What Are Meta Descriptions and How Can I Write Effective Ones?
by Michael Keenan Marketing Dec 10, 2021 12 minute read Leave a comment Email Pinterest Facebook Twitter LinkedIn
You’re working hard to market your company. You’re writing your product descriptions, optimizing your images, and mastering most of the other elements of effective search engine optimization (SEO).
Still, if you’re like many business owners, one aspect of ecommerce SEO could be giving you trouble: meta descriptions. This guide covers how to write compelling meta descriptions and optimize your site for search.
What is a meta description?Who cares about meta descriptions? Doesn’t Google rewrite them anyway?Meta description examplesHow to write good meta descriptionsMake your own meta descriptions one of a kindMeta descriptions FAQ
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What is a meta description?
A meta description is an HTML meta tag that acts as a 155 to 160 characters summary that describes your webpage’s content. It’s the snippet of text that appears below your page title.
Search engines show it in search results when the meta description also includes the keywords being searched. Unlike the page title, meta descriptions are not an SEO ranking factor, but they do entice users to click through to a page and are part of effective on-page SEO. You’ll see them in a page’s code as <meta name=”description” content=, followed by the written description.
A meta description is the promise you make to searchers. Among a sea of competing webpages, it calls out to them and says, “This is the page you’re looking for.”
When you type a search query into Google—let’s use “temporary tattoos” as an example—the algorithm displays results on the search engine results page (SERP).
This page is extremely complicated, but for now let’s ignore all the Shopping ads, images, and videos in favor of the more traditional organic search results.
The blue words at the top are the “title tag.” They’re the title of the webpage. Below them you’ll see a page description of no more than 155 characters. This is the meta description.
Who cares about meta descriptions? Doesn’t Google rewrite them anyway?
Yes, Google rewrites meta descriptions for nearly 63% of search results, according to a study from Ahrefs. A study by digital marketing agency Portent says Google rewrites meta descriptions 71% of the time in mobile search results and 68% on desktop. What does this shift foretell for retailers? Why bother writing meta descriptions if Google will display whatever it wants anyway?
The ultimate reason is the correlation between higher search volume keywords and lower rewrite rates. Kim Herrington, an SEO & SEM consultant, has particular expertise in writing meta descriptions for ecommerce businesses, as well as with optimizing their stores for search.
Through Kim’s own experience, she’s learned that if stores target high traffic keywords, your original meta description is more likely to appear as you wrote it on your website. “SEO can be time consuming and expensive for ecommerce stores with a high volume of products. Approaching your meta descriptions knowing they’ll be rewritten can free up resources,” she says.
Much more productive, she suggests, is focusing on writing really good meta descriptions for your highest volume keywords, because Google is more likely to use them: “Focus primarily on your bestsellers and category page meta descriptions rather than every single item you sell.”
Focus on the pages that get the most organic traffic from search engines. Take your top 10 or 20 pages and ask, “Are we really selling the product here, or is there a way we can improve the click-through rate?”
Read more: SEO Is About Humans First, Search Engines Second
Meta description examples
Reading other people’s meta descriptions will make the process look deceptively simple, but that simplicity is the very thing that makes it so hard to write. The rough 155-character limit means the meta description can’t be much longer than a tweet.
The good descriptions give you a brief overview of what the site is about, as well as a compelling reason to click the title tag. It all happens so quickly and painlessly, many searchers won’t even notice themselves making a decision. They’ll simply click on the link, satisfying their curiosity without having to think about it.
Here’s an example of a great meta description:
Clever naming helps Death Wish Coffee pack a punch here. With the first three words, “Death Wish Coffee,” you already get an idea of what the company sells (coffee) and its defining brand feature (hardcore, but tongue-in-cheek about it).
Death Wish then says it’s “here to fuel your passion.” With these words, it positions itself as motivating. The words “highest quality arabica + robusta” lets readers know they sell good coffee products.
Writing meta descriptions for your product pages is a little easier than writing them for your homepage, because your product pages aren’t supposed to speak for your business as a whole.
Instead, they’re speaking for something that offers a tangible benefit to shoppers:
Selling spatulas? Let the reader know that this spatula will make cooking so much easier.Selling lawn mowers? Have the reader imagine a fast and easy journey through the grass.
