Most Web pages see a large part of their visitor traffic coming from the Google search engine. Given that Google usually produces relevant results rapidly, it is often convenient for visitors to do a keyword search rather than to remember the address of a favorite website. In consequence, many website owners put efforts into making their Web pages more visible in Google. In doing so, they rely on the process of SEO (Search Engine Optimization).
SEO can be complex. An important element in understanding how SEO works is to realize that search engines are computers. They will assess a Web page in a very different way from a human visitor looking at that Web page in a browser such as Internet Explorer or Firefox. If you want a Web page to be very visible in the search engine results, then you need to understand how that search engine will assess the Web page. That assessment is largely based on the text content of the Web page. However there are some surprising features in that assessment.
The most important phrase on a Web page to a human visitor may well be the headline they see when first arriving at the page. The search engine visits using a spider or robot. This robot puts particular emphasis on what appears in the Title of the webpage. The Title is the text that appears along the top of the screen in most browsers. This may or may not be the same as the headline on the visible page. For this article, the two are slightly different. There can be SEO advantages in realizing that Headlines Are For Humans, Titles Are For Robots.
Some of the text content of the webpage is not visible to the human visitor. For example there is information in what are called meta tags. Such information can only be seen by checking on the source code for the Web page. One such meta tag is the keywords meta tag. This originally was intended to be a place where keywords that helped to define the purpose of the Web page could be added. This was so misused by early attempts at SEO that the content is now largely irrelevant to search engines.
Another meta tag is the Description meta tag. This is becoming increasingly important for SEO and this article will describe how you can profit from that.
DESCRIPTIONS ARE OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND FOR MOST WEBSITE OWNERS
Many website owners at this point will be wondering what the fuss is all about. They have probably never seen the Description meta tag. Nor have the human visitors to their website. What would justify any effort being put into such a hidden feature of a Web page? The reason is that this is additional text content for the Web page. To the spider, it has just the same importance as any text content that is visible to human visitors. In addition, it is flagged with a tag, the Description, that is almost equivalent to an Executive Summary tag for human visitors.
GOOGLE LIKES DESCRIPTIONS
The biggest reason why the Description meta tag is becoming more important is that Google has clearly indicated that it is important to their search process. You can see this easily by visiting the Google Webmaster Tools website. Any web master who is seriously concerned about the effectiveness of their website would be well advised to explore what Google Webmaster Tools reveals about their website. There is a great deal of information about all aspects of a website’s performance.
One element of that is an analysis of the Descriptions of the various Web pages that make up the website. If Web pages do not have descriptions then that will be flagged. If a number of Web pages all have the same description then that will also be flagged as a weakness of the website. If the Descriptions are too short, then that will be flagged too.
Google strongly encourages webmasters to provide good Descriptions for their Web pages. Their recommendations are spelled out in their note on How to create good meta descriptions. Clearly what they suggest is useful information, although in some respects it is a little unclear. Why is this Description meta tag so important to their search process?
DESCRIPTIONS ARE IMPORTANT FOR BLOG POSTS TOO
Blog posts are just like any other Web pages and will benefit from each having distinct Descriptions. Using the Google Blogger software gives a difficulty here, since the Descriptions are always the same text. WordPress is no better unless a plugin is used to produce distinct Descriptions for each blog post. The All-in-one SEO Pack plugin is particularly good for this. If used in the default mode, it uses the first 160 characters of the blog post as the text for the Description. Much more powerfully, one can create a specific Description for each post. How this should be done is discussed later in this article.
DESCRIPTIONS CAN BRING VISITORS
A short description of, or excerpt from, a website which appears in Google search results. Snippets are created automatically based on the site’s content or the content of Web pages that link to the site.
If you do a keyword search with Google, then the snippet for each item is the text that appears below the heading of that item. Apparently the Description may be part of the information that is considered in that automatic creation of the snippet. In practice it rarely seems to work out that way. You will often find that the snippets are made up from two or three small pieces of text taken from different parts of the webpage. The keywords used in the query will be shown in bold. The snippet presumably is intended to indicate why the particular item is relevant to the keyword search.
The table below illustrates the Top Ten results of 10 keyword searches. For the SMM blog posts shown, the snippet is in all cases the Description for that particular post. This was achieved by the method discussed later in this article. The right hand column shows how many of the other nine results in each case displayed the Description. At the time the analysis was done, only 3 out of all the 90 other Top Ten items were Descriptions rather than made-up composite snippets. Either webmasters do not understand how to write Descriptions or the snippet process works in some different way that does not put so much emphasis on the Description. Please note that, if you look at these keyword searches, the details of your results may differ slightly from these results, but the overall picture will be very similar.
|Results for Google Search Engine Keyword Queries|
|Keywords for Google query||SMM blog post rank in Top Ten||Other entries with Description as snippet in Top Ten|
|Babel Media Montreal||#1||0|
|Bell Canada Beavers||#2||0|
|Canadian Cell Phone Market||#1||1 (#10)|
|Chabanel fashion centre||#4||0|
|J Walter Thompson Company||#6||0|
|Mobile Web Growth||#2||0|
|Quebec cheeses||#2||1 (#5)|
|Trans-Canada Highway driving directions||#1||0|
|WordPress blog hacked||#4||1 (#8)|
WHAT DOES THE GOOGLE SNIPPET REALLY TELL YOU?
