Knowing how to write effective meta titles and descriptions is crucial when thinking about how to apply Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) to a new website. In this post, we’ll explain our process for metadata creation and exactly why we put so much time into the process.
There are an inconceivable number of guides on the subject of metadata creation and, to the small business owner, first time web designer and entry-level digital marketer, it can be quite overwhelming. You might wonder why one digital marketing agency advises one process whilst another digital evangelist suggests another proven process.
Which one is right?
Which one is wrong?
The answer to both of those questions is all of them.
There’s no precise set of guidelines to which people can follow and get the same results across the board — but you can steal a little bit from all of them and create a process that’s both effective and works.
The process we use at our digital marketing agency is exactly that. It’s effective and we’ve tested it time and again to make sure that it works and falls in line with how people search the web and how they use Google. But before we head down the rabbit hole of how to create metadata, it’s important to understand both what it does and why taking a casual approach to the process is a long-term recipe for bad results and an eventual domain disaster.
Understanding How Google’s Search Results Pages Work
Both Google’s Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) and how the average searcher uses those results are fundamental pieces of knowledge that you’ll need to know about before attempting to write new metadata — especially if you’re hoping that the user clicks your link.
Each search phrase will deliver results according to the amount of knowledge Google’s algorithm has uncovered and how well they feel they can address the user’s search.
Now there are so many different ways for the results to be displayed, most of which will “steal” clicks away from the classic SERP display of ten blue links.
For example, when searching “best way to learn trombone” the search results returned are displayed in the ‘Classic View’ of ten blue links with individual descriptions. With only a small selection of clickable options on the page, the chance for the first result to earn a click is high.
Unfortunately Google’s recently updated results pages have much more going on, dramatically narrowing the chance to earn clicks within the standard ten blue link range.
For example, on some searches a carousel of linked images will appear at the top of the page to both draw the eye and the click. Go and search for “game of thrones cast” and you’ll more than likely find similar results to the below image:
Some searches return “Knowledge Graphs”. These are widget-like boxes that appear on the right-hand side of the page, typically listing details for a business that may match the original search term. For example, when I search for “emergency plumber” the results are localised and a local plumber is featured in the graph:
Lastly, there is also the Answer Box, a small snippet of information from a linked page which should answer the original search query. These answer boxes can have two consequences:
- The user clicks the link within the answer.
- The user reads the answer and doesn’t click any links at all
If your website is below an Answer Box, it’s much harder to earn that single click compared to if the ‘Classic View’ was in use.
With all of the above in mind, it’s more important than ever to write meta titles and descriptions for search engines that are not just optimised for the benefit of SEO, but also to increase the click-through-rate (CTR).
Why Click-through Rate Optimisation Is Important For Meta Creation
As Google doesn’t release a full checklist of the — alleged — 200+ ranking factors it considers within its algorithm, there are those who believe Google when they say that meta descriptions aren’t a ranking signal. There are others in the industry, however, who suspect the opposite to be true. These people stand firm in the belief that cramming keyword phrases into both the meta title and meta description is a minimum requirement.
At Exposure Ninja we side with the “Google wouldn’t lie to us, right?” camp and create our metadata with that in mind. However, we do believe that the CTR percentage on links within the SERPs contributes heavily towards how Google chooses a final ranking position and will regularly boost the ranking of a page with new metadata to test if the altered meta title or description improves the CTR — and also how the searcher reacts to the page they navigate to.
Our understanding of CTR use in Google’s algorithm is:
High CTR + High Time on Page + High Page Views per Session = Increased Rankings.
High CTR + Low Time on Page + Return to SERPs = Decreased Rankings.
Should the landing page be poor quality, resulting in the user returning to the SERPs, Google will use the CTR and on-page metrics to decrease the ranking. This means that we’ll also need fantastic quality landing pages for when users click on our newly optimised metadata to avoid a decrease in ranking.
So how do we write meta titles and descriptions?
How To Prepare To Write New Meta
Before making any changes to the metadata of a website, it’s crucial to download the metadata on said website for both future reference, to help with the rewrite, and fall back, should the new meta uploaded result in any loss of organic traffic (traffic sourced from Google) or a decrease in CTR.
