How to Use the DESCRIPTION Meta Tag

Meta tags are special HTML tags that you can use to carry information, which browsers or other programs can then read. When Internet search engines were first created, webmasters included meta tags in their pages to make it easy for search engines to determine what the pages were about. Search engines also used these meta tags when deciding how to rank the page for different keywords.

The DESCRIPTION meta tag describes the web page to the search engines. Search engines use this meta tag in two ways:

  • They read and index the text in the tag and, in some circumstances, use it to figure out a page’s relevance to a search term. (Google claims it doesn’t use the tag for page ranking, but other search engines may.)

  • In many cases, they use the text verbatim in the search results page. That is, if your web page is returned in the search results page, the search engine may grab the text from the DESCRIPTION tag and place it under the text from the <TITLE> tag so that the searcher can read your description.

Now, this process can vary between search engines, and over time for the same search engine. Until sometime in 2007, in most cases, Google didn’t use the text from the DESCRIPTION meta tag in its search results page. Rather, Google grabbed a block of text where it found the search keywords on the page and then used that text in the results page.

However, these days it will often use the DESCRIPTION tag text if it finds the searched-for words in the description. If it doesn’t, or if it finds only some of the searched for words, it may grab text from within the page content and display that instead. The DESCRIPTION meta tag is pretty important, so you should definitely use it. Think of it as serving two purposes:

  • It’s a page-ranking tool, helping, in some search engines, the page to rank higher on the search-results page.

  • It’s a sales pitch, seen by people viewing the search engine’s search-results page; it should encourage people to click the link.

As is the <TITLE> tag, the DESCRIPTION is truncated; in Google search results, the text will be truncated to around 140 or 150 characters. For instance, here’s the description tag from Payless.com:

Shop Online or Nearest Store for Women’s Shoes, Children’s Shoes, Men’s
 Shoes, and Designer Shoe Styles | Free Shipping to a Store | Payless
 Online Shoe Store

And here’s how it appears in the Google search results:

Shop Online or Nearest Store for Women’s Shoes, Children’s Shoes, Men’s
 Shoes, and Designer Shoe Styles | Free Shipping to a Store | Payless 
Online Shoe . . .

So if you want part of the text to be seen, make sure it appears before that 140th-or-so character. You can have a longer description and get a few more keywords in there (though remember that as Google doesn’t use it for ranking you won’t be helping your position, at least with that search engine), but don’t make it too long; perhaps 170 to 200 characters maximum (including spaces).

Place the DESCRIPTION tag immediately below the <TITLE> (opening and closing) tags. Here’s an example:

<META NAME="description" CONTENT="Rodent Racing - Scores, Schedules,
 Everything Rodent Racing. Mouse Racing, Stoat Racing, Rat Racing, Gerbil
 Racing. The Web’s Top Rodent Racing Systems and Racing News">

As with the <TITLE> tag, title case is also a good thing; title case makes the DESCRIPTION text easier to read. Duplicating your most important keywords once is okay, but don’t overdo it, or you’ll upset the search engines. Don’t, for instance, do this:

<META NAME="description" CONTENT="Rodent Racing, Rodent Racing, Rodent
 Racing, Rodent Racing, Rodent Racing, Rodent Racing, Rodent Racing, Rodent
 Racing, Rodent Racing, Rodent Racing">

Overloading your DESCRIPTION (or any other page component) with the same keyword or keyword phrase is known as spamming, and trying such tricks may get your page penalized; rather than help your page’s search engine position, it may cause search engines to omit it from their indexes.

By the way, you should consider your DESCRIPTION tag to be not only a search engine component but also a sales tool. Remember that much of the tag — perhaps the first 150 to 160 characters — will quite likely be seen in the search results, so you want to use text that encourages people to click the link — text that helps your links stand apart from the others on the page.

An example is a compelling sales message or your phone number, which helps build credibility by ensuring that people recognize that it’s a real site and not some search engine spam result! (Using a phone number also has the effect of making your listing stand out a little; the eye "trips" over changes in the pattern, such as numbers and capitalized words.)

You might also want to think about your site’s Unique Selling Proposition (USP). What makes your site special compared to others — a huge selection? Free shipping? Remember, this is a sales pitch to get people to click, so think about how you can do that.

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