologist and an advertising guru. In order to do her work with PPC campaigns, SEO and marketing, she has to keep current with leading edge technology and the technological implications of new developments to her industry. She says her first love was technology and talks with fond memory of having a beta account at CompuServe and being one of the original advertisers on AOL.
Terri and her husband started their business in L.A. During the dotcom boom, they had over 25 employees. After the dotcom crash they struggled, but didn’t give up. They made their office a virtual workplace, with all remote employees. Now their work takes place in the cloud. Recently they moved to Albuquerque, where Terri’s parents live. Their business consists of Terri and her husband, three women who work remotely full time, and one man who is part time.
When we met to talk, she was delighted to share the news that she’d just hired her first new full time employee since 2008, a young woman with a marketing degree. She said the young woman is smart and eager to learn. Terri looks for employees like that. She says, “As part of their training with me, I want to make sure they a cross-trained with the technical knowledge, too.” She adds, “That gives them and me something extra other ad agencies don’t have – a well-rounded knowledge that we can offer.”
Terri said she sees a lot of insecurity and lack of confidence in young women. She enjoys nurturing them and helping them “own what they know and use it unapologetically. Young women need to value their own opinions to be effective and authoritative.”
Sixteen years on the front edge of relevance is impressive in a world of rapid change. I asked how she does it. She said, “I feel like I read for a living.” Her reading is designed to make sure she understands everything in the Internet world that’s being talked about. She uses the knowledge to improve her own business as well as that of her clients. Virtual phone service, cloud based meetings and document sharing, and online project management tools are all concepts she’s incorporated into her business.
She shared a few of her clients. W3PR works with Red Bull to implement SEO and PPC ads for sites like Shawn White and others. They work with Atari on the re-release of old video games from the 80s. They’re working with AMC Theaters on the promotion of the new dine-in theaters going in around the country. There are many other examples from their client list that testify to their success.
In 2010, the New Mexico Technology Council awarded Terri Jenkins a Women in Tech Award, recognizing her longevity and her talent for inspiring others. A perfect award for someone who says nurturing young employees brings her a great deal of satisfaction.
You can follow Terri on Twitter @TerriJenkins. She likes to share what she knows there.
Jill Whalen is a leading expert in the field of search engine optimization (SEO) and the head of High Rankings. Meet Jill Whalen.
Q: Tell us a little about your background and training before you became the woman behind High Rankings.
A: Since I started online in the early 90’s I didn’t have much background or training to prepare me for SEO. There weren’t articles or books on the subject, heck, it wasn’t even called SEO back then! I started with a BA from UMASS Amherst and a love of computers and the Internet.
Q: What sparked your interest in search engine optimization (SEO) and how long have you been in the SEO business?
A: I was a mom at home playing around on the Internet whenever I had a chance. There weren’t many parenting websites back in the early 90’s and I had created one to complement my parenting chat channel on IRC. I wanted parents to easily be able to find the website online so I studied what made certain sites appear in the search engines and others not, then made changes to my site accordingly. From the very beginning it was clear to me that the information you put on your pages was one of the most important factors, just like it is today. I was also dabbling in website design for small businesses and would include optimization in my packages. Since SEO was such a new subject, I quickly became the go-to person on web email discussion lists when the topic would come up. Eventually, business started booming as more companies became interested in SEO; so much so that by 1997 I made it my core service offering.
Q: You have so many irons in the fire: you do consulting, website audits, teach classes, publish a newsletter, respond to questions in the forums. And you have to keep up with the antics of the search engines and be ready to help people react appropriately when something like Google changing its algorithm happens suddenly. Describe what your typical work day is like.
A: You do make it sound tiring! Thankfully these days I have some help. Over the past few years High Rankings has grown from being just me working at home to having a office and a few additional team members. A typical day for me consists of getting to the office, then checking the High Rankings forum posts that came in overnight and answering any that weren’t already answered by one of our top-notch moderators. I’ll also review and answer any emails that may have come in, and perhaps make one morning tweet on Twitter to start the day. By 9:00 or so I try to settle in for some “real work” which could be anything from reviewing a site audit report that was prepared for a client, writing one of my SEO columns or creating a presentation for one of our SEO classes or a conference. Throughout the day I’ll also be answering questions and working with the others on my team on various client action items.
The best part is that most every day is different. Newsletter days get mostly taken up with that, and training class days are solely focused on that. I try to organize my week so that I am focusing on only one major project per day, be it the newsletter, writing an article, or some sort of client project. That way when I need a break from it, I’ll check out Twitter or the forum, or answer newsletter email questions. Thankfully, none of it feels like actual work as SEO is still fun and interesting to me.
Q: High Rankings was an early success story in terms of online business models. You sell books and videos in addition to the training and consulting. You provide free information with your newsletter. Talk about how you developed the various pieces that went into making the business a success.
