What is a Meta Description?
If you've ever done an online search then you've seen a meta description (several, actually). Just about every search result will contain the title of the page, the URL of the page, and the meta description.
In laymen's terms: A meta-description is a concise description of a page's content.
In non-laymen's terms: A meta descriptions is an HTML attribute that previews a page returned on a search engine results page (SERP).
That HTML code for a meta description will look like this:
What Does a Meta Description Do for SEO?
The truth is, a meta description itself doesn't directly affect your site's SEO. I know that doesn't sound right, but the the search engine algorithm doesn't actually take into account what you write in your meta description.
You might be thinking: "Gabe, the post title clearly says "best practices for SEO"! Why have you lied to me?"
Relax, I didn't lie to you. The primary purpose of a meta description is to entice someone into clicking on your link. If your meta description reliably draws people to your webpage, and if those visitors engage with your page, then Google will see that your page is relevant to the keyword and THAT will benefit your site's SEO. So, be sure to create a compelling description of your page, and use your important and relevant keywords in the description.
How Long Should a Meta Description Be?
Unfortunately there isn't an exact character limit I can give you. Generally speaking, a meta description tends to get truncated (cut off) at around 150 - 160 characters. If you follow that guideline you should be fine, but try to get at least 120 characters.
It now seems that meta descriptions can be approximately 300 characters long. Search engines are constantly testing and adapting. This is why it's important to stay up-to-date!
What Should My Meta Description Say?
There is a lot of variability here, but I'll try to cover a few different situations that should provide you with an idea of what to do.
1. Include Relevant Keywords
A search engine will bold the keywords in your description that the user searched for. It will certainly help convince a person to click on your link if they see some of the keywords they're searching for are mentioned in your meta description.
2. Don't Lie in Your Meta Description
You should never include a meta description that doesn't accurately represent the page it's for. Not only is this a dishonest way to attract visitors, but the fact that people will almost immediately leave the page (a metric Google tracks) will only serve to negatively impact your site's SEO.
3. Make Each Description Unique
I understand that it can be challenging to come up with a meta description for every webpage and blog post you have, but it's worth it. If you need help tracking down duplicate descriptions I recommend attaching Google Webmaster Tools to your site and checking the HTML Improvements" tab.
4. Have a Call to Action
Whether you're offering a free e-book, or providing super useful information on writing meta descriptions, it's important to let people know what it is you are selling/giving away.
5. Use Structured Data/Content
This is a more advanced SEO technique that deserves its own blog post. When I write a post on structured data I'll be sure to include a link to it here.
For now, know that structured data is an on-page markup that allows search engines to better understand the content on your page. This can be simple information, such as your business name and address, or more complex information such as business reviews, your upcoming events, and recent articles.
How to Add a Meta Description
If you're using a website builder then I recommend checking their resources or running a search for "how to add meta descriptions" for your particular website platform (e.g., WordPress.org, SquareSpace, Wix).
If you're using WordPress then you'll need to call upon one of the many free plugins available to you. I personally use Yoast, but don't let my personal preference stop you from trying out others. Fortunately, each plugin will work essentially the same.
If you don't know how to install a plugin on your WordPress site then check out this tutorial, here. After you've installed your SEO plugin of choice you should see some new fields at the bottom of each page and blog post in the backend of your website.
There is typically a field that is labeled some variation of "meta description". In the case of Yoast you click on "edit snippet" button to open up the box (click on the image on the left).
The Exception - When Not to Have a Meta Description
As you might have noticed when you Google your own site, the search engines will often pull seemingly random sentences from your website and use that in the meta description. If your page is focusing on 1 - 3 high traffic keywords then you should create your own meta description. However, If the page is geared towards more than a few keywords, such as the page to a blog archive or clothing catalogue, then you can get away with not making a description.
Search engines have the ability to generate a meta description based on the search of a user. It will fill the area with whatever section of your page contains keywords someone searched for. So, if someone is searching for a specific kind of shoe but your meta description on your shoe catalogue page doesn't mention that specific shoe, then it may be best to let the search engines pull that up for you.
If you're finding any of this confusing let me know in the comments section below. I'll gladly respond and help you out!