Meta descriptions are simple. They seem complex, but they’re not.

They seem complex because there are lots of little details to worry about and nobody really distills it down to the simplest instructions that tell you exactly what to do.

So I’m going to do that with this guide. I'm going to take the rare step in marketing blog posts and tell you exactly what to do.

But there's a caveat to this: Please be sure to measure the impact of any changes and adjust accordingly.

The goal of this article is to distill what could be a rather complicated subject into something simple and actionable.

It goes without saying that no advice can cover every scenario and you may find some where this advice doesn't apply.

So measure the impact to ensure you don't break anything.

In this article, I’ll show you how to prioritize meta descriptions by breaking the work down into simple “phases.”

I believe in the 80/20 principle in SEO. That 80% of the result can be had with 20% of the effort.

And that holds true with meta descriptions more than anywhere else.

So this guide is broken into two parts:

Part 1 tells you everything you need to know about meta descriptions.

Part 2 is an action plan, broken down into phases, to show you exactly what to do about meta descriptions.

I think you’ll be relieved when you read it.

Read on for everything you need to know about meta descriptions.

Click here to jump down to the action plan now.

What are meta description?

Meta descriptions are short blurbs that serve as a preview, or “description,” of the content of a page. They’re mainly found in search results.

When they show up in search results, Google refers to them as search result snippets.

Search result snippets in Google search results

Importantly, meta descriptions are not always used for search result snippets.

Google actually prefers page content first, then meta descriptions.

As of when I’m writing this article, Google uses meta descriptions about 50-70% of the time, but that really depends on the quality of the page content and the quality of the meta description.

More general info about meta descriptions:

What are meta descriptions used for?

They’re used primarily in search result snippets, but you’ll also commonly find them on social media sites.

When a page is shared on social media, the default behavior of most social sites like Facebook and Twitter is to pull the meta description of the page as the description of the post when shared.

You might also run across meta descriptions on other websites, directories, or apps.

Are meta descriptions required on all pages?

Meta descriptions are not required. If you don’t write a meta description search engines will pull content from the page to use in search results.

In fact, search engines often ignore meta descriptions even if they exist.

That’s right…you can write meta descriptions and the search engines might just ignore them anyway.

Here’s an example…

I searched Google for “meta descriptions,” and out of the top 10 results, Google is using the meta description for 7 of them and ignoring it for 3. So a 70% hit rate.

Interestingly, for the top 2 results, Google ignored the meta description.

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And this article from the Google Webmaster Blog says Google thinks page content is “often the most relevant to people’s queries.”

Read my action plan below for some guidance on when to write meta descriptions and when not to. Click here to jump there now.

More reading:

Do meta descriptions impact SEO?

Yes, but not directly. Meta descriptions can make it more likely people will click your result than your competition. So a good meta description can improve click through rate, and click through rate can impact rankings.

More reading:

How long should meta description be?

There’s no hard limit, but they’ll be truncated in search results if they’re too long so shoot for about 150-160 characters if you’re writing for SEO.

The actual number of characters is based on the pixel-width of the characters themselves, the screen resolution of the device, and other factors, so that number can vary pretty dramatically.

For example, this search snippet in Google is 244 characters long (note this is text Google pulled from the page and not the meta description):

Screen20Shot202017 09 0420at2012.04.5420PM

And this one is only 144 characters long (note there’s a publish date consuming space here):

Screen20Shot202017 09 0420at2012.07.4920PM

You also have to remember that meta description aren’t only used in search result snippets, they’re also used as the default for social media descriptions when a page is shared.

But if you’re worried about social, then you should also look into Facebook Open Graph tags and other social-specific meta tags.

More reading:

Are duplicate meta descriptions bad?

Well there are three types of “duplicate,” so we need to clarify what we mean:

  1. Using the same meta description on all pages of a site
  2. Using the same meta description on a few pages of a site
  3. Having more than 1 meta description on a single page of the site

I’ll start out by saying that duplicate meta descriptions are not that bad.

