Definition: A meta description is a short descriptive text intended to summarize the content of an HTML document (a page) for search engines. Meta descriptions are meta tags of web documents and are stored in the head area of an HTML document. Like other search engines, Google can use them together with the meta title for the snippet.
The meta description has no direct influence on the ranking of an article or a website. However, it can ensure a better CTR in the SERPs in the snippet. The recommended length for meta descriptions is between 120 and 160 characters. In the meantime, adjustments have been made to the search engine algorithms. This results in variable description lengths, which vary depending on the structure and specification of the website.
Example of a search result snippet consisting of target link, meta title and meta description.
General information about the meta description
A meta description is displayed in the search results whenever a user starts a search query and looks at the search engine result lists. It is part of the search result snippet that search engines display. Under the link and the page title of a search result, users will then find a short descriptive text that summarizes the content of the target page.
Google’s Gary Illyes commented on the optimization of snippets in an article by the Google Webmaster Center. In it, he states that Google does not necessarily adhere to a stored meta description. If no meta description is stored, the quality of the description is poor or the amount of text in the article is too small, the first lines of the start text or other available content from Google will be displayed in the snippet. Even if a description is stored in the source code, this is no guarantee that Google will also use it for the snippet.
Length of a meta description
Meta descriptions should not exceed a length of 160 characters – or 500 pixels – including spaces. In 2017, the limit was briefly increased to 320 characters. In the months around the turn of the year 2017/18, longer descriptions appeared more and more frequently in the SERPs. However, not all descriptions were fully displayed. Google webmaster John Müller shared via Twitter that the length of a meta description had never been officially set by Google. In May 2018, Danny Sullivan, a consultant at Google, also announced the renewed reduction in the maximum description length via Twitter.
If meta descriptions exceed the optimal character length, the excess length is replaced by “…”, ie the description is truncated. This has no direct influence on ranking and evaluation by Google. But this makes the snippet less appealing to users.
Content of a meta description
The purpose of meta descriptions is to give the user an indication of the content of the URL. Here you will often find a direct customer approach, a call-to-action, or short keywords that tease the content of the URL. A user-friendly design of the description usually also includes the main keyword of the article, but can also contain emojis or other Unicodes such as check marks.
Unicodes are special characters that affect the length of the meta description differently than regular characters. A symbol consists of a large number of characters. In the snippet, however, the number of characters, not the number of symbols that result from this, serves as the basis for calculating the length of the description. A Unicode does not extend a description by one character but by at least five. The use of symbols is more appealing to the user, but Google cannot display all of them. Unicodes, therefore, have both advantages and disadvantages for the meta description.
The optimal meta description
Since the meta description, along with the meta title, is one of the first elements of a website that search engine users notice, website operators should pay enough attention to the design of the descriptions.
- Character length: The optimal length of a meta description is 120 to 160 characters. Using 150 to 155 characters increases the likelihood that the description will be fully displayed. For online shops or articles where the publication date is automatically displayed in the snippet, the maximum number of words may be reduced. Various tools such as Ryte’s Google Snippet Generator can be used to see how the description is played out on Google.
- Call-to-Action: The meta description ideally contains a call to action for the user. Stuff like “click here” or “buy now” can encourage a click on the link stored in the snippet.
- Content: If the description contains the central keyword of the target page, this increases the likelihood that Google will use the stored meta description in the SERPs. This should be mentioned as early as possible. Furthermore, the description should match the content of the associated article and be uniquely worded. Short testimonials from satisfied customers or special Unicode characters in the meta description are optional for Google.
Meta descriptions are only used moderately by Google
A study from 2021 found that Google only uses about 30% of all meta descriptions. This depends on different factors.
On the one hand, Google’s choice of title and description depends on whether the user is using a desktop or a mobile device, such as a smartphone. On the other hand, the search engine pays very close attention to the fact that it is not spam. This is the case, for example, when a meta description appears in the same wording on hundreds of websites.
Google also rates keyword overloading as spam.
In principle, it is advisable to include the questions and interests of the user when creating the meta description. The better the search queries and meta descriptions match in terms of content, the more likely it is to be included by Google.
Meta Descriptions and Gendering
In the age of gendering, a new problem arose for search engine optimizers and website operators: the correct classification of certain new terms. Search engines are capable of learning and are constantly trying to improve themselves. But this is not always possible, or it takes more time. The obvious question is whether and how gendering affects keywords or meta descriptions.
There is no general answer to this. While Google comes up with correct interpretations for some gendered terms, it doesn’t always succeed with others. For example, if you enter “teacher salary” in the search field, Google interprets this as male. Google finds it easier, for example, with “candidates”. On the one hand, this is because this term is also often used in the media. Often, however, it also appears in this notation in the meta description, so that Google experiences a double learning effect here.
All in all, it can be said that meta descriptions, keywords and gendering will probably play a bigger role in the future. Google is still at the beginning of the way here. How the issue of gender affects search engine optimization should be analyzed in each case and implemented accordingly.
Enter meta descriptions
A meta description is stored in the head area of a website. On the one hand, the syntax of HTML must be observed and, on the other hand, the criteria of the search engines must be followed.
The ‘name’ and ‘content’ attributes are mandatory. Each meta tag must also be closed again after opening. Meta descriptions do not have to be inserted directly into the source code. The common CMS have corresponding input options in the backend. Alternatively, extensions or plugins make input easier.
Rich snippets are generated by Google using structured data. You can use markups to add relevant information to the meta description, such as price information, ratings or event data. This area belongs to the so-called on-page optimization.
Importance for SEO
In response to the fact that meta descriptions were often misused for keyword stuffing, Google changed its algorithms. Since then, meta descriptions no longer influence the ranking of websites, but are only displayed as a snippet for the user.
They are optional and their impact on the SERPs is controversial in professional circles. The fact is that they can influence the click-through rate and thus the traffic since they give users an indication of the content of a website. If they are interested in the snippet text, they will click on the URL.
SEO experts recommend including meta descriptions in the on-page optimization measures. An individual meta description should be stored for the main pages of a web project.