If we try to understand the snippet process a little better, Google is as usual somewhat cryptic.
Their definition which was given above talks about snippets for websites, yet search engine results pages (SERPs) show specific Web pages. A little exploration soon shows how complex their snippet concept is. Let us examine three of the keyword queries involving SMM blog posts already discussed. In the table below the first Google keyword query in each case did deliver the Description as the snippet for the SMM blog post. The second closely related keyword query produced a very different snippet in all three cases.
|Typical examples of Google SERP snippets|
|Keyword Phrase||Google Rank for the same SMM blog post||Google snippet in SERP for this same SMM blog post|
|Quebec cheeses||#2||Cheeses from Quebec are now world renowned and win top honours. Find and taste the best at the Warwick Cheese Festival or the Atwater Market.|
|Quebec cheese||#11||The Warwick Cheese Festival will be held from June 17 to 19. Some 38 cheesemakers will be displaying over 100 varieties. Quebec has established a premier …|
|Canadian Cell Phone Market||#1||Lack of competition in the cellphone market among the big three, Bell, Rogers and Telus, has retarded growth. The Federal Government is opening it up.|
|Cell Phones Market Canada||#10||Web Design « Real Competition Coming To The Canadian Cell Phone Market [… … Strategic Marketing Montreal, 9465 – 216 B Street, Langley BC, Canada V1M 4E4 …|
|Chabanel fashion centre||#4||Chabanel Street, the fashion power centre, is home to much of the Montreal garment industry and is the 3rd largest employment district in Montreal.|
|Chabanel clothing||#23||Chabanel Street, the fashion power centre, is home to much of the … Employment in the clothing sector in Quebec fell from 57000 in 2003 and is now at …|
Small changes in the keywords seem to easily cause the Description to be replaced by other words. In each case the first version produced the Description as the snippet, while the second version produced alternative wording. You can quickly spot where the snippet was produced by the automatic computer process when you see those three dots ( … ), sometimes more than once. You can also confirm for yourself that the first version using the Description is much more likely to attract the searcher’s click.
Google tells us that the snippet is produced by some computer process so we should not push too hard to try to understand this. Google’s explanation of the motivation for snippets provides some help:
We frequently prefer to display meta descriptions of pages (when available) because it gives users a clear idea of the URL’s content. This directs them to good results faster and reduces the click-and-backtrack behavior that frustrates visitors and inflates web traffic metrics.
Since the automatic process for snippets seems to place great emphasis on the specific words searched for, this is the key to getting our Descriptions featured in the Search Engine Results Pages. The snippet seems to be there to prove that Google has produced relevant results. This may or may not drive more traffic to your Web page. On the other hand, your Description can be fine-tuned to attract visitors to your Web page. If your Web page is featured on a Search Engine keyword report page, then you want to make sure that the snippet Google uses is exactly the Description that you created. The real challenge is getting your Web page in the Top Ten. A little more effort to be the most attractive of that Top Ten is effort very well expended.
HOW TO WRITE SEO DESCRIPTIONS
It is quite clear from the examples above that you cannot guarantee that your Description will always be what Google uses to indicate the Web page content. Assuming that your Description is much more engaging than any automatic snippet that Google may produce, how can you maximize your chances that your Description is used? The following steps will achieve this.
Step 1 – Determine the most appropriate keyword phrase for your Web page
You know that your Description will not be used all the time. You should therefore maximize the chance that it is used when your Web page is a very good fit with a particular keyword search.
Step 2 – Check that you have the keyword phrase format that is most popular with searchers
Make sure that you use the format of the keyword phrase that is most popular among searchers. There are a variety of tools that can be used for this analysis, such as the Google Keyword Popularity Tool or even that provided by Google Adwords.
Step 3 – Confirm that, for this keyword phrase, your Web page appears in the Top Ten and ideally close to the top.
This may require that some adjustments are made to the Web page content and particularly to the Title. In addition, the keyword phrase should be confirmed in the link text for inlinks to the Web page.
Step 4 – With the first 3 steps completed, then the Description can be optimized.
It should be no longer than 155 characters and spaces, since this is what Google shows in a snippet. It should be compelling in that someone reading it is motivated to link to the original Web page. Finally and most importantly, it must include all the keywords in the keyword phrase. If any one of these words is missing, then the snippet automatic generation process may piece together part of the Description with some other text from the Web page that features the missing keyword.
Step 5 – Monitor performance on an ongoing basis and adjust as appropriate
By writing Descriptions that appear as snippets in Google’s search keyword reports, you are maximizing the chance that a searcher will prefer to click on your particular Web page. Whatever traffic might have been created by your Google ranking alone will be increased by the extra proportion who choose to click through to your website, given the more attractive Description.
Some website owners believe that achieving high Google rankings is all that is needed for success. That is important but what really counts is the proportion of keyword searchers who then click on that highly ranked item and convert into purchasers. By ensuring the item is described with an attractive Description, you increase the chances that someone will click on your Web page and begin following the persuasion process whereby that click is converted to a sale.