A Good Meta Description is Hard to Find

When I look over a web site from a professional standpoint, I'm primarily concerned about three things — the user experience, the aesthetic design, and how well the site is optimized for search engines.

Of the three, I'm regularly surprised at how little attention is paid to SEO, especially the basics.

Everyone knows that the <title> tag is the most important element on a web page for SEO, right?

But what of the meta description, which provides the text summary for each result (the snippet)? It's far more important than many web designers seem to think.

Certainly, the <title> tag, as it forms the clickable link for a search engine result, is key to get right.

However, the snippet provides an opportunity to deliver a targeted call-to-action to the searcher that supports and builds on the text of the main link. It can also differentiate your result from those around it.

Not writing a good meta description — one that at least summarizes the content on the page — means that you're giving up free traffic from organic search engine rankings.

What's all the more surprising to me is that many notable web design-related sites ignore or incorrectly implement the meta description.

For example, the latest A List Apart article (on findability — the irony) has no meta description, even though a summary is provided on the page (although it makes the mistake of being clever rather than useful).

The same is true for Vitamin, Freelance Switch, Graphic Define Magazine, and Boxes and Arrows.

What is especially interesting to me is that these sites are all magazine-format and probably receive a significant proportion of their traffic from search engines. You'd think that they would want to optimize their articles for these important sources of traffic.

Fortunately, SitePoint bucks the trend by actually using meta descriptions, and descriptive ones at that, although they tend to be rather long winded.

Just to drive the point home, here's how that ALA article on Findability looks on Google:

A List Apart Google search engine result: before rewriting

Other than the A List Apart name, a searcher has no idea whether this article is going to be relevant or useful.

Here's how that result looks after spending a couple of minutes rewriting the meta description (based on a more relevant sentence I pulled from the article):

A List Apart Google search engine result: after rewriting

Imagine how good that call-to-action could be if you spent a whole 5 minutes writing and copy editing it. Hopefully I've made my point.

A lot of the business of creating and managing web sites is about getting the basics right. The meta description is one of those basics that you can't afford to ignore.

Posted on: March 31, 2008 | No comments

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