In fact, there are scenarios where I would actually want the same meta description on two different pages.

Here’s one example: I have two pages that could rank for a given search term, I write the same meta description for both, then see which page ends up ranking better.

Here’s another example: I have a library of video content, all on unique pages containing no text and I don’t have time to write unique meta descriptions for every page. I don’t want a blank search snippet do I?

Ideally, avoid #1 and #3 above…they’re probably both coding issues that can be fixed easily.

But #2 isn’t that big of a deal and, like I said, I can see situations where you would want to use the same meta description on different pages. If you do this, just keep an eye on things but it’s probably not a big deal at all.

Finally, it’s ok to have no meta description at all, so that’s an option if you can’t write unique ones.

More reading:

All the info online says this is bad. I know from experience it's not really a big deal in nearly all cases so most of the info online isn't nuanced enough and doesn't really take into account priorities.

So, because of that, I changed every single meta description on this site to the same thing – lol – check back in a couple weeks for an update on the result.

Here's what I changed them all to:

"This is a meta description that I'm using to test what happens when you use the exact same meta description on every page of a website. My wild guess is we'll lose 10% of organic traffic, but let's find out."

How to write good meta descriptions

It’s helpful to think of your search result snippet as an advertisement that does two things:

  1. It encourages a searcher to click your result rather than one of the others on the page
  2. It sets an accurate expectation of what the searcher will find when they land on your page

The purpose of #1 is to increase your click through rate, which can help improve rankings as it suggests your result is a good one.

The purpose of #2 is to ensure people don’t land on your page and bounce back to search at high rates, indicating people might have thought your page was valuable, but then decided it wasn’t when they saw the content.

Your meta title & meta description combination will help do these two things.

Some tips:

  • Write concise, punchy, information-packed content. Avoid filler words or fluffy content that doesn’t really mean anything (big brands are really guilty of this so take care in using big sites as examples, they’re often not great).
  • Sell me on the value proposition of the page. What is special about the page I’m about to click through to that sets it apart from the other search results. Remember, I’m seeing this in search, so it’s helpful to think about it from the context of a searcher.
  • What’s in it for the searcher? Don’t focus on you, make it specific and relevant to the searcher. What will they get out of this page that they can’t get anywhere else?

Here are some resources to give you some more info, and read on for examples of good meta descriptions:

Examples of good meta descriptions

Here are some resources to have a look at for examples of “good” meta descriptions.

Keep in mind, it’s possible none of these were tested and are just assumed good, which is a problem. So remember the info above on how to write good meta descriptions when analyzing these.

Resources with examples of good meta descriptions:

The action plan

Phase 1

Don’t write meta descriptions. 80% of you can just stop here.

Seriously, phase 1 is Do Nothing.

Wait, what? Just don’t write meta descriptions at all?

Yes, ignore them completely.

Before I get burned at the stake for that recommendation, let me explain.

First of all, roughly 30-50%1 of the time Google just ignores meta descriptions altogether and pulls page content instead.

It might be even more than that if you consider how many long tail searches probably match page content better.

Second, in this Webmaster blog post, Google says they think page content is usually more relevant to a search than anything else anyway.

Third, it’s easy to write meta description but not so easy to write good meta descriptions.

Fourth, unless you monitor before / after CTR in Search Console (or another combination of metrics (see phase 3 below) you can’t possibly know if your new meta descriptions have improved things.

I’m sure some readers are thinking, “I know how to write good copy, I don’t need to test it; it’ll definitely be better than the default.”

It’s tempting to think that but as anyone who’s tested copy knows, it’s not always easy to predict which version will outperform.

And remember, you’re not just writing meta descriptions to compete against empty space. You’re writing meta descriptions that will compete against whatever search snippet Google was already using.

Are you really sure your new meta description is going to outperform that existing snippet?

I regularly write copy that I’m absolutely certain is going to outperform, and then when I test it it does worse.