For a good example of a persuasive meta description, let’s check out the search result for So Worth Loving stickers:
Immediately, and in all caps, the description makes you realize that a lot of stickers don’t last as long as you want them to. Then, SWL promises that its stickers solve that problem.
Product page meta descriptions should explain why the product is great for the potential buyer —like jewelry, for example—or provide exact technical specs and model number if it is something in demand, like Jacuzzi parts.
Capitalizing the meta description is a bold move, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend capitalizing the whole thing. But here it works, because the capitalization doesn’t seem like it’s there just to grab attention. It also does the work of separating the note from the rest of the text. After the note, this description works well because it keeps the focus on the reader.
You do need to give some idea of what differentiates the product. So Worth Loving does this by emphasizing durability and by letting its site name suggest that its stickers are going to be really, really cool. But after that, it’s all about letting the customer visualize themselves with the product.
The description suggests the joy a buyer might get when they see the sticker as a “best little reminder,” offering various ways the sticker could easily fit into their life: “Stick them on your car, laptop, water bottle, wherever you want to see them.”
The ending, in particular, works beautifully. It starts the sentence by suggesting the product will make you feel some powerful emotion, but then it makes you click the title tag to find out what that emotion actually is.
Though some SEO experts will tell you to make sure your meta descriptions all finish with complete sentences, a half-sentence can do wonders for your click-through rate (CTR).
If you’re going to use this strategy, it’s good to get your meta description as close to the rough 155-character limit as possible.
The next meta descriptions to focus on are your category page, or collection page, meta descriptions. The purpose of this page is to group similar products together for customers to browse. Collections pages can show up for broad, high-volume keywords, like “woman’s shoes” or “men’s sandals.”
Your category page meta description should draw people in by showing relevant information about the collection, like how DSW lists out the different shoe types in their women’s shoes category.
They also use simple action phrases like “Shop online for …” and “enjoy a large selection and free shipping …” to encourage clicks from browsers.
Category pages should aim for plurals and more mid-tail key terms than product pages. Black sweaters for women would be included in the description for a category page for black women’s sweaters. Explain what brands you have if you are a reseller.
If you want to spice up your description, Doug Pierce, Director of Hong Kong–based marketing agency Cogney, suggests using emojis. “A trick I like to employ is using check marks ✔️ to call out the sub-collections of products we have if it’s a product collection page.”
He also suggests including numbers in the description (where relevant) and using power words like “free” or “exclusive” to grab peoples’ attention. Katie-Jay Simmons, an ecommerce specialist from Fit Small Business, agrees. She says, “If your store has any special offers running—like free shipping, extended warranties, or sales—it can make for good content to include in a meta description as well.”
How to write a good meta description
Now that we have an understanding of meta descriptions, you’re probably wondering: What are the best ways to apply this knowledge to my business?
Consider the customer mindsetMake it uniqueKeep it at optimal lengthMake it actionableAdd a call to actionUse your target keywordTry to avoid meta description generators
Consider the customer mindset
First, focus on what would compel a searcher to click on your title tag. That requires answering two questions:
What are you offering?Why should I buy from you?
For product pages, the first query has a simple response: you’re offering your product. The second will be resolved by the simple fact that you’re the one selling the product.
Meta descriptions for your home page are a little trickier. As we saw in the Death Wish Coffee example, the best thing is to repeatedly emphasize your brand. That’s the one thing your whole store offers, and it’s the reason they should buy from you.
Make it unique
Let readers know what you do, tell them about your unique selling proposition, and convey this information multiple times, because the meta description isn’t a place for subtlety. Struggling to come up with an effective meta description for your homepage is common, so it’s best to be patient and think hard about your brand.
Writing good meta descriptions is like writing good copy. It needs to include the offerings and unique selling points of the product.
If you’ve been around for a while, what do returning customers say about your business? And if you’re new, what made you think this business would get customers?
The goal of your meta description is to get clicks, but it’s also a chance to show off your brand. “Think of meta descriptions as a continuation of your brand and an opportunity to clearly define your USP (unique selling proposition) using relevant keywords, Stephen Light, CMO and co-owner of Nolah Mattress, says. “They’re little ads, and though the character length can feel constraining, are excellent short bursts of promo.”
