Back in the earliest days of search optimization, meta tags were a great channel for placing keywords for the search engines to associate with your pages. A meta tag does just what it sounds like — they are the html tags built toÂ hold metadata (or, “data describing the data”) about pages. In terms of SEO, the main meta tags people refer to are the Keywords and Description meta tags. Meta tags are not visible to endusers looking at the page, but the meta tag content would be collected by search engines and used to rank a page — it was really convenient if you wanted to pass synonyms, misspellings, and various term stems along with the specific keywords.
Immediately after people realized that meta tags could allow a page to be found more relevant in the major search engines, unscrupulous people began abusing the tags by passing keywords that had little or nothing to do with the content of their sites, and the search engines began to reduce using that content for a keyword association ranking factor because it couldn’t be trusted. Eventually, search engines pretty well dropped using them for ranking altogether and newer search engines didn’t bother to use them at all, leading Danny Sullivan to declare the death of the metatags  in 2002.
Fast forward to 2006, and the situation has changed yet again. Your meta tag content can once again directly affect your pages’ rankings in the SERPs!
The Meta Description content frequently shows up in the major search engines’ keyword search results pages below the matching page links.
Now, this is nothing really new — that description text has been showing up for quite a while. What has changed is that the search engines are really focussing a lot more on the Quality of their search results pages. They’re monitoring the rate of user clickthroughs from their SERPs to the pages linked there, so your description text needs to draw users into clicking on your link. They’re also paying ranks of quality evaluators to scrutinize their top keywords SERPs and to vote on whether the pages showing up there are apropos for the search or not.
Will endusers and professional evaluators decide that your page is appropriate for the keyword search results pages it’s showing up for? Will that page get a thumbs-up vote, or thumbs-down? If the description text lies about your page content, users will give you a thumbs-down. Inaccuracy or writing text that doesn’t convey what the page may be expected to contain can result in making a user hit the back button too fast after glancing at it.
The cumulative effect of all these “votes” can also affect your overall ranking. Sites where a majority of “votes” are positive may be able to achieve better overall rankings, while sites with too many negative ratings may find their rankings steadily eroding.
The moral of this story is that good wordsmithing and good usability of your text will now corellate with better rankings in the search engines – particularly in Google and Yahoo!.
Here’s some tips for writing a well optimized description meta tag:
- Include the one to four keywords that best describe the content of the page. Avoid using keywords which are not present on the visible text of the page, too.
- Make the description a sentence or an incomplete sentence which clearly labels what the page is about.
- Okay, now cut that sentence down to be short, short, short! Brevity is a necessity for this. Internet users have short attention spans, and they rapidly scan SERPs to try to zero in on the page that seems to be what they want. Make this easy for them! Check out the Google SERP for the keyword “news” . You’ll see that most of the top sites in the results have really short descriptions. You might be able to get up to 150 characters fit, but if you can get your description text down to only 100, you’ll likely be better off.
- Perform a sanity-check (better yet, perform user-acceptance testing with a handful of typical internet consumers) and find out if your description text is accurately describing the content of the page. Site designers often make mistakes with this, so test it! For instance, a consumer guide which compares automobiles might think they should describe their page as being about “New cars coming out in 2007! Also trucks, convertibles, luxury sedans and more.” If that page comes up when a user searches for “new cars”, most users might expect that the page described would be for an auto dealership. When they click through, if the page doesn’t meet their expectations, they’ll click back out rapidly, which could be construed as a negative vote. Your description should sharply focus on what the page is about — for this example, a better description could be “Reviews of 2007 New Cars with MSRP, gas mileage, safety ratings, optional features, and more.”
- Avoid advanced vocabulary words — use simpler terminology which may be more readily understood. Use the most-popular keywords that would describe your content.
- Keep common words to a minimum, such as “a”, “the”, “and”, “it”, “on”, “in”, etc. These are of little keyword value, and they take up space that could be used for words that would be more valuable for attracting and peaking user’s interest enough to persuade them to click through to you.
Sites which do not have a Meta description tag may find that the description that’s associated with them in the Open Directory Project, DMOZ , are showing up as their description text sometimes in the SERPs. You can keep this from happening by using an additional meta tag called the “NOODP tag”:
<meta content=”NOODP” name=”ROBOTS”>
This is now supported by Google, Yahoo!, and MSN.
Also, if you don’t have a description tag, and the ODP description isn’t used to describe you on the SERPs, the search engines may take relevant snippets of text to display. Allowing the search engines’ algorithms to automatically describe your page may be undesirable — if this happens, the text might not be as optimal for users, which could result in reduced user satisfaction, and negative ratings.
Likewise, some blogging software automatically generates the text for the description metatag. Frequently, this text may be composed by just taking the first couple hundred characters from the first sentence of the blog posting. Be aware of this, and either write your first sentences with this in mind, or else customize your blogging software to allow your description tags to form optimally for you.
The text showing up to describe your pages in the search engine results can now have major impact on your rankings, and on your associated referral CTRs, so it’s important to use this as an active and viable part of your comprehensive SEO work.Â