Apr 19 2009

Why You Need a Meta Description

Published by at 9:57 pm under search,SEO,usability

This weekend I was checking out some organic search results for higher education sites. I was astonished by the number of higher ed sites that do not use a meta description.

Why the meta description is still important. The meta description won’t help your ranking in the top search engines, but it’s still very important.

It describes your page. According to an old SEOmoz post, the meta description is used:

  1. To describe the content of the page accurately and succinctly
  2. To serve as a short, text “advertisement” to click on your results in the search results
  3. To display targeted keywords, not for ranking purposes, but to indicate the content to searchers

The meta description is usually listed beneath the linked title in most search engine results. Key for click-throughs.  The keywords users search for in the top search engines are also bolded in the search result (the meta description and title tag). Again, key for click-throughs.

Quick example. If I’m a user searching for liberal arts colleges in Wisconsin and I happen upon the below search listing, I have a nice little blurb that tells me what the page is all about. Since this is the homepage, it tells me what the school is all about. I know nothing about this college, but taking 1 or 2 seconds (and that’s what users take) to read the description helps me decide if I should click through or not.

Search Result #1:

Ripon College

Compare that to the listing directly below it. I’m deleting the school and names.

A Great College
A Great College work pref 414.555.1212 work 1.800.555.1212 4400 South 1st street … A Great College named one of the nation’s 10 leading schools for …

Or the one directly below that:

A Great University Home
Smith joined the physics department in 2006 as part of the Great University Fellows in the Liberal Arts and Sciences program ..

Do you have any idea what “A Great College” and “A Great University” are all about? We know the phone number of one and the recent hire of another, but we still have no idea about the homepage or the school. Don’t be fooled into thinking users will click through to find out, either.

Of course we’re talking about the homepage here, but most secondary pages should have a meta description – a *different* meta description that describes those pages as well.

First impressions count. For many schools, users searching may have never heard of the school. If they happen upon the school in a search listing, that title and description is the first impression – make it relevant.

Leaving the meta description blank so the search engine can scrape your page and use what *they* think might be relevant doesn’t make much sense. Writing a good meta description is not easy, but it’s worth it. Take the time and write it!

Kyle James just wrote a great SEO post on .eduguru last week about optimizing higher education websites for search engines. This is an area that higher education sites really need to focus on and, as a whole, we haven’t.

SEO is so important to get users to your website and the meta description is important as well – just not for page ranking. It’s one thing to rank high. It’s another thing to entice the user to click through to your website.

Obviously the higher the rank, the more users will click through, but if your school is listed on a page with 6 other schools (or 6 lead generation sites who spend way more time on SEO than you do!), the meta description plays a key role in that click through.

Directory Listing Descriptions. If your website is listed in the Open Directory or Yahoo Directory, Google and Yahoo both can grab your directly listing from DMOZ or from Yahoo Directories and use it as your “description” in the search engine results.

To get them to use your meta description tag, simply use the following snippets in your header (<head></head>):

<meta name=”ROBOTS” content=”NOODP,NOYDIR”>

This tag tells Google, Yahoo, and MSN to use your meta description instead of the directory listing description.

Of course, once you get users to your website, it’s your job to *keep* them on your site. That’s another post for another day, though.

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