Luke Harsel

On-Page SEO Basics: Meta Descriptions

This article will cover everything you need to know about the basics of meta descriptions. We will talk about what they are, why they are important, and how to leverage them for your website’s SEO.

What is a meta description?

A meta description is an HTML tag used to describe the content of a web page. This description will show up below the title and URL of your page as it appears in the search engine results. In order to remain visible within Google, it should be kept somewhere between 140-160 characters.

Meta descriptions will appear below the page title and URL in the search results.

Example of meta description in code:

<head> <meta name="description" content="When writing a meta description, keep it between 140 and 160 characters so Google can display your entire message. Don’t forget to include your keyword!"></head><br/><br/>

Why are Meta Descriptions Important?

Since meta descriptions appear with your title and URL on the results pages, they have the power to help or hurt your results’ click through rates. Research has shown that having the keyword in the body of the meta description is a relevancy signal for search engines that can help your rankings.

It isn’t a huge signal, but it can certainly play a positive role if used naturally without keyword stuffing your descriptions. In terms of your search result, your meta description has the most real estate (two lines of text compared to one line for the title and one line for URL), so take advantage of the opportunity to sell your website with a meaningful message to searchers.

How to Improve Your Meta Descriptions

Since click-through rate on the SERPs is seen as a potential ranking factor, the best way to make your meta descriptions SEO-friendly is to write them with the intention of getting more clicks. Think of your search results like a traditional ad in a newspaper or magazine. Classic print advertising used headlines and taglines to entice a person to call a phone number or travel to an address to buy a product in-store.

With your search results, your page title is your headline, your meta description is your tagline, and the URL is the address. Since a meta description is essentially a micro-pitch for a webpage, you should fill it with active language that will make people want to click on your result.

Write a description that conveys your website’s unique selling point (USP). Think: why is my page specifically better than all the other pages in the results? Don’t be afraid to make an emotional appeal with your message. Emotional advertising has traditionally found a lot of success tapping into people’s feelings.

A study in 2014 conducted by the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of Glasgow suggested that human emotion can be categorized into four main buckets:

  • Happy

  • Sad

  • Angry/disgusted

  • Afraid/surprised

Google gives room for about a 1-2 sentence (160 character) summary below every search result.

So, in one to two sentences, your descriptions should offer a compelling reason to visit the webpage. Add a clear call to action, address an emotional pain point, or offer a specific benefit to visitors.

If it’s too long, it won’t fit and people will inevitably glance over it. If it’s too vague, people just won’t care. There are always other results to click on. So, you should aim to connect with a searcher’s emotion in two sentences or less. 

It’s also important to have unique descriptions for every page on your website. Our on-site SEO study found that nearly 30% of the sites had duplicate meta descriptions and 25% had pages with no meta description at all.

SEO Friendly Meta Descriptions

To encourage clicks and bring visitors from search to your website, do the following with your descriptions:

  1. Keep them about 1-2 sentences (140-160 characters) long

  2. Don’t forget to include your keyword

  3. Add a call-to-action if it’s relevant

  4. Avoid duplicate meta descriptions

  5. Make them meaningful and descriptive, matching your content

  6. Target an emotion

And check out newest Google's recommendations - Better Snippets for your Users.

Helpful Online Tools for Checking your Meta Descriptions

Below are some helpful tools that you can use to test your meta descriptions as you write them.

  • SEMrush SEO Ideas – This SEMrush Project tool checks if you have a keyword in your title and meta tag and suggests the right one if you don’t. SEO Ideas also provides you with a detailed list of actionable, tailor-made optimization tips for each page of your website.

  • Portent – This SERP view generator lets you enter your meta description along with a title and URL to test how your search result will appear. You can check the pixel width of your title, the character length of your description, and test how different keywords within your description will look when bolded.

For more on-page SEO help, be sure to read our on-page SEO checklist.

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Thanks for sharing! It's really helpful and informative.
Should I be concerned about duplicate meta descriptions for my homepage? I don't have a continuous homepage, and instead use multiple pages to access all my blog posts, which results in duplicate meta descriptions. If this is a concern how do I change the meta description for each page of my homepage?
Thank you Luke, that was very helpful.

Will definitely go and read some more of your articles, keep up the good work :)

Kind regards

Hi Luke,

Thank you for your quick reply.

I understand, that makes sense.

Also, if I wish to change the file name of an image (name of the picture stored directly on my laptop) or the image title in WordPress, will that cause an error in google ?

Many thanks

Hi Luke,

Thank you for your awesome article.

I had a question.

There are some meta descriptions and focus keywords that I would like to change on already existing pages/posts, will this cause errors in google like changing permalinks does ?

Kind regards

James Carr
James Carr
Hey James!
Thanks for the comment. As long as you are just changing the text of your content or meta descriptions, this should not cause any errors on Google.
Luke Harsel
Hi Luke,

Thank you for your quick reply.

I understand, it makes sense.

Also, if I change the file name of a picture (file that is directly stored on my laptop) or the image title in WordPress, will that cause an error in google?

Many thanks

James Carr
I don't think it would cause an error, unless you delete the file name or rename it something that is less relevant to your page than what it was previously. This article might make things more clear for you:
very informative and helpful
it is very useful for seo and digital marketing persons.thank you for the tips.amazing article.i liked it.
Great article! We actually use the "Sharethrough Headline Analyzer." It's for headings, however, we found it to be a great tool to improve our meta description, and content as well.
Meta description can increase the click through rates to the webpage just like the title. And click through rates do have a huge impact on SEO.
Didn't Google remove Keyword relevancy in Meta Descriptions altogether from Search weight and Rank Brain?
Tom Hodson
Hey Tom! Thank you for the comment. While you're right that Google doesn't read keywords in meta descriptions as a direct ranking factor, the point I'm making is that including the keyword naturally in your description would be more about trying to increase your click through rates, which can indirectly have a positive effect on rankings.

If someone sees their search term in a description, it can entice them to click, and pages that get a better click through rate are reported to see better rankings. Sorry if that wasn't super clear. Point being, meta descriptions can still be important whether RankBrain factors them in or not.
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