What are meta tags?

Meta tags are pieces of code in your website’s HTML that determine whether and how your site appears in Google. Two important meta tags for marketers are the meta title and the meta description. There are a number of other meta tags that are also necessary for your site, such as meta content type and viewport. Most likely, your web developer or development team is aware of these meta tags, and they are properly implemented on your site. If not, there is work to be done.

What is a meta title?

The search results display a blue link that the user clicks on, this is the meta title of a page. The meta title displays the title of your web page in the search results. By creating a compelling meta title, you show users that you offer a relevant page to answer their search query.

In the example below, two meta tags are worked out: the meta robots tag (indicating whether search engines may index a page) and the meta title tag:

Code snippet

The meta title is then displayed by Google in the search results in the following way:

Voorbeeld van een meta titel in de SERP

You can see that Google adopts this title and users click on it to visit our website. Since many users come to our website when searching for an SEO agency, we chose to put the Dutch words “SEO bureau” at the front of the meta title of our Dutch homepage. This way, we demonstrate relevance to potential visitors.

This is important because you write the meta title specifically to show that you offer relevant content for users searching. So by writing a good meta title, you increase your CTR and search engines understand even better what your page has to offer to users.

When does an H1 heading show as a meta title?

In August 2021, Google rolled out an update by which it also regularly shows the H1 heading as a meta title. The algorithm does this when the given meta title is not relevant enough. You’d rather not have the algorithm independently make adjustments to this because often the H1 heading is actually even less relevant. Moreover, we typically see that the CTR in such situations is lower than when Google shows your meta title.

Why is a good meta title important?

1
Your website's business card

A meta title is the first content of your website that the user sees in the search results. Thus, it is also directly a business card for your website. Based on the meta title, and of course, the meta description, the user decides whether to click through. If the title does not appeal to a user, the chances of a visit to your page are slim.

2
Meeting the search intent

Does the title not match the user’s search intent? Then the chances of a click are slim. By creating a good meta title yourself, you have control over this and ensure that your meta title matches the user’s search intent. This results in a higher CTR.

3
User signals for higher positions

Having an accurate title is also important for Google; the search results show as many relevant search results as possible. If your search result is clicked a lot, that is a user signal for Google. There is much debate among SEO specialists whether user signals actually contribute to a higher position in the SERP. Research by Backlinko has shown that there is actually a correlation between user signals and positions.

4
The meta title is a ranking factor

As with many other components in the field of SEO, whether the meta title is a ranking factor is often debated. Based on our research, we have found that a meta title can have a significant impact on your positions in search results. Other sources, such as Search Engine Journal, also confirm that the meta title is a ranking factor. Even John Mueller, Search Advocate at Google, confirmed in a Google Webmaster Central session that the meta title is a ranking factor.

5
Showing the most important information in a tab

In your browser, you can see at the top what a page is about. This is where the page’s meta title is displayed. A relevant title with the most important search terms in front, shows the user immediately what the page is about. This is very helpful when multiple tabs are open at the same time.

6
The meta title as a link preview

If you share an article, often the meta title is shown in the preview. So if you are writing a page or article that might be shared a lot, then a relevant title is even more important. You can also solve this by making good use of Open Graph meta data. This is used, for example, by Facebook and LinkedIn.

Writing a good meta title

Writing the best meta title is challenging and often a process of trial and error. With Google Search Console, you can easily monitor the CTR and changes of your optimized pages. To do this, look in the “Performance” report, filter by a URL and then click on “CTR” at the top. Fortunately, you don’t have to shoot with hail and there are several tips that make writing a meta title an easier and more effective process.

1) The length of a meta title

A common mistake is drafting a title that is too long. In that case, Google either truncates the title itself or displays your page’s H1 heading. Below, you can see what a truncated meta title looks like.

Voorbeeld van een meta titel die wordt afgekapt omdat hij te lang is

A truncated meta title regularly has a negative effect on CTR, and the same goes for situations where Google chooses to show the H1 heading as the meta title. This can be partially avoided by making sure your meta title is not too long.

The recommended length of a meta title is between 285 pixels and 575 pixels, which amounts to a maximum of 61 characters. Keep in mind that some characters take up more space than others. For example, CAPITALS are much wider than lowercase letters. And the w is larger than the i. For this reason, Google looks at the length in pixels and not the number of characters.

Regularly check your custom titles in Google and rewrite them if they are too long (or too short). There are several SEO tools to check your meta titles. For example, you can do this with our Google SERP Preview Tool, ContentKing, Semrush or Deepcrawl. Remember that this is a standardized tool, where it may also be the case that the tools overlook something.

Check the length of your meta title

With our own Google SERP Preview Tool, you can easily and quickly check if your meta title and meta description are truncated.

Use the tool

2) The structure of a meta title

Place the most important search terms on which the page should be found at the front of the meta title. Brian Dean’s research has shown that this helps to make the page more findable. This is not surprising, because it makes it immediately clear to the user what the page is about. After that, possibly place another important search term or a rock-solid short CTR. Finish with your brandname. The structure of your title then looks like this:

{Primary search term} – {Secondary search term} | {Brand name}

An example is:

Grass seeds for sale: the best grass seeds – Graszaaddirect.nl

A word like “TIP” or the year in the title was found to increase the CTR by 20%! So, it can be that simple and effective to play with your meta titles.

3) Brand name in meta title

Above, you read that it is essential to include your brand name in the title. In most cases, you place it at the back and sporadically, Google does this automatically for you. On the front page, they often choose to put your brand name at the front. If you have a brand that is not yet known at all, you can also decide not to mention the brand name extensively. Try another way to persuade the user to click on your search result.

4) Unique meta titles

When you have a website with thousands or tens of thousands of pages, it is a big job to write a unique meta title for each page by itself. Don’t start here and do some cherry-picking. Run a list of your most important organic pages from Analytics, for example a top 100, and start optimizing these pages manually.

For the remaining pages, try to come up with a simple setup so that each page still has a unique meta title. Often this can be automated with a few rules, using a template or by deploying an existing extension suitable for your CMS. Try to avoid duplicate meta titles as much as possible, they sometimes cause duplicate content issues.

Wehkamp gebruikt product titel als meta titel in verband met het grote assortiment

In the example above, the Dutch company Wehkamp uses as meta title the full product name, as shown here with the arrow above, and automatically puts “Wehkamp” after it on all pages. This way, all meta titles are unique, and no duplicate content is created.

Within e-commerce SEO and platform SEO, it is typically chosen to automate meta titles and meta descriptions with programmatic SEO. That way, pages always get a unique meta title. For example, large platforms such as Amazon make use of dozens of templates, which automatically create the meta titles (and meta descriptions).

What is a meta description?

The meta description is a description of your page, which is displayed below the meta title in the search results. A meta description is neither clickable nor visible on your website itself. Search engines use the meta description to show additional information about your page.

A meta description allows you to show more information about your page, with a good meta description having a length between 430 and 920 pixels. This equates to about 71 to 153 characters. A good meta description contributes to a higher CTR.

Thick search terms in the meta description

When you search on our brand name, you will see that the keyword “SmartRanking” is bolded in the meta description. This is because this is your search query and this way Google helps you find good search results more easily.

Meta titel voorbeeld: SEO bureau SmartRanking - Zoekmachine optimalisatie bureau

This is a good example of why it is a best practice to reflect your important search term(s) in the meta description, this makes your search result stand out faster. This, in turn, naturally leads to a higher CTR. Google also recognizes the plural forms of terms you use. Suppose a user searches for “grass seeds” and your meta description says “grass seeds”, then the word “grass seeds” will also be bolded in the search results.

Google often uses the meta description you enter. But it may also be the case that Google selects its own meta description. Ahrefs research has shown that in over 62% of searches, Google rewrites the meta description itself. This happens, for example, if you haven’t entered anything, or if Google finds the meta description irrelevant to the search query.

In the first case, Google frequently selects the first and second lines of text on your page as the meta description. In the second case, Google selects a phrase that the algorithm deems most relevant. You have little control over this, except by making sure you always use a good and relevant meta description.

Why is a meta description important?

A meta description is important largely for the same reasons as the meta title:

  • It is an import first impression of your website.
  • It shows that the page matches the user's search intent.
  • You have the opportunity to reflect USPs.
  • Social networks often take over the description in sharing.
  • A relevant meta description sets you apart from your competitors.
  • With a good meta description, you can increase your CTR.

How do I write a good meta description?

Writing a good meta description is also sometimes a challenge. Our advice is to test meta descriptions to find out which meta descriptions provide the highest CTR. This varies greatly by target audience and industry, so there is no one perfect format for meta descriptions. These tips will help you with this:

1) The ideal length of a meta description.

On desktop and mobile, Google uses different lengths for a meta description. A meta description in mobile search results is often longer than a meta description within the desktop version of Google. In doing so, it is not possible to specify different types of meta descriptions. Therefore, it is recommended to use a length between 430 pixels (70 characters) to 920 pixels (155 characters).

Meta descriptions that are too long cause the well-known … at the end of the description, meta descriptions that are too short cause Google to generate its own meta description more quickly. As with meta titles, a meta description is also where uppercase letters take up more space than lowercase letters. So for both the meta title and meta description, Google looks at the length in pixels.

2) Structuring the meta description

Start as far forward as possible in the meta description with your page’s most important keyword. Proceed to temptation by adding a specific CTA or USP. Then incorporate 1 or 2 of the most influential latent keywords in your meta description, so that search results are also relevant to users with a slightly different search query. It is essential that you actually address these keywords on the underlying page.

Voorbeeld van een meta description met zoekwoorden

The example above is a search for “cheap airline tickets.” Google is a semantic search engine (understands what the user is searching for and makes connections), so immediately figured out that “cheap flights” means the same thing and has the same search intent. In this case, by adding a latent keyword to the meta description, you have 2 bolded keywords. A clever trick in this description is that KLM, Easyjet, Transavia and Ryanair are mentioned. This way, the description is also relevant in a search such as “cheap flights Transavia”.

3) Use of special characters in the meta description

You can go wild with the use of special characters in the meta description. For example, with characters such as: ✅ ☎ 16 ♥ ⭐ ✔. Do realize that Google always considers readability the most important thing. The SERP should not become a fairground, and the meta description should be relevant to your target audience. Therefore, use the colors in moderation and choose multiple HTML checkmarks, for example, as in the Momondo example above. It happens that Google ignores your emojis, in which case the algorithm does not consider them relevant to your target audience.

4) Use unique meta descriptions

As with meta titles, Google doesn’t like duplicate meta descriptions. Make sure your website has unique meta descriptions and write the meta descriptions yourself, at least for the most important indexable pages. When performing optimizations on a large platform, it is recommended, as with meta titles, to make your descriptions unique with templates and variables.

General tips for compelling meta titles and descriptions

1
Avoid keyword stuffing

Avoid keyword stuffing, this is irrelevant to users and against Google’s guidelines. Using too many keywords in the meta title or meta description also has a negative impact on the CTR and the appearance of your website in search results. Do you use search terms in your meta title or meta description? Make sure they are relevant and avoid repeating the same search term.

When you do use keyword stuffing, chances are that Google will ignore your meta title or meta description and use the H1 heading as the meta title or generate its own meta description.

2
Increase CTR by 5%

There are several smart ways to increase your CTR. After research by SearchPilot, it was found that adding a month and year in the meta title can increase the CTR by 5%. Adding words like “tip,” “temporary,” or “offer” also has a positive effect on the CTR.

3
Focus on the user

Always write for your end user and not for Google or other algorithms. The title and description should be readable in a normal way by everyone and should connect to the underlying page. Relevance is therefore the most important thing.

4
Add structured data

Adding structured data shows additional data in search results, which has a positive effect on CTR. Therefore, do research on relevant structured data for the pages you are going to optimize. For example, it is possible for web shops to use Product structured data to show the price, review, and an image in the search results. Other interesting possibilities are the How-To structured data and FAQ structured data.

5
Look at your competitors

This may be an obvious tip, but look at your competitors. Your competitors are probably trying all sorts of things in terms of meta title and meta description optimizations. See how they set up their titles and descriptions, get inspired and do better!

6
Check Google Search Console regularly

Use Google Search Console data to see what is working well and which pages you need to optimize. By regularly reviewing the data in Google Search Console, you’ll discover pages and queries with good positions but low CTR. You then put these on your to-do list to optimize.

7
Add an audit regularly

Perform a regular audit to find out which meta titles and meta descriptions are too long or too short. That way, you reduce the chances of Google choosing a meta title or meta description on its own. It is also advisable to look for duplicate content issues during the audit. Do you have meta titles or meta descriptions that are duplicate? Then rewrite them in a way that solves these issues.

Conclusion

Using the tips above, you can get straight to work optimizing your meta titles and meta descriptions. Remember that there is no golden rule. The ideal meta titles and meta descriptions differ per website, target audience, page (group) and search intent. Therefore, test the effect of the changes carefully and keep a close eye on Google Search Console.

Jarik Oosting

This article is written by Jarik Oosting

Jarik, an accomplished SEO consultant and founder of SmartRanking, brings over 12 years of SEO experience to the table. With his team of SEO specialists, he assists companies of all sizes in enhancing their online visibility. His areas of expertise include strategy development, analysis, technical SEO, and migrations.

His extensive experience spans B2B SEO, enterprise SEO, programmatic SEO, and e-commerce SEO. He holds a degree in Informational Science from the University of Groningen, where he focused on Natural Language Processing. His goal is to provide insights and knowledge to guide businesses toward success in the ever-evolving world of SEO.

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