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Meta Descriptions Still Very Important for SEO

Today I was reading an outstanding article about Meta Descriptions by Barry Welford and I thought I would share a couple more thoughts I have on the subject. In Barry’s article he mentions about the importance that description tags play in creating the snippets that the search engines display in the SERPs (search engine results pages). And he elaborates on the importance of placing your most important keywords in the description because the snippets are drawn from the text surrounding those keywords in the Meta description. The other thing I thought was worth adding to this part of the conversation is that the Meta Description is a great place to put your competitive advantage statement. In other words, tell people why they should click your link versus your competition. It could be “Free Shipping”, it could be “Since 1970″ (meaning you have a track record of success), it could be “Exclusive Pricing” or whatever you have as a competitive advantage. Communicating that value statement in your Meta description tag will increase your click through rate (although you won’t always be able to fully control the messaging of your search result listing because they vary based on the search query).

Another comment I thought was important to make about the description tag is that before Google removed the Supplemental results tag, one of the most effective methods for getting pages out of the supplemental results was to ensure that it had a unique Meta description. We found numerous cases of pages that were in supplemental results that had no Meta description. Once we added to the unique description to these pages, the majority of them escaped the supplemental results and even more importantly, we saw dramatic traffic increases for these pages coming from organic search. Couple this with Barry’s observation that pages with no or short Meta descriptions are flagged in Google Webmaster tools, and it is fairly apparent that unique Meta descriptions are of utmost importance to your SEO campaign.

One of the areas though that Barry and I disagree about descriptions however is the length of the description tag. Confining the length of your description to the 155 character limitation in Google in my opinion is not good for search engines nor is it good for your long tail keyword targeting. I’m not saying that every description should exceed 155 characters, but I don’t believe truncating the description of a page to fit into a screen character limitation is best practices for a tag that is supposed to be primarily to communicate information. Part of Google’s algorithm is based on Latent Semantic Analysis, so the more contextual information that is available to the engine, the better able it is to correctly rank your Web page for relevant keywords.

Take for example the following description that is less than 155 characters:

The BusinessOnLine SEO blog covers the latest tips, techniques and news in world of search engine optimization. (112 characters)

It’s not bad and has some pretty good keywords. But if you add the next sentence which pushes the description over the 155 limit, you get a lot more information for the search engines to make ranking decisions with:

Authors Ray “Catfish” Comstock and Benj Arriola discuss topics like 301 / 302 redirects, link building, on page optimization, usability, online marketing ideas and other current SEO issues. (301 characters total for both sentences)

I usually make my descriptions about two sentences because it has been my experience that you can communicate quite a lot of information in two sentences, both from a keyword perspective, and a competitive advantage standpoint. The marginal value of each sentence after that usually doesn’t justify the energy to create it although you might find exceptions. And while the control over the messaging isn’t as standardized across relevant keywords as it would be with a shorter description, you increase the amount of opportunity to rank better for a number of long tail keywords. But more importantly, you communicated more USEFUL information through the Meta tag (assuming your doing it right and not spamming)which is it’s primary function, regardless of the search engine’s display constraints.

But my disagreement with Barry over this one point doesn’t take away from what I think is an outstanding article. I think that’s what makes SEO so interesting, is the different philosophical approaches that various people take to things like Meta tags, redirects, nofollow tags, paid links, etc. Have a great week.

Catfish