A Meta Description is a short description text which should describe the content of a HTML document for search engines. Meta-Descriptions are part of the meta data of web documents and are noted as meta tag in a HTML document’s head section. Google, as well as other search engines, can use meta descriptions with the Meta Title for the Snippet. A good description can ensure a better CTR in the SERPs. The maximum recommended length for the Meta-Description is characters.
Meta descriptions are displayed every time a user launches a search request and consequently looks at the Search Engine Result Pages. Beneath the blue-colored link, a short description text is displayed as snippet in order to draw attention to the content and to prompt users to click on it – given that a Meta Description is provided. If this is not the case, the first lines of the start of the text or other available content, e.g. directories, are displayed (cf. NOODP). Even when a description is saved in the source code, there is no guaratee that the Snippet will be used by google.
Meta Descriptions should be between 155 and 175 characters, including blank spaces, because any additional characters will be cut off with “...”, and the snippet will be less appealing for the user. Meta Descriptions are supposed to give users a hint of the URL’s content. That’s why direct customer approaches or short cues are often used to promote the URL’s content. It is also common to include certificates, quality seals or rating stars in order to convince customers of a website’s trustworthiness.
The Meta Description can be saved in a website’s head section. In doing so, the HTML syntax and the search engine criteria should be kept in mind.
An example: <head> <meta name=”description” content=”This description text shall illustrate the document’s content.”> </head>
The attributes ‘name’ and ‘content’ are obligatory. After opening a meta tag, it needs to be closed again.
In practice, Meta-Descriptions can not be directly integrated into source code. The established content management system provides suitable possibilities in Backend.
Rich Snippets are produced by Google using structured data. They belong directly to the Meta-Description , but can be expanded on in the search snippet. Rich Snippets contain for example prices, ratings or event details. Webmasters and SEOs should always consider this possibility when they work with meta descriptions. This area belongs to the so-called "Snippet-optimization" in the scope of OnPage optimization.
Google's Gary Illyes expressed his opinion on the optimization of snippets in an entry on Google Webmaster Central. He specifies that Google does not necessarily keep to a stored description, but searches for appropriate content elements on the website to use for the snippet. At the same time, it is made clear in the entry that Google does not use meta descriptions from the DMOZ directory.
In May 2016, Google expanded the space for displaying the meta-description as a part of the snippet in the SERPs. This occurred after the search machine provider removed the right hand column for advertising with the Google AdWords Programm.
Since then, Webmasters can write a Meta-Description with a maximum of 175 characters without the snippet being cut off. However, only the desktop search is considered here. For the optimization of the meta-description for mobile search, a length of 120 characters is recommended. This number is just a guideline. Google in fact works with the pixel width of the description. Therefore, as mentioned, even descriptions with over 200 characters can be shown in the mobile SERPs.
As Meta Descriptions have been frequently used for keyword stuffing, Google reacted with changing their algorithms. Since then, Meta Descriptions no longer affect the ranking of websites, but merely serve as snippets for users . They are optional and their impact on the SERPs is controversial among experts. They however can influence the Click Through Rate and the Traffic, as the short text serves as indication of a website’s content for users and they consequently click on the URL if the content appears to be of interest for them.
When applying Meta Descriptions, it is important to note that they describe the content properly. This can be done individually for each website. At least for a web project’s main pages, it is recommended to provide a Meta Description. Not necessarily for search engines – but on behalf of the users.