There are a number of tools and methods available to download the current meta of a website, but one we regularly return to is the meta tag extractor built by Buzzstream. After submitting our list of URLs to the tool we can download the supplied CSV file and copy/paste the data into our pre-prepared meta creation spreadsheet:
Once we’ve filled in the spreadsheet with our downloaded metadata and associated URL we’ll then assign the corresponding keyword phrases for that page to guarantee they’re used within the new meta title and description. This ensures that when the link appears in the search results the keywords in question appear in bold.
Next, before we move onto the writing process, we’re going to look to our competitors. We do this to find Unique Selling Points (USPs) that have already been shown to work time and time again.
Using Unique Selling Points In Meta Titles And Descriptions
Every day, tens of thousands of businesses across the world are running A/B tests on Google’s SERPs — spending tens of thousands of Dollars and Pounds in the process. Where? Here:
Google’s Adwords program is built upon testing what works and what doesn’t. In well-established industries, it’s highly likely that companies have been testing which USPs work best to earn a click for several years. By reviewing the ads at the top and bottom of a Google results page, you can pick up important points that may have been missed during the keyword research process.
In the below example there are a number of keywords that we may find useful for our own plumbing clients, some of which we may not have considered during our own keyword research process. These include:
- Fast Response
- No Call Out Fee
- Drainage Problems
If companies are willing to spend money on those words and phrases, it’s safe to assume that they’re the right type of keywords for triggering a response from the searcher. This also suggests that they’re profit generating keywords too. Using them within your new metadata is vital.
Psychological Triggers In Metadata Creation
Using the right type of psychological phrasing within your meta titles and accompanying description is also part of the key to success. You only need to look at examples of the wording within advertising to understand that the right words in the right place can generate a sale.
There are a number of different ways in which you can communicate your message and there have been several great studies and blog posts on the impact they have on CTRs. Coschedule’s How To Write A Call To Action In A Template With 6 Examples explains how useful the process can be on a wider scale than just metadata titles. One of the most useful posts of all is the 380 High Emotion Words Guaranteed to Make You More Persuasive by the delightful Bushra of The Persuasion Revolution.
Some personal favourites we regularly call upon are:
One word that we do try to avoid where possible is “our“. As found within the teachings of Dale Carnegie’s ‘How To Win Friends and Influence People‘, it’s not uncommon for people to switch off when they read “our” within an article as this tends to not address the reader’s desire.
For example, a user is less likely to be interested in learning that “our range of stock is exhaustive“. Instead, they may be more convinced to click the link if it solves their immediate problem, i.e, “solve your problems with…“.
How To Write The Metadata
The writing process for metadata creation is quite straightforward and made easier if the research discussed above has been done beforehand. If you have prior experience of regular blog post writing or copywriting then the process will be easier — these skills aren’t a necessity, you just need to tick all the right boxes.
In particular, one box that must be ticked is that of keyword placement. We’re not looking to stuff in keywords until the metadata is like an overflowing suitcase, instead, we need precise and calculated distribution.
The most important place to put the keywords is at the beginning or first half of the title, likewise with the description. Keywords used later on in the description are less likely to be read as people scan the SERPs.
For a long time, eye-tracking studies of Google’s search results suggested that keyword placement within the Golden Triangle was the optimal choice. However, as the results page design changed and mobile users became more prevalent, the triangle became less relevant. A number of Google SERPs heatmap studies demonstrate that a user’s eye movement differs depending on the design of the search results displayed.
Taking all the changes and standard conventions into account, we still feel that placement of the keywords towards the beginning of both the meta title and description —- whilst still using the positive phrase leading words above — increases the likelihood of earning a click.
For example, whilst creating the title for our post 5 Types of Hashtag Explained (and How To Use Them), we used both the likely search query (“types of hashtag“) at the beginning, before closing with a statement of use for the searcher (“how to use them“).
Should You Include The Brand Name In The Title?
Website plugins such as the Yoast SEO Plugin for WordPress include the option to ensure that your brand name or site name is included as a suffix to your meta titles. This can be very useful if the desire to always have the brand name visible is a crucial point for the website — however, in our experience, it’s far more prudent to include the brand or website name during the meta title writing process. This allows us to ensure that the title displays the best information possible to the search user.
