SEO 101: Use Your HEAD, Part V: Meta Description

Like the TITLE tag, the META Description tag was once looked upon as an afterthought, something you played around with when you had nothing better to do with your time. Today, however, the Description tag is far more important to your search engine optimization efforts than the META Keywords tag. Here’s why…  

As the web has evolved, so have search engines, so things that were true just a few years ago now have no bearing on how to get good search engine rankings today. The META Description tag is just one example of this. Originally, the Description tag was an add-on to give us lowly humans a summary or synopsis of a given web page’s content. But as search engines have become more sophisticated, the programmers writing the algorithms the make search engines work have taken advantage of the Description.

The explanation is simple – if you are summarizing a web page in the Description tag, it stands to reason that you, the web developer, will distill the core concepts contained within that page and include them in the Description. In theory, that means that if you are using the Description tag appropriately, that tag’s content will be more relevant to the page’s purpose and focus than almost any other part of the page.

But that’s not the only reason to use the Description tag.

In Hollywood one of the things actors, producers and would-be script writers all learn about is something called the “elevator pitch”. The idea is that if you manage to get into the same elevator as, say, Steven Spielberg, you have him as a captive audience for maybe as long as thirty seconds. In that time you have to sell him on why he should fund your brilliant scheme for a new movie, TV show, or sit-com. Thirty seconds. If you’re very lucky.

The Description is like an elevator pitch. Google, for example, displays the first twenty to twenty-five words of the description when it presents a link to you in response to your query. That means those first twenty to twenty-five words of the Description need to give people a reason to visit your page.

For SEO purposes, you can use more than twenty words in your Description, but you want to make sure you craft that first part of the Description with people in mind. Those few words are the bait you use to entice people to come to your site. That is what people are going to see when your page is listed, so invest a little skull-sweat to write something so they see the value your site has to offer.

Beyond the first twenty-odd words, the SEO value of the Description comes from the fact that the Description content has added “weight” with search engines. But resist the temptation to load meaningless key words in the Description. Abuses like that are no longer tolerated by today’s more savvy search engines, and overloading any of your META tags is likely to get you black-listed for months!

Like the TITLE tag, each page should have a unique Description, and the text needs to be relevant to the actual content of the page it supposedly describes.

That’s about it for Head content. To recap, use the TITLE tag, META Description and Keywords tags, and keep your content meaningful and relevant. Do that and your organic listings can’t help but rise to the top.

Next time we will begin to explore Body content and how it affects search engine listings.


Update: 26 March 2009

For those of you unfamiliar with the whole elevator pitch idea, here are a few links that may help you out.  Enjoy!

  • SitePoint: Why You Need A Powerful Elevator Pitch –  A great article from one of my favorite online resources.
  • Elevator Pitch Essentials is a business book by Chris O’Leary that teaches entrepreneurs, salespeople, project champions, job seekers, and others how to get their point across in two minutes or less.
  • The Perfect (Elevator) Pitch: How to create it, rehearse it, and tailor it for a specific audience. (From Business Week)

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