While it’s true that you no longer need to optimize your meta description and meta keyword tags for Google, that doesn’t mean you should ignore these fields entirely!
In fact, because your page title and meta description are frequently pulled to form the snippet that appears whenever your pages are listed in the natural search results, the content you include in these areas can play a major role in your ability to attract visitors from the SERPs.
With this in mind, here’s what you need to know about optimizing your meta tags for both search engine optimization (SEO) and click-through rates (CTR):
Meta tags should be filled out as completely as possible
The first step to properly optimizing your meta tags is to use as many characters as you’re given access to. Think about your title tag and your meta description tag as being the first introduction that many new visitors will have to your brand, as they encounter this information in your website’s snippet in the natural search results. Given how important this real estate is, why wouldn’t you try to maximize the number of characters you’re allotted?
As a general rule, you should aim for the following character limits within each of your meta tags:
Page title – 70 characters
Meta description – 160 characters
Meta keywords – No more than 10 keyword phrases
Include Target Keyword Phrases in a Natural Way
Now, as you’re filling out your meta tags, you’ll want to pay special attention to the way your target keyword phrases are included. Just because the practice of keyword stuffing your meta tags has been long since devalued doesn’t mean these phrases shouldn’t be included. It just means you need to be more strategic about using them.
For example, when structuring your title tags, consider including your page title, your brand name, and a phrase that includes your target keyword phrase separated by the “|” symbol, rather than stuffing in as many keyword variations as possible.
Following this formula, a good sample page title tag for the Single Grain “About Us” page might look like:
“About Us | Single Grain Digital Marketing – SEO & CRO Industry Leaders”
A bad example of a sample tag for the same page would be:
“About Us – Single Grain SEO Agency, SEO Marketers, and SEO Consultants”
Although both sample title tags use SEO industry related keywords, the good title tag version is a clearly written, compelling option that utilizes possible target keywords in a natural way.
The same goes for your meta description. Including your target keywords in this field has the added bonus of causing your phrases to be bolded in the natural search results if a search user enters your exact wording into the engine. But while this might make you want to include as many keyword variations into a tag as possible, stick to a single phrase in order to prevent possible over-optimization penalties.
Finally, when it comes to the meta keyword tag, recommendations are mixed. While adding content to this area won’t help to earn your website higher rankings in the SERPs—or rankings for keyword phrases that you haven’t adequately targeted on your website—the keywords found here may play a role in how well your site performs on second- and third-tier search engines. Include keyword variations here if you want, but don’t spend too much time agonizing over which specific versions to list.
Meta Description Should Include a Call to Action
Now comes the fun part…
Remember, your title tags and meta descriptions aren’t just fields that you’re optimizing in the hopes of receiving some nebulous SEO boost. Instead, these fields form your snippet in the natural search results, which means that they must be written to be as compelling as possible!
Imagine encountering the two following snippets in the SERPs:
“How to Build Links in 2013
This article talks about link building techniques that will work well in 2013, including email link prospecting, social media marketing and content marketing.”
“31 Ways to Easily Attract Backlinks in 2013
Are you using dated link building practices that could be harming your brand? Find out how to effortlessly build links using these 2013-approved techniques.”
I probably don’t even need to ask which of these articles you’d rather read, right?
In a way, writing good meta descriptions draws on the principles of copywriting as much as it does SEO best practices. This can take practice, but the reward is a higher click-through rate, increased natural search traffic to your website and potentially higher SERPs rankings if—as some SEO experts believe—it’s true that your overall CTR contributes in some small way to your snippet’s placement in the natural search listings.
If you aren’t yet an expert copywriter, consider the following guidelines when it comes to crafting your title tags and meta descriptions:
Add a call to action. Asking people to do something (as in the case of “Find out how” in the example above) often results in readers taking the action you’ve requested. Other possible calls to action for your meta descriptions include “Discover how,” “Read more about,” “Click here,” or other related variation.
Use cliffhangers. The first meta description show above gives everything away, that is, there’s no real reason for the reader to click through to read the article, as its content is given away by the snippet. Instead, use cliffhangers in your meta descriptions to encourage viewers to click through for the full story.
Write your tags for yourself. Once you’ve come up with a possible meta tag, ask yourself, “Would I click through based on this information?” If your tags don’t yet seem compelling, rewrite them until you come up with something more enticing.
Don’t forget, you can always test out and refine the effectiveness of your meta tag content by changing the information stored in these web page fields periodically. If you notice a spike in natural search traffic upon making a change, it’s possible that you’ve hit on a winning combination of meta tag text.
Meta tags can be improved by the use of structured data
One last thing you can do to improve both your website’s search engine optimization and its appearance in the SERPs (and, consequently, your listing’s overall click-through rate) is to use the structured data fields that create rich snippets for your brand.
Essentially, rich snippets are enhanced SERPs listings that display additional information beyond your title tag and meta description. This additional information could include a picture, the number of people following you on Google+, or other industry-specific pieces of data (as in the case of cook times on recipe website rich snippets).
The following example (from the search query “potato soup recipe”) shows the difference between a web page that’s been optimized with structured data markup, and one that displays the traditional title tag and meta description snippet:
As you might expect, search users who wind up on this results page are significantly more likely to click the result that’s been optimized to include an image, recipe rating, cook time, and calorie count. As a result, Allrecipes.com stands to gain much more natural search traffic back to its recipe page, compared with the Food Network’s plainer listing.
For complete instructions on how to add this type of information to your own site’s pages, take a look at the tutorials provided by Google and Search Engine Land. Then, get to work implementing these tips and the strategies described above on your website. The difference in both your site’s overall SEO valuation and natural search click-through rate can be significant!