Writing Meta tags and Titles is one job that normally gets given to the most junior member of an agency team. It’s a ball-ache and too menial to be carried out by someone senior, and besides, it’s good practice for SEO newbies to get to know all about keywords and how to pack them in to pages like sardines.
And after all, it doesn’t really make much difference does it? Only Titles count to the page’s keywords . The search engines don’t count descriptions in the value of the page. Crikey! They’re not part of the algorithm.
All these are valid points — well most of them — and I can understand why bog-standard SEOs, offering services at £100 a page, treat them so.
But we’re all about SEO for grown-ups. We know that everything plays it’s part. And we know that SEO is not about optimising for Search Engines any more — it’s about optimising for people.
So let’s go back to first principles here: what do Titles and Meta descriptions actually do?
For starters, the Title tag appears on the tab of the browser, or the browser window itself. These days, tabs are so small that less than 30 characters appear there, although hovering over the tab will usually display the full title. But the maximum length of a Title tag is given as between 60 and 70 characters (including spaces). This is because Titles are displayed not on character count but on space limitations and pixels.
The Title tag maximum is around 70 characters if lots of thin letters or figures are used — i, j, l, 1, etc. — but closer to 60 if fatter ones predominate — w, m, 8, etc.
The theoretical upper limit on the description Meta tag is about 150 characters. That’s a Tweet plus 10, so you can use your favourite Twitter client to compose a full-length description tag.
As far as the page goes, this tag does nothing. It’s hidden in the <head> code of your page and does not count to keywords and, as previously hinted does not — says Google itself — feature in the algorithm either. So what’s it there for?
Well, if you’re anything other than extremely unlucky, the description tag will form the body of the snippet: the lump of text that appears in a search result for your page.
Look for Bing Search on Google and you get this …
Of course it may not appear, either because you have not written a Description for the page — and most WordPress pages do not automatically feature a description tag — or perhaps because in the view of the search engine, your description is not relevant to the search query.
The fact that Description tags do not feature in the Google algorithm is an interesting one since it is clear from this observation that Google actively assess the quality of the Description to determine if it needs to be replaced.
But the snippet is not just the Description tag, it is a combination of the Title and the Description tag. In Bing’s case this looks like …
Only now does the real purpose of the Title and Description actually spring into view. The snippet is akin to a short news story or advertisement, which sells the idea to the user. Peak their interest with a well-written snippet and they will click through to your site.
In Bing’s case this doesn’t work quite so well because their Title tag is of almost the very worst kind — one word — and their thinking on what makes a good Description tag leaves something to be desired too.
1. Make it work as a whole
That means treat Title and Description as two equal parts of the story. The Title is the “headline”, trying to grab people’s attention, the Description is the “story”, explaining the headline and teasing the reader to go further (and click through to the page). And keep below the limits. Anything over 150 characters for a description will get cut off with an ellipsis — “…” — which looks like you got something wrong.
2. Don’t get obsessed with keywords
Okay, so we don’t talk about keyword densities any longer but every word in the Snippet has a keyword density of more than 1% so repeating any of them is a waste of time; not because it will displease Google but because, in such a short passage of text, repeating words makes the words harder to read and digest. And indigestion only sells antacid tablets.
3. Don’t get obsessed with keywords
Yes, I know it’s the same headline as before (see what I mean about repeated words?) but it’s a different point about keywords. While it’s excellent to have your chosen keywords in your Title tag, it’s not essential to make it show up in the SERPs. If you don’t believe me, search for something like “discount holidays to the Caribbean” and spot how many times the word “Discount” appears in the Snippet titles. Not many. That’s because the pages have the keywords which are appropriate to the search result and that’s where most of the keyword value lies, not simply in the Title tags.
4. Get active!
If you’re going to make your Snippet sell your search result, it has to really sell. Use active verbs — “Go”, “Explore”, Experience”, Try” — and calls to action — “Book now”, “Buy online”, “See the full range” — in your text. And use synonyms for your keywords too, all the search engines now use similar words to find the best match for any search term.
5. Do the last Bus Test
Imagine you are rushing for your last bus home and you see a friend between you and the stop. You have something vital to tell her but you can’t miss that bus. How do you get your message across in a friendly, direct and assertive way, including all the most important points that you know will interest her? Your snippet will be glimpsed for less than a second, so if you can write yours — Titles and Description tags — like that, then they will sell their click over and above the others appearing in that same search result, even if they appear higher than you.
Of course, putting all this into practice will teach you one thing. Writing good Titles and Meta Description tags is hard work which should not necessarily be left to the lowliest creature in the office, however good it may be for their character.
Getting it right takes skill, intelligence, talent and sheer hard graft, and it will leave you with a headache after several days of intensive study.
And here is one last tip: there will be pages where it is difficult to find anything to write which will sell the contents. Most likely this will be on a page which is of so low a value as to be of little importance. Realise this and accept a helping hand from the search engines and don’t write a Description tag: let the algorithm do it for you.