Although this can sometimes limit the number of characters — especially when the brand or website name is long — it’s preferable to the alternative which is seeing the title truncated within the SERPs to accommodate the brand name, as seen in the below example from the Moz blog.
The exception to adding the brand or site name as a suffix occurs when either the brand name receives enough search requests per month that it would be wiser to have it at the beginning of the title, or when the brand itself is widely known. For example, the Amazon brand name is understandably best written at the beginning of their home page title, whereas a new company might find trouble earning clicks if their brand name started the title. On that occasion it would be wiser to lead with the most useful keyword phrase and the brand name as a suffix then, once brand awareness has increased sufficiently, to use the brand name as a prefix instead.
The Best Meta Title Length For Google’s Search Results
Keeping within the limitations of the character count on Google’s search results pages is akin to staying between the lines of a paint-by-numbers. Sure, you can go over the lines a little, but the picture won’t look as intended. Going over the suggested meta title length of sixty characters could result in the title being truncated, potentially hiding keyword phrases that match the search query, keywords that may have also earned a click.
Although the limit for the title is actually set around a 600 pixel limit —- rather than by characters — we instead prefer to stick to a smaller character limit so that we have full control over how the title is displayed.
As you can see in our meta title and description spreadsheet, we prefer not to write past the sixty character mark — regardless of the recent meta length update. By doing so, we prevent any truncation of the title, thereby safeguarding us against any return to the previous pixel limit in the future.
The Best Meta Description Length For Google’s Search Results
As with the title, the description can also fall foul of Google’s truncation knife which could hide the convincing sales pitch you’ve included within your meta tags. To avoid this, we tend to limit ourselves to a maximum of one-hundred and fifty-five words, thereby narrowing the chance that our message could become lost.
One other way in which the description could be truncated is if certain rich snippets are active for the page in question. For example, rich snippets linking to sections within the page may remove any number of characters from the end of the meta description, reinforcing the point that loading the first half of the description is crucial, not just for the increased conversion rate percentage, but also to avoid those keywords being removed entirely.
Testing Your New Metadata Before Implementation
Once written, it’s important to verify your newly created meta titles and descriptions before you upload them to your website. If you don’t, you run the risk of looking for the updated metadata with Google’s SERPs only to find that they’ve been significantly truncated. To do this, we use two tools.
The first tool we’ll use to check how the metadata will appear in the search results is the Google SERP Snippet Optimization Tool by SEOmofo. This ingenious tool is slightly dated in appearance but provides a close enough representation of actual search results.
The final check we’ll do is to see whether our new meta title fits within the new pixel dimensions of the search results. Although we rarely use more than sixty characters, there will be times where sixty-one or more characters are necessary. Testing the metadata before it’s live on the site narrows the likelihood that a rewrite will be required. For this we use Search Wilderness’s Pixel Width Checker for Page Meta Titles.
Monitoring Google’s Search Console And Adjusting As You Go
Once you’ve written your new metadata and added them to your website, it’s important to follow up on the process by regularly checking how they perform — much like you would with ‘call to action’ optimisation for buttons and links within your own website.
Using Google’s own Search Console analytics you can track the CTR for individual search queries and see if the number of clicks has either improved or declined. Fortunately, should the new metadata have a negative effect on particular landing pages, you’ll have the original meta title and description saved within your spreadsheet to re-upload to the site and return the CTR to the pre-rewrite norm.
Regular Reviews And Rewrites
Writing new meta titles and descriptions isn’t a one-time operation. As with landing page optimisation, it’s crucial that the resulting search CTR is regularly reviewed and re-optimised to ensure that everything has been done to increase the chances of earning a click over the competition — especially in cases where matching the authority of a domain is hard. Having the best title within the SERPs could earn more clicks than a lower ranking page might otherwise generate.
For our clients, we’ll regularly return to the revised metadata and double check to see if further optimisation can be done. We never settle for okay meta and always ensure that we’ve followed every step above, no matter how long the process takes.
How Do YOU Write Meta Titles And Descriptions?
We hope that the above ‘how to’ advice helps you during your next metadata creation task and welcome any and all suggestions on how you write effective and CTR-driven meta titles and descriptions.
Tell us all about your metadata writing process in the comments below.