In its early days, USA Today was dubbed “McPaper” for its very short stories.
Unlike their peers at other newspapers, USA Today reporters had to digest big news into just a few paragraphs. Many in the profession criticized USA Today articles for their brevity. But I think those critics missed the talent required to synthesize and write concise copy.
It’s a skill that content marketers can appreciate, especially now that every piece of digital content needs a meta description. Our task is even more difficult than the one USA Today journalists face. We must summarize the content – no matter how long it is – in 156 characters.
And meta descriptions can’t just be short – they also have to compel readers to action. They’re one of just two factors searchers use to decide if your content is worth their precious click. (The other is the title or headline).
I’ll share some tricks for packing the biggest punch into a tiny space. First, though, let’s look at a few real-world examples.
I know you know what they look like on SERPs, but I wanted to provide a visual reminder. So, I snapped the results from a search for “what are meta descriptions.” Yep, it’s a meta example.
(Of course, I can’t be sure each of these is the meta description. Google ultimately decides what appears in the results. It might choose a snippet from the page if it thinks the meta description as detailed in the HTML tag isn’t a good assessment of the content. But for the purposes of this article, let’s assume they are meta descriptions.)
The image shows four search results, each with meta descriptions below the page title. Each description ends with an ellipsis to indicate there’s more text ready to read. Interestingly, the visible descriptions are less than and more than 156 characters, so if you’re writing a meta description that you hope Google will use and fit in total, go for fewer than 156 characters or put the most important text early in the sentence.
Here’s how to make the most of the words that do fit.
Think about why your audience would search for this topic. First, identify the targeted keywords for the article – this helps you understand who the target search audience is.
For example, consider Search Engine Journal’s meta description (for its article on how to create meta descriptions): “The meta description is an HTML tag that provides search engines and searchers a description of what the page is about.”
While BrightEdge describes its page this way: “A meta description is the information about your page that appears in the search engine results below the title/URL of the page.”
Both explain a meta description. However, by using the phrase “HTML tag,” Search Engine Journal indicates its page serves an audience that wants to learn about SEO technicalities. On the other hand, BrightEdge wrote its article for a more general audience, which makes sense because it targets general marketers.
Make sure your meta description fits your targeted searcher’s intent.
You’ll find plenty of writing advice that says you should avoid repeating a word in one sentence that was used in the previous sentence. You might interpret that counsel to mean that you should avoid repetition in your title and meta description. Please don’t.
Crafting a compelling meta description isn’t about the perfect flow. It’s about getting people to read and click on your content. That often takes a more promotional approach.
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It can seem like there are only two options for a meta description:
If your sole purpose is to deliver the answer, answer the query directly (but expect fewer clicks). If you only want clicks, take the curiosity route.
In most cases, it’s probably best not to go one way or the other. Consider a combined approach for your meta description – give an answer (even if it isn’t the answer) and still pique their interest to read more.
You can do this by writing a meta description that explains what they will get when they choose to read your content as opposed to anyone else’s.
Let’s look at the HubSpot meta description as it appears on the search results page for the query “what are meta descriptions”: “Apr 28, 2022 — A meta description is the snippet of information below the blue link of a search result. Its purpose is to describe the contents of the page to …”
Its meta description reads much like every other result. But if you click through to the article, you’ll find it provides examples to go along with the basic explanation. What if HubSpot revised its meta to be specific to its content and differentiate itself from the rest?
“Apr 28, 2022 – A meta description is the snippet below the blue link of a search result. In these examples, see how they describe the contents of a page …”
See the difference? Now, the searcher knows they’ll find examples of meta descriptions if they click on the HubSpot link.
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If your company has sufficient brand recognition and awareness in your industry, use its name in the meta description (or title). It brings a credibility factor that other results may not.
In the SERP screenshot I included above, HubSpot, Google, and BrightEdge use their names in their page titles. In some cases, that’s not feasible. Perhaps you need the real estate to capture the article better, or maybe your organization’s name is long.
The latter is the issue for the Content Marketing Institute – it’s 27 characters. Though CMI has good brand recognition, it’s not so valuable that it’s worth taking more than one-third of the recommended title length. Instead, we include the name in meta descriptions when we can, usually at the end (“ – Content Marketing Institute”) since it’s not the most important part of the description but could be seen and helpful to some degree.
It can be tempting to save every possible character for words. In most cases, you should avoid that practice. Searchers scan the results to understand the context of the content – they rarely read the meta description word for word at first glance. So make it easy to understand at a glance.
As you write, think about how the description will appear. Is it easy to pick up the keywords and points when scanning? Or would searchers have to read closely to get the gist? If it’s the latter, rewrite it using fewer words and more sentences or breaks.
Adding a little breathing room to your description also helps it stand out among a sea of results – especially those that seem to cram in everything possible.
Compelling meta descriptions benefit from powerful writing more than most content elements.
To power up yours, avoid (or at least limit):
By adopting the “McPaper” mindset, you can serve up nuggets of meta descriptions designed to sate your target searcher’s appetite.
How do you approach writing meta descriptions? Share what works for you in the comments.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute