Search engines use extremely complex algorithms to index and rank pages across the web. The HTML on your page and the content you’re presenting are equally as important, as Google and other companies do their best to understand your site as a real user would. Evaluating actual content is important not just for accuracy, but also the quality of the results that a search engine delivers to its users. That makes it important – now more than ever – to deliver your content as clearly and efficiently as possible.

This guide assumes you’re using Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools, and you can go back to read Part 1 or Part 2 to catch up. I’ll start by running through each of the problem areas you might encounter with meta descriptions, and include some suggestions of what to do if you see the warning signs. At the end I’ll summarise a few key points to help keep your site SEO healthy.

 

Part 3: Meta Descriptions

In the Webmaster Tools menu, click the “Search Appearance” menu item and select “HTML Improvements”. This area of Webmaster Tools deals with a few different issues that can arise with the HTML layout of your site. Sadly this part of Webmaster Tools doesn’t come with a handy dashboard graph or colourful breakdown!

“We didn’t detect any content issues with your site.”

If the small block of text on the next page starts with the above, well done! Google hasn’t found any HTML issues with your site; that or it’s too small / new for any to have been picked up on yet. Still, you may want to carry on reading to avoid any new issues as you continue building your content online.

Helpfully, you can click on each of the categories to see a list of the pages being flagged, which should help you pinpoint problem pages and see exactly what titles or meta descriptions are considered problematic.

Providing you have at least one issue in one of the categories, Webmaster Tools will break down a summary of the issues on this first page. The first category is for Meta Descriptions, broken down into:

  • Duplicate meta descriptions
  • Long meta descriptions
  • Short meta descriptions

 

Do meta descriptions still matter?

The truth is that meta descriptions are not as vital for SEO as they once were. Because they don’t show up on the page to the user, they could in theory be completely different from the actual site content. One misuse of meta descriptions was to target keywords and subjects that were popular, but unrelated to the site itself.

Now that Google focus more on the content a user is seeing, some SEO experts consider them not worth worrying about at all. It’s true that Google no longer uses them to affect rankings, but they are used for things such as the description you see under a site’s name in Google search results.

If you don’t have a meta description, Google will instead use some text from near the start of your page. Depending on the keywords that the search used, Google may even decide to take what it considers to be a more relevant chunk of text from later on in your copy.

Don’t rely on Google to do the job for you, however. It’s just an automated process; there’s no guarantee it will be appealing to users, or even communicate what your site is really about. The best person for that job is you. A clear, appealing meta description could be the difference between a user choosing your site or the result next to you.

SEO isn’t just about convincing search engines to rank you higher in results; it’s also about encouraging users that you’re the result they’re looking for.

The simple fact that Google themselves track meta descriptions and encourage their proper use through Webmaster Tools should be enough to make us consider them a little more. They’re not all that complicated, and most content management systems can create them for you automatically.

Update: Take a look at this video from Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Web Spam team.

Matt highlights that Google isn’t perfect at generating snippets, and while you can leave your Meta Descriptions blank and trust Google to have a go for you, writing something yourself might be a good idea for valuable content.

 

Titles definitely matter

You may have skimmed the last section, rolling your eyes and continuing to think meta descriptions are an archaic leftover of SEO’s past. Well, that’s up to you! But hopefully you’ll know how important titles are.

The titles we’re talking about are the ones that don’t show up on a page – they appear in the browser window / tab telling you the site you’re viewing. They’re also the prominent first line of a search result (in most search engines) that identifies the page that’s listed and links through to the result itself.

If you’re using a content management system, chances are that titles are all handled for you. If you’re not familiar with HTML, it has it’s own tag that sits in the head of a page.

<head>
...
<title>Your page title goes here | Sometimes with a slogan or the sitename after a pipe</title>
...
</head>

If you’re coding a HTML page yourself from scratch, you should always include a title in this way.

Titles are incredibly important. They identify your page in search results, help users identify the correct page amongst multiple browser windows or tabs, and search engines consider this to be the defining “name” of the page. They may not appear directly on the page itself, but their visibility to the user in so many different ways means that there’s no benefit to hiding irrelevant content behind a fake title just to trick search engines. You’d also be confusing your users, which is never going to be good for site traffic.

Webmaster tools shows titles as a separate category on the HTML improvements page, with a few more issues broken down:

  • Missing title tags
  • Duplicate title tags
  • Long title tags
  • Short title tags
  • Non-informative title tags

So, lets take a closer look at the types of issues that Webmaster Tools tracks for us.

 

Duplication

Having the same title or meta description on two pages can be like saying:

“Hey search engines, there’s only one article’s worth of decent content between these two articles.”

Not exactly a glowing recommendation. Search engines want to index useful, unique content. Either your two pages have the same title / meta description because they’re so similar – in which case, why bother indexing both? – or they aren’t representative of the actual content.

