Meta TITLE and DESCRIPTION tags are more important than ever

by Edwin on July 24, 2009

There has been a lot of discussion in the SEO community over the years about the role of the Meta TITLE and DESCRIPTION tags in SEO.

While the jury still seems to be out about the exact role of the DESCRIPTION tag in SEO, such discussions miss the most important issue: effective SEO should not only be about how the search engines interpret your site and rank it against competing sites for a given search query, but just as significantly it’s about why people will choose to click on your site’s listing over competing listings when presented with a page of search results.

And this is where the Meta TITLE and DESCRIPTION come in.

In most cases (some of the exceptions are examined below), Google, Yahoo and Bing will use the page’s Meta TITLE and DESCRIPTION tag as is in the search engine listing returned for an on-topic query.

What this means in practice is that a well-chosen TITLE and DESCRIPTION put you in full control of that vital first impression. This presents you with a fantastic chance to grab the attention of the searcher and get the click.

Using your TITLE and DESCRIPTION Meta Tags to Compel Interest

For any given page, you want to use the TITLE and DESCRIPTION Meta tags as a one-two punch that grabs the searcher’s attention and makes them click on your listing over the listings of any of your competitors on the same page.

One way to do this is to make your TITLE and DESCRIPTION work together to tell a short, compelling story that encourages people to find out more. Instead of stringing together a spew of keywords, try composing a couple of proper English sentences, with the TITLE providing the intro and the DESCRIPTION some more of the detail. Of course, the big payoff should be on the far side of that link.

Your first step should be to pull up a page of search results for a keyword or keyphrase that your site ranks for, one which provides on-topic traffic that you definitely want more of. Study each of the other results on the page – those are the 9 “enemies” fighting to draw the attention of the searcher away from your listing. Are those results bland? Incoherent? All one-of-a-kind, monothematic? Now think how you might make your listing more compelling. Can you ask a question? Promise a solution to a tough issue? Reassure the searcher that they’ve found the most suitable answer to their query? Somehow strike a different tone, or approach the topic from a different angle?

It’s often easier to work on the TITLE and DESCRIPTION in isolation, away from the rest of the page. Fire up your favourite text editor and start playing with ideas. Lay out the text as it is going to appear in the search results, i.e. TITLE on the first line and DESCRIPTION wrapping across the next 2 lines.

Visible and Invisible Titles and Descriptions

While the search engines will index titles that are several hundred characters in length, they’re only going to display the first 60 characters or so of the title in the search results. Anything after that will never be seen by searchers, nor will it show up in the browser’s title bar because that also cuts off extremely long titles. You can test this for yourself very easily by doing a few test searches and counting how many characters are displayed in titles that get cut off.

Each search engine has slightly different rules when it comes to wrapping text (text is normally wrapped after a separator such as a space, comma or other punctuation mark if the next word in the title would push its overall length over the cutoff point). Try and keep your TITLE under 60 characters as that should be ok in all 3 search engines.

Similarly, the search engines won’t display DESCRIPTIONS that are over approximately 160 characters in length. If you keep your DESCRIPTION under 150 characters, that should be ok in all 3 search engines.

TIP: If you’re a regular Twitter user, think of your DESCRIPTION as a Twitter post, only with better grammar and fewer abbreviations! That should help you hit the desired length. 

Exceptions to the TITLE/DESCRIPTION Search Engine Listing

Over-short TITLES/DESCRIPTIONS

The search engines don’t seem to like very short (1-word) TITLES or short (3 word or less) descriptions. What tends to happen is that the algorithm will grab other elements on the page to try and fill the perceived “gap”. To be safe, always make sure your TITLE has at least 2 words in it (and preferrably 3+) and try and make your DESCRIPTION run to at least one full sentence! Fortunately, if the page is spidered fairly frequently, it’s easy enough to test and fix any problems caused by too-short TITLE or DESCRIPTION tags.

Off-Topic Searches

They may also show a different result for searches that are only tangentially related to the topic of the page and/or which are not covered by the TITLE/DESCRIPTION pair, i.e. to long-tail searches. Frequently, the results will instead include a subset of the on-page text that happens to include the search phrase or keywords in question. There’s not much you can do to influence this, at least not via Meta tag tweaking, so concentrate on the high-volume, “short head” searches where your tweaking will have an impact.

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