On top of that, even when I write winners, I sometimes see overall CTR go up but conversions or revenue go down.

There are so many reasons for this…

Maybe you wrote copy that increased CTR amongst the majority of searchers, but maybe it decreased CTR amongst the minority who were actually buying stuff.

Or maybe you wrote copy that increased CTR across the board but didn’t really line up with the content on the page and so your bounce rate went up and rankings suffered as a result.

I’m not saying you can’t improve things with good meta descriptions, I’m just saying that writing meta descriptions that truly improve things can be difficult and time consuming, and so it shouldn’t be prioritized over higher impact activities like learning about your customers, improving page content, content promotion or link building, and meta titles (which are more impactful).

Finally, if you’re still not convinced they aren’t necessary, Matt Cutts, former head of Google’s web spam team and the public face of Google search through 2016, never used meta descriptions on his blog.

Phase 2

Identify high priority pages and write meta descriptions.

How do you identify high priority pages? That’s totally up to you, but I’ll offer some suggestions:

  • Low funnel pages with obviously bad search snippets
  • Low funnel pages already ranking pretty well but could use a boost
  • Pages driving conversions / high “page value” pages with obviously bad search snippets

Phase 3

This is the testing phase.

In phase 1 you did nothing. In phase 2 you wrote meta descriptions for pages with obviously bad search snippets. And now in phase 3 we’re going to test things.

Unless you know everything about your customer, what they search for, have content to meet the intent of those searches, built enough links, and have killer meta titles, this phase probably shouldn’t be your biggest priority.

Why is testing important?

It’s difficult / impossible to do a true split test in SEO so by “testing” I mean

  1. Make a change, and
  2. Measure the result to ensure it had the impact you expected

It’s too common to just make a change and move on. There are two problems with that.

  1. Testing acts as a QA process. If you make a change and do something dumb by accident (happens a lot), tanking KPIs might be the only indication you screwed something up.
  2. Then there’s the obvious fact that you can’t possibly be sure the changes you made had a positive impact unless you look at how KPIs were impacted.

In this phase, I’d prioritize any page driving conversions (high “page value”) or traffic.

Here are some suggestions on how you might measure the impact in this phase:

  • For groups of very similar pages that might all follow the same meta description template (such as similar product pages), randomly pick half to change and leave the other half the same, then measure traffic and rankings changes for the pages you changed vs. the pages you left alone.
  • Look for increased organic search traffic to the pages you changed
  • Look for improved rankings to the pages you changed
  • Look for increased CTR in Google Search Console to the pages you changed
  • Look for reduced bounce rate and increased time on site for the pages you changed
  • Look for increased conversions, conversion rate, and page value for the pages you changed

You’ll likely want to use several of the above KPIs to get a good read on whether things actually improved.

Finally, be flexible

If you see a crappy search snippet for an important page, go write a quick but decent meta description for it.

Be flexible but don’t feel like you have to spend the next 2 years writing flawless meta descriptions for every page on your site.

There are probably better ways to spend your time.

tl;dr

There’s a lot to keep in mind about meta descriptions but the easiest thing to do is don’t write any at all.

It’s unlikely anything horrible will happen, but as with anything, keep an eye on any changes you make.

And if you already have meta descriptions, I don't recommend removing them for phase 1…just leave them as they are.

Once you’ve completed other, higher priority SEO tasks, feel free to come back and write meta descriptions, keeping these things in mind:

  • Shoot for 150-300 characters (but Google recently increased the limit so test it)
  • Think of meta titles & descriptions as an advert targeted at searchers to:
    1. Encourage a click your result rather than a competing result
    2. Set an expectation of the content on the page
  • Measure the impact of any changes (important)

1I wasn’t able to find any good info on this so these are based on spot checks on a handful of head terms as well as some comments online. My guess is, if you take into account all the long tail searches happening where page content is more relevant than the meta description, this number is probably higher.