It’s not often that the big three give anything away regarding ‘on page’ optimization, but yesterday in the Google webmaster central blog, the “snippet team” outlined several simple ways to improve your web pages ’snippets’ as they appear in search results.
The snippet is the short text ‘preview’, that also includes the page title and URL, which appears as part of each search result. A good snippet can influence the amount of clicks that a web page attracts and can be a way of separating your site from the competition. Google’s “Snippet algorithm” is completely automated and in order to increase relevance for the user the snippet shown can depend on the search query. Here is an example of a Google snippet for the BBC News web page.
One way which SEOs can exert some influence on the snippet and reduce the likelihood that Google will dictate how it appears is through use of the Meta description tag. The Meta description is a ‘conversion’ rather than a ‘ranking’ factor, and they should be written more as an advertisement for the page to attract a user click. That said, you should not get overly promotional with the language and avoid such phrases as “the best”, “the webs cheapest” as they don’t provide any useful information for the user. Targeted keyword phrases can appear within the description but be careful, as an excessive number of keywords will make them appear too “spammy”. If Google feels that a Meta description does not accurately relate to the search query then it will be ignored and the snippet will contain text from within the page content. This can be seen in the two examples below.
For the search query “reverse mortgage”, the snippet below is formed from the Meta Description tag (interestingly enough the page title is not used as the on-page title does not mention “reverse mortgage”).
For the same page, when the search phrase “home mortgage” is used, the snippet below is returned. On-page content that relates to “home mortgage” is shown within the snippet, this time the on-page title is used as it shows some relevance to the search query.
The most important factor is that the Meta description should be unique to each page and ensuring your descriptions reflect the content of each page will prevent any duplication issues. A good way of checking if your descriptions are unique across the pages on a site is to use the “site:domain.com” command within the Google search box.
For sites that have static pages, writing the descriptions manually is usually quite a straight forward task. If you are syndicating content by publishing articles or blog posts, the synopsis written for the post can be used as a description, perhaps also including the author and publication date.
For dynamic pages, such as product catalogs and other database driven pages, automatically generated descriptions are the preferred method and is condoned by the search engines. It should be a simple programming task to pull suitable information from a product database and insert it into a Meta description tag for each of the product items. Including the product category to which the item belongs, the colour, price and perhaps an extract of the description associated with the item would be suitable. Remember to keep the total length of the Meta description below 250 chars, ideally less than 150, as this is usually all that will be shown within the search result.
As a final thought; you know your pages best, and by creating good Meta descriptions you will take snippet control out of the search engines’ hands for this important traffic generating element.