A: Yes, I was one of the first in the SEO biz to tell everyone else exactly how it was done — all for free! I’m pretty sure I annoyed many of my competitors back in the day when I did this. Partially because I was constantly spilling the beans on how to do SEO, but also because I would bust the myths and scare tactics that other companies would use on their clients. In my early days, I was even giving out free site audit reports. Providing the free info became yet another avenue for establishing myself as an expert. While learning SEO isn’t rocket science, there can be a steep learning curve. So even with all the free info provided by High Rankings, the average site owner or business doesn’t have the time or inclination to become an SEO expert. Like most professional services, it’s often cheaper in the long run to hire an expert than to spend the long hours figuring it all out for yourself.
I’ve always felt passionate about ensuring that businesses understand that SEO can and should be done without having to do anything sleazy or tricky or spammy to the search engines. That’s been the biggest reason why SEO education had become such a large part of what we offer. Along with our public classes, we spend a good chunk of time educating clients so that they can eventually take their SEO in house and maintain the SEO work themselves. Clients appreciate not feeling locked into anything, and secure that their targeted search engine traffic won’t suddenly disappear when they stop paying us for services.
Q: How does the use of social media tie in with search engine optimization? Or does it?
A: It ties in nicely these days as a means of gaining links. The days of putting up a links page on your site and trading links with others are gone. While you can still do that, there’s so much competition that you have to really set yourself apart from the others. The best way to do that is to have something truly unique, creative and useful and then get the word out about it. Social media is often the best way of getting the word out.
Q: You speak at conferences. What sort of conferences do you like to attend? At BlogHer a constant topic is the visibility of women in tech and in the conference world. Are you the lone female SEO expert, or are there quite a few women in evidence at conferences and in the SEO world?
A: I typically speak at most of the search marketing related conferences. When I first started speaking (in 2000) there was definitely less women in the industry than there are today. This has changed a lot over the past few years, especially as people began to recognize that SEO is actually marketing as much (or more) than it is tech. Still, some of the conferences that focus more on the tech side do have more men than women in attendance even today. I was just at PubCon in Vegas and it seemed to have a lot more men than women as compared to say Search Engine Strategies or SMX.
Q: You spoke at BlogHer Business 08 in New York and posted the video of your session on your site. What are the benefits of sharing sessions like this free to anyone who wants to watch?
A: Since BlogHer had already made the session publicly available, I embedded it on our site in our “past speaking events” section. Doing that is another means of adding credibility and providing more education to our site visitors. It’s also helpful to point others to who might be looking for a speaker or moderator for their conference or seminar.
Q: I looked at one of your training sessions. You limited the enrollment to 6! That’s unusual. Trainers usually try to get as many bodies as possible into sessions. I’m sure you have a good reason for doing it that way, and I’d love to know what it is.
A: Years ago we were offering larger search marketing seminars in various parts of the country two times a year. However, as the search marketing conference/training market expanded, it became difficult to fill the seminars with enough people to make it profitable so we stopped offering them. That was a tough decision for me because I felt that what we were offering was so valuable to those who attended. Plus, there was nothing else out there at the time that was comparable enough to recommend when people would ask about SEO training. So that’s how the small classes came about. We are able to do them in our own office, thus eliminating travel, hotel and room rental expenses. Filling up 6 seats is fairly easy with just a bit of promotion through our email lists, and we can typically fill up 1 class a month. The attendees get personal attention as we review their websites in advance, but they don’t have to pay high consulting fees since they’re within a classroom setting. They get to learn from each others’ websites which we’ve found is also valuable. It’s been a win-win situation all around.
That said, we had so many requests from our attendees to offer some more in-depth and advanced classes that we’ve just added four web marketing workshops to the training that we offer. These are 1/2 day sessions offered over the course of 2 days (Apr. 2-3, 2009) covering keyword research, copywriting, social media marketing and web analytics. We are allowing more than 6 people to sign-up for these, but will still keep them fairly small. Budding search marketers can sign up for just one-workshop, an entire day or the full 2-days.
Q: What’s your advice for someone who wants to do a redesign of their website?
A: When you’re redesigning an existing website, it’s the best time to review your existing SEO strategies and/or to begin a new SEO campaign. The worst thing you can do is develop your new site first and THEN think about SEO (unfortunately, we see this happen all the time). If you’ve already done some SEO and are getting good search engine traffic, you’ll also need to make sure that you don’t mess that up during your redesign process. That’s another thing we see happen all too often. I can’t stress enough how important it is to consult with your SEO agency during your redesign if you don’t want to be in for nasty surprises somewhere down the road!
Q: If you could only give a blogger one tip for SEO, what would it be?
A: This isn’t necessarily directly related to SEO, but my tip for bloggers would be to only post when you truly have something interesting to say. While not every post has to be exceptional, every post should have a reason for existing. The worst thing a blogger can do is just post for posting’s sake. Sometimes bloggers and others are so frenzied about creating as much content as possible that they post a lot of useless or repetitive junk that nobody really wants to read. When given the choice, choose quality over quantity. It will be better for your users and whatever is better for users is also better for search engines!
My thanks to Jill for agreeing to the interview so we could get to know her better. Equally important, thanks to Jill for all the great advice about SEO that she’s provided to us over the years.