Web Marketing Today

How to Increase Search Traffic with One Small Change

Editor’s Note: We welcome Aaron Houghton as our newest contributor. He’s a North Carolina-based serial entrepreneur, having co-founded, among other companies, iContact, a leading email service provider, which he sold earlier this year. His current firm, BoostSuite, is a web optimization platform for smaller businesses.

You may have heard that getting your website ranked in the search engines is the most cost effective way to drive website traffic and find new customers for your business. It’s true.

In fact, our research shows that investing just a few minutes working on your website each week produces website traffic equal to a $100,000 paid advertising budget over the first year.

So how do you get a free $100,000 advertising budget for your small business? Unfortunately there are many complicated strategies and confusing tools that you will run into as you learn more about boosting your search engine rankings.

But the good news is that there are also some very simple fundamentals that you might be overlooking that are holding your website back.

One of my favorite overlooked items is the meta description.

What Is a Meta Description?

A meta description is an HTML value that is hidden within the code of each of your web pages. Meta descriptions describe what the web page is about. Your regular website visitors don’t see your meta descriptions as they navigate around your website in their web browsers.

Why are meta descriptions important? Many search engines choose to display your pages’ meta descriptions as part of your listings in the search engine result pages.

For example, Web Marketing Today’s home page has the following meta description.

<meta name=”description” content=”Insights and analysis for smaller businesses. Search engine optimization, lead generation, conversion, social media, analytics, design, more. Since 1995.” />

When Google displays this page in its results page for certain keywords, it looks like this.

Meta Tag Example 1

If you don’t have a meta description on a page, or if your meta description doesn’t contain the right keywords, many search engines will instead display a hodgepodge of words from the page’s body text.

How Does the Meta Description Help Me Get More Website Traffic?

The so-called experts often dismiss meta descriptions because the search engines no longer use the them to affect the rank of your website.

However, meta descriptions play a vital role in getting potential visitors to click on your search engine listings and actually visit your website.

Since your search engine listings are shown to web searchers in the midst of a field of paid search engine ads, you can think of your meta descriptions as small advertisements for your web pages. And the best part is, your meta description “text ads” are free.

Since you are already competing against highly optimized paid text ads, your meta descriptions need to be written with the same level of intention. By writing good meta descriptions you have the opportunity to tell potential visitors exactly what your web pages are about and why they should click to visit your website right now.

If searchers read a meta description that sounds like something they are looking for, they are more likely to click on your link and visit your site.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine you are driving down the highway and you see five outdoor billboards in a row that are all advertising different automotive dealerships. The messages on each billboard are as follows:

  • Billboard One: Best auto prices in town, exit right now.
  • Billboard Two: Instant financing on a new car today.
  • Billboard Three: Joe’s Cars.
  • Billboard Four: The most mini-vans in stock, come see us.
  • Billboard Five: No-haggle pricing on new 2013 Jeeps.

Which one of these isn’t like the others? It’s Billboard Three. The other billboards are making an attempt to explain why they are different and better than their competitors. The dealership behind Billboard Three lacks intention and will likely be chosen last by potential customers.

If you haven’t written good meta descriptions for your website, your website is Billboard Three. There is no good reason to be Billboard Three. Good meta descriptions are easy to write and simple to implement.

5 Meta Description Guidelines

Now that you understand how good meta descriptions improve your search results, remember these five guidelines for writing meta descriptions for all of your web pages.

  • Length. Be sure to keep your meta description shorter than 150 total characters — including spaces and punctuation. Any longer and most search engines will cut it off.
  • Keywords: Be sure to include the keywords you’re targeting for each page. Google for instance will bold or highlight searched keywords in meta descriptions. It’s like getting a free upgraded Yellow Pages listing just for using the right words.

For example, in searching for “Magnet Video,” one of the results is magnetvideo.com. Since Magnet Video has its name in the meta description, Google highlights that term.

Meta Tag Example 2

  • Uniqueness. Don’t use the same meta description on more than one page. Sometimes more than one of your pages is displayed in the search results side-by-side. Unique descriptions make it easier for searchers to tell which page is right for them.
  • Competitive Advantage. Use words that describe how you are different than your competitors. Are you, say, the best, cheapest, fastest, most thorough, and friendliest? If so, mention it in your meta description. Also, if you serve a local area, make sure to mention that location, too.
  • Call to Action. Remind searchers that they actually have to click to visit your website. Use phrases like “Come see…” or “Let us show you…” or “Learn why… .”

To bring it all together, here is a meta description for the home page of one of the fictitious car dealerships from the example above:

Come see why our customers say we have the best selection of cars in the Raleigh, North Carolina area. Find your new car right now on our website.

And here is a meta description for the inventory search page of that website:

Search the best selection of cars in the Raleigh, North Carolina area. We think we have your dream car in stock right now. Come see if we’re right.

Optimizing Your Website With Meta Descriptions

Now that you understand the basics of meta descriptions, it’s time to audit your website. Look at each page of your site. Use your website editor to view your meta descriptions, or use the “view source” option in your web browser and skim the code to find them.

Make sure that each page has a meta description that is unique, contains your keywords, has proper length, describes why you are different, and asks the user to take action and visit your site right now.

And, over time, as you add new content to your website, be sure to write new meta descriptions for your new pages using the five handy guidelines above.

Do you have other questions about website marketing and optimization? Tell us what’s on your mind by leaving your questions and comments below.


Aaron Houghton
Aaron Houghton
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Comments ( 6 )

Have Something To Say ?

  1. Smartkathy December 15, 2012 Reply

    Hi there. Really a great post. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Amjad December 18, 2012 Reply

    Great post. Since you can’t splittest your description copy for CTR, you should find inspiration in your paid ads.

  3. Calla Gold December 19, 2012 Reply

    Aaron I really appreciate the language you chose in describing meta descriptions. You made me understand it much better than I have before.
    The one thing that I’d love is some dummy proof tool to see the ones on my website.
    I’m not familiar with a “website editor,” that you’ve mentioned using so I can get a look at these things.
    Great meta description definition and explanation!

    • Aaron W. Houghton December 26, 2012 Reply

      Calla, thanks for the great question.

      When I mentioned “website editor” in the article I was referring to whatever tool you use to add and edit pages on your website. For instance, you might use WordPress or Wix or SquareSpace (or your website may just be built directly in HTML and in this case your website editor is whatever you use to edit your HTML files). These tools will allow you the ability to view your meta descriptions and edit them. How do you edit your website currently?

      Other than a website editor there are a few other techniques you can use to view and fix your current meta descriptions:

      1) While viewing a page of your website in the FireFox web browser, click on the Tools menu then select the Web Developer option and click on the Page Source sub-option. While viewing the page’s source code, click on the Edit menu then click on the Find sub-option. Type in the following text name=”description” and look to see what text is matched on the page. Following this text will be some text that says content=”…” where the three periods here indicate the text that is your meta description. You can repeat this process for each page of your website. If this text can’t be found within the page’s source code, then you likely don’t have a meta description for a page and you need to add one.

      2) Disclaimer: this is my product. You can use a free tool like BoostSuite.com to scan your website and automatically find issues with your meta descriptions. BoostSuite then allows you to write new meta descriptions and verify them right there.

      Let me know if one of these options works for you.

  4. David December 20, 2012 Reply

    This was a helpful article, thank you.

  5. Vishal February 28, 2013 Reply

    Great content and really helpful for all people starting SEO :)

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