Whether you’re making HTML pages from scratch or using a CMS, chances are you’re entering the title yourself, so there’s no excuse! Make your titles unique. Even if you’re writing very similar content, or regular features that have a specific name, consider including parts of the date or other identifiers to distinguish between them. If you write an article called “Monthly Bargains” on a monthly basis, something simple like including the name of the month will benefit both your readers and your SEO.

If you’re entering your meta descriptions manually, don’t copy and paste the same description you’re using for the site or the section on your site, thinking it’s better than not having one at all. Take the time to include something unique each time. Simply copying the first few lines of your actual content into the meta description is really quick to do, and helps enforce relevance between the meta information you’re providing and the content you’re showing readers.

If a content management system is creating meta descriptions for you, take a look at your settings. It may be that the feature / plugin you’re using is generating the description from the wrong place, or needs setting up to work properly. Check documentation and resources online if you need to – duplicate meta descriptions are no good to anyone, so any good CMS or plugin should be capable of avoiding them.

 

Too long / too short

The long and short of it is (sorry, couldn’t resist that one) that you’re trying to give users an idea of what your page or site is about. Titles are obviously going to be much shorter than meta descriptions, but they should both strike a balance between being concise and informative.

Being too brief won’t help you stand out from the crowd. How many pages with a title of “Contact Us” or “Home” do you imagine there are across the web? Consider something a bit more personal, such as “Contact Mel’s Bakery” or your name / brand instead of simply “Home”.

Try not to go overboard, however. Titles should be no more than a few words or a short sentence, and meta descriptions are trimmed by most search engines after around 150 words characters. Prioritise key words and phrases that strongly relate to your content. Description is important, but you can afford to be direct.

“Stunning photography, amazing animals and informative articles” is going to be far more effective than trying to be conversational, and wasting valuable characters on something like:

“Come visit our site to look at stunning photography, with pictures of really cute and amazing animals. You can also read our informative articles to find out more.”

 

Missing title tags

Always have a title. Always. I’m going to assume you wouldn’t be crazy enough to intentionally skip making one, so if Webmaster Tools is reporting any pages without a title there’s a number of things you can check.

If you’re making your HTML pages from scratch, make sure your title tags are between the <head></head> tags, as in the earlier example. Double check you’re both opening and closing the title tags properly, and that you’re not trying to include anything but text between them. Images or any other HTML elements cannot be used.

If there’s an issue with your CMS, you may need to troubleshoot why it’s not outputting a title. If your CMS uses php templates, check that the title is being printed in the correct place. Refer to the documentation / online resources for your specific CMS.

 

Non-informative titles

As I mentioned earlier, the internet probably contains thousands (if not millions) of pages called “Home” or “Blogs”. If your page title contains too many simple, generic words and not enough keywords that are relevant to your content, Webmaster Tools might flag your page here.

Don’t worry. You don’t have to pull your hair out thinking of a ludicrously elaborate way to say “Blog”. Something you’ll see on many sites is the name of the page, followed by the name of the site or a slogan of some kind. For example:

“Blogs | Dave’s Oceanography Site”

The preferred method of separating them is with a pipe and not a hyphen (as above), as page titles could reasonably include hyphens themselves.

That should be enough to identify your blogs page amongst the countless others out there. Watch out, though – if you’re using a CMS, you don’t want to be doing this manually every time you create a new post or page. Having the site name / slogan is great in the title, but your readers might get sick of seeing it actually on the page every time! Either include it in your templates, or configure your CMS to append it automatically.

 

What was all that again?

Ok, that ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would! Not to worry – I’m going to give you a brief list of key points to support the more in-depth analysis above. Webmaster Tools already breaks down the warning signs quite nicely into each of the issues, so I won’t duplicate that here.

You can keep your site SEO healthy and avoid (or fix) the problems highlighted in a few simple ways.

  • Make the effort. Taking time to configure your CMS or include a good title and description each time is worth it, both for search engines and your readers.
  • Be original. It doesn’t have to be a literary masterpiece, but keeping your titles and descriptions unique will increase your visibility.
  • Find a balance. Don’t bore or confuse search engine users and potential readers with unwieldy titles and descriptions, but don’t make them have to guess what your page is about either. Think of concise, straight-to-the-point ways to represent you and your content quickly.

It might not be easy at first, but once you get into the habit you’ll soon find what works best for you. If you can incorporate these decisions into the way you write and publish your content, or make a point of ensuring your CMS is working optimally, you’ll be strengthening your site’s SEO considerably.

 

End of Part 3

Thanks for reading! In Part 4 I’ll be diving into Crawl Errors, how to solve issues with missing pages and good practices to avoid causing them.

If you’d like to give me any feedback about this article, even if you’d like to tell me I’m wrong about everything (I’m always open to constructive criticism!), feel free to contact me.