Talk to people about your business, formulate the description like you would an elevator pitch. You’ll probably want to go through a couple drafts. It’s important to get things right because this will be the first exposure many customers have to you and your brand. You also don’t want to have duplicate meta descriptions throughout your website, because it could harm your chances of ranking.
Keep it at optimal length
Stay between the 155 character limit when considering your meta description length. Google will likely cut off any text after that. Put your most important text in the beginning of your description, such as action phrases or a few words about your brand, like Fashion Nova does below.
Make it actionable
Think of meta descriptions as the welcome mat to your ecommerce store. Make sure your description is clear, exciting, and actionable. Tell readers what they should expect on your page.
Fazal Khan, Head of SEO at Epos Now, suggests “not to use too many adjectives or fancy words.” You may want to use the word “awesome” or “showstopping,” but it might detract searchers from clicking through. “Even if you are using interesting language,” he adds, “make sure it is relevant to your page.”
This description below from Bonobos is a great example. It’s short, motivating, and addresses the reader directly. You know you’re going to find a great pair of dress pants by clicking through.
Add a call to action
A call to action in your meta description will compel people to click through to your page. They help readers understand what you offer and what to expect after clicking. For ecommerce stores, focus on different motivations behind their search.
If someone is looking for a more broad search term, like women’s shoes, you’ll notice what ranks are a lot of category pages. People use category pages to browse, versus product pages where they buy. Reflect those intentions in your call to action.
Some call to action examples for ecommerce are:
Shop nowExplore the collection Discover new trendsBrowse the collection
Use your target keyword
Find a way to include your target keyword to help search engines rank your page. Make sure it sounds like a human wrote it. For example, stuffing all your target keywords into a meta description like “Buy Women’s Shoes, Women’s Tennis Shoes, and Women’s Shoes on Sale here!” is not a good look for your brand because it feels forced and robotic.
Instead, naturally tie the keyword into your description, like the Shoe Carnival example below:
Try to avoid meta description generators
There is some debate about whether or not to use generators to write meta descriptions. Generators can produce descriptions that seem dull and lack personality. But they can work if you are a brand with thousands of SKUs and not enough resources to write them.
As a small business, you’re better off writing meta descriptions manually—especially those for pages that get a lot of search traffic. Melanie Bedwell, Ecommerce Manager at OLIPOP, agrees. “I believe meta descriptions should be one-of-a-hand,” she says. “It’s easier to make them unique if you have someone on your team to write them.”
“The meta description is one of the best chances for someone to click on your search result. I believe it’s too important to leave up to an automated generator.”
SEO Consultant Myriam Jessier agrees: “Meta description generators are why Google started rewriting some things—to avoid boilerplate content that is low quality and doesn’t satisfy search intent. The official guideline is: it’s better to have no description than a boilerplate description that is low quality.”
Make your own meta descriptions one of a kind
Whether you’re a brand new store owner or seasoned ecommerce webmaster, compelling meta descriptions are important to increase website traffic, provide good user experience, and improve conversion rates. By checking the boxes above, you’ll be on the right track to optimizing your pages for the web and will soon see the benefits of more traffic and higher sales.
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Meta description FAQ
What should I write in a meta description?
A meta description should include a compelling summary of the page someone is about to click on. It should clearly tell them what they’ll gain by clicking through. Meta descriptions should include a target keyword to help search engines index and rank the page.
Are meta descriptions important for SEO?
Yes. A meta description tag is valuable for both search engines and web browsers. They help browsers understand what your page is about and if your page will answer their query. A unique meta description can increase clicks and visibility in search.
What are the best meta description practices?
Consider a browser’s mindsetMake it uniqueKeep it at optimal lengthMake it actionableAdd a call to actionUse your target keywordAvoid meta description generators
What should I do if I don’t have a meta description?
About the author
Michael is a SaaS Marketer and SEO and founder of Peak Freelance. He’s inspired by learning people’s stories, climbing mountains, and traveling with his partner and two Xoloitzcuintles.