Appealing Meta Descriptions: A Story of Storefronts

At content26, we focus on online sales, but think with me for just a moment about brick-and-mortar stores. (Hang with me, online merchandisers. Sales is sales, and these real-world gems have a lot to teach us.) Specifically, think about physical storefronts and one of their parallels on the web: your product page’s metadata that is displayed on the search engine results page, or SERP.

Online stores don’t reside in a physical mall, but SERPs give consumers a way to stroll through a virtual version of one. You perform a search for the term “baby stroller,” for instance, and you’re presented with a virtual “mall” of thousands of “storefronts” presumably leading to pages with content for baby strollers.

So if you sell baby strollers online, you will want the meta description and title displayed in the SERP about your baby stroller product pages to be enticing to consumers.

Just as brick-and-mortar stores put a lot of effort into their storefronts to attract shoppers, you’ll want to do the same with your Internet storefront.

Dusting Off Your Metadata

A sloppy meta description is like a rundown storefront.When potential customers search for a product, the results that appear in the SERPs are a reflection of your company, your website, and your product. The title and short description users see on a SERP comes from your product page’s metadata, or more specifically, its meta title and meta description.

You can’t control the metadata of your product-page content on external sites, but you have full control of the metadata on your own site.

Cleaning up your metadata is not much different from sprucing up your storefront. If you neglect your meta description and title and they appear untrustworthy, shoppers are not likely to click. Provide a concise and compelling meta description, however, and consumers will click.

Limited Space for Merchandising in Meta Descriptions

Just like a storefront permits a limited amount of physical space, each search engine permits a limited number of characters for each webpage. Google allows 65 characters for the title and 155 for a meta description.

If you don’t write these yourself, the search engines will take whatever relevant copy they can find from the page and display that as your online storefront. (Another reason the first sentence or two of your product description is so important, as that text is likely to be repurposed as a meta description.)

To illustrate the concept of meta description as storefront, I Googled “Eureka hand-held vacuum.” The following four descriptions were the top results of hundreds of thousands.

Home Depot, though not the top result, nailed it by using the entire meta description to talk about benefits of the product–it’s portable and can clean stairs and upholstery.

I think Home Depot outdid the brand site in this regard. Eureka’s meta description is pulled directly from the product-page content, and while it’s informative, precious space is wasted repeating the same feature.

Amazon and Walmart, unsurprisingly, use meta descriptions to promote their own brands more than the product for sale. These mega-retailers go for competing on price. (Though Amazon hasn’t given up competing on quality content, recent changes in how Amazon handles enhanced content continue to make things difficult for manufacturers and brands selling on Amazon.)

If you already know you want this vacuum, Amazon or Walmart is probably your click. But if you want to learn more about the vacuum, perhaps compare it to similar products? Home Depot would get my click.

What About SEO?

Because we know very little about the secret sauce of Google’s algorithms, there’s still debate about the purpose metadata serves on the SEO front. Once upon a time, when black hatters ruled the web, metadata was considered the Pied Piper of SEO. Throw the word “sex” in your metadata, for instance, or “Walt Disney” (but never both), and the masses would flock to your vacuum cleaner pages.

That’s changed, if it was ever true at all. Google announced in 2009 that meta descriptions and meta keywords do not factor into their ranking algorithms. Let me repeat, meta descriptions don’t affect how Google ranks your pages.

This fender storefront shows passersby exactly what to find inside, just like a good meta description can.

Meta descriptions do, however, affect how many casual browsers click through to your product page.

Semantic search is taking hold. Now “SEO” is as much about the humans as about the machines. And your metadata is crucial to your content strategy. When a consumer browses the SERPs, they will use your meta descriptions (and your competitors’) to determine the usefulness of your site and decide whether to click. Will they see something trustworthy and useful, or a mash of jargon that doesn’t address their questions?

As Kissmetrics says,

Stop thinking about [meta descriptions] as a ranking factor, and start thinking about them as a conversion factor.

The Takeaway

Your meta descriptions are important. Will they lure consumers in or encourage them to keep moving when they see your words in the SERP?

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on 8/4/2011 at content26’s old blog, For this update we made minor edits, updated examples, and